Before he became a priest in May of 2016, 39-year-old Father Juan Maldonado used to be a high school math teacher.
“I taught high school for seven years,” Maldonado said.
He went to California State University, Stanislaus and got his bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. His first job as a teacher was at Los Baños High School where he taught math for five years. He then transferred to Pitman High School in Turlock where he taught for two years before he felt his teaching career wasn’t for him.
Maldonado said one day he woke up and went to work and his students told him why he wasn’t enthusiastic about teaching as he used to be.
“Kids noticed something was wrong, and I felt a deep sadness in my heart. Because I knew that this career that I had taken at that time I thought was the best thing for me, wasn’t for me,” Maldonado said. “And I was leaving God out of my life. I wasn’t fulfilling what my heart should be doing, which was what I am doing now.
“After that second year, that is when I started thinking for myself, ‘is this what I am going to do for the rest of my life – to teach?,’ ” Maldonado said, adding that at that time he 26 years old.
During that time Maldonado said he started discerning his vocation whether he would eventually get married or go into priesthood.
“Because I really found (priesthood) to be really important for me,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado recalls that he was about 9-years-old when he became an altar server. He would go with his mom to daily mass and started helping the priest.
“I think that is where I really liked serving,” Maldonado said. “Maybe the seed was planted there.”
Coming from a low-income home, Maldonado said as he grew older he wanted to help his mother who had become disabled.
“I needed to go to college and get a degree and help her financially. So that is what I did first,” he said.
During his discernment, Maldonado said that every time he would go to mass after work at Sacred Heart in Turlock that was when he sensed that he was at peace with himself.
“A sense of happiness and joy to be present at the mass,” Maldonado said. “The reason is because I didn’t find my job fulfilling with what I was doing. I love teaching. I really enjoyed teaching high school, but I think God was calling me for something greater.”
Leaving teaching was not easy
Maldonado said leaving his job as a teacher was not an easy decision to make.
At one point, when he went to church to pray, Maldonado asked God “from the bottom of my heart I said, ‘God I need you to give me a sign.’ Because sometimes we look for exterior things like, speak to me; tell me, you want to hear from him.”
The next day Maldonado received the answer he was looking for.
“One of my students said to me ‘Mr. Maldonado, you remind me so much of my priest,’ and for me it really helped me make the final decision of leaving my career, my job to enter this new vocation,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado resigned from his job as a teacher and he entered the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, a religious order in Long Beach.
“For me, I think I wasn’t ready to leave maybe my family, that is one of the decisions that made me leave the order,” Maldonado said, adding that as a missionary he could be sent to other countries. “I didn’t want to be too far from my family. I wanted to stay close to home so I could visit my family.”
Maldonado said he came from a big family including six brothers and two sisters and 30 nephews and nieces.
Maldonado, who was born in Coalcomán, Michoacán, México, was two or three months old when his family moved to the United State from México. His first language is Spanish. His family arrived in the Los Ángeles area then they moved north to work in the fields and settled in Livingston, where he was raised most of his life. His parents still live there. He is child number six out of nine children and the only one of his family to become a priest.
“I grew up with them. I helped raise them, some of them. I was really close, so I didn’t want to break that bond,” Maldonado said. “That was my thinking at that time.”
After six months with the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit, Maldonado left the order and applied to the Diocese of Fresno to become a priest.
“That is the discernment process, you look, you search, where is it that God is calling you?” Maldonado said.
He entered the seminary in 2009 and went to Mount Angel Seminary in the state of Oregon where he studied for six years.
Maldonado, who already had a bachelor’s degree when he entered the seminary, did two years of philosophy and four years of theology at the seminary plus one pastoral year back at one of the churches at the Fresno Diocese.
Telling his family about priesthood path
When Maldonado told his mother about leaving his teaching careers and applying to the seminary to follow this vocation in priesthood, he said “she was really excited.”
“She was super happy that she was going to have a priest in the family,” Maldonado said, adding that his mother even hosted a go away party where all her friends and family were invited before he left for the seminary.
Maldonado said his father told him, “ ‘Juan what are you thinking?’ he said why don’t you wait until you are retire, and that way you get your benefits from your retirement and then you make money as a priest.’ ”
Maldonado said he felt God was calling him to something greater.
“I always felt it in my heart,” he said, adding that he remembers his grandma always telling him that when people asked him what he wanted to be when he was older, that he his answer should be that he wanted to become a bishop.
