For many Augustinian priests, the call to enter an Order and the call enter priesthood are experienced as one and the same. Fr. Jim Thompson, O.S.A., for example, remembered that “from fourth grade on I was in St. Rita Parish… I knew I wanted to be a priest for a long time…[my call] was just the familiarity with the Augustinians, and the fact that they asked me.”
For others, the path to religious brotherhood may only become clear after years of service in the priesthood.
Fr. Ray Flores, O.S.A., heard the call to religious life after a decade of diocesan priesthood, and