“I didn’t know what it was, what is a bishop? But my grandma would always say that,” Maldonado said, adding that her grandmother died before he entered seminary school.
Maldonado recalls that when his mother used to work at Foster Farms in Livingston before she became disabled, a newspaper did a story on her when she delivered her last baby. Maldonado was approximately age 5 at that time.
“She was interviewed by a reporter because she had the largest family,” Maldonado said, adding that his mother recently gave him a copy of that article.
Maldonado said during that interview his mother was asked “what do you want for your children and she said, ‘I want them to know about God, to have a good family, raise them in the faith’ and in the article she says, ‘I want one of them to become a priest.’ ”
“And she showed me that article after I became a priest. I had no idea. In a sense God heard her prayer,” he said. “I always tell parents, you ask God for what you desire in your heart and He will give it to you.”
Getting ordained and being a priest
Next month Maldonado will be celebrating his first year anniversary as a priest.
Maldonado was ordained on May 28, 2016 at Saint Anthony of Padua in Fresno by Bishop Armando Xavier Ochoa.
A total of four priests were ordained that day, including Maldonado, Father César Solorio, Father Guadalupe Vargas and Father Michael Andrade.
Maldonado said the newly ordained priests are assigned to a parish based on the pastoral need of that community.
“We don’t have sufficient vocations or sufficient priest to replace those who are retiring,” Maldonado said, adding that because of the lack of priests some parishes become missions because there are no available priests in the diocese to staff those parishes.
On June 3, 2016, Maldonado stared working at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Kerman and also helps out at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Tranquillity and St. Vincent’s Church in San Joaquín – all located in Fresno County.
Maldonado said St. Vincent’s Church in San Joaquín is considered a mission because there is not full-time priest to staff it; they only go to do the sacraments such as baptism, quinceañeras, and mass, and then leave.
“It’s three communities. Instead of having one day of confessions, you have three days of confessions,” Maldonado said. “Everything gets doubled or tripled.”
Maldonado also has a ministry at the federal prison in Mendota, he also works with Sister Martha and helps with migrants where he goes to celebrate mass at three different ranches for those children that can’t come to the Kerman because of lack of transportation.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado added that what helped him prepare to become the priest he is now was the pastoral year he spent in the city of Tulare at Saint Rita’s Catholic Church.
“Everything that I did there, like I helped with visiting the sick, going to the hospitals, helping celebrate all the different sacraments like the masses, quinceañeras, weddings, baptisms, also did prison ministry when I was there, so all that, really prepared me to what I am doing now, because I am doing the exact same thing,” Maldonado said. “And that was a really good learning experience for me.”
“At times it might feel overwhelming, but at the same time you come out with the sense of fulfillment, like saying ‘wow, I did a lot of work today,’ but in the whole process God was with me,” Maldonado said.
Maldonado said what gives him a lot of happiness in what he does as a priest is getting to know the people in the community he gets to serve.
“Knowing them as you would know your family. What I learned is that God has giving me a greater family. And He fulfills everything in my life with those that I come to serve,” he said. “Not only do I have now 30 nephews and nieces, or brothers and sisters, but now I have a larger extended family which is the people of God.”
For those who are discerning their vocations to see if priesthood is for them, Maldonado said you can always ask God for a sign.
“He speaks to you in many ways,” he said. “Through his gospel, his word, He speaks to you through the people in the community that your serve and work with, and He also can speaks to you in your dreams, just like the prophets, and He puts that desire in you.
“The way you know that He is calling you to priesthood or religious life is when you have a sense of peace in your heart, in your mind and it give you joy to serve the lord. That is how I knew,” Maldonado said.
“To reiterate in the words of Saint John Paul II, he always said, ‘Do not be afraid to take the leap of faith because when you do, you would find God,” Maldonado said, adding that he was a great inspiration to his vocation as well. “Those are words that are very powerful to me.”
Maldonado said God never makes a mistake.
“He never makes a mistake when He calls you, because when He calls you it is up to you to respond. And for some of us it could take years or months or some of us drop everything and do and listen to that call of God,” Maldonado said. “He calls us when we are prepared to make that decision, that choice in our lives.”
This is the third in a series of stories about a priest shortage in the San Joaquín Valley and what the Catholic Dioceses are doing to recruit more men into the religious order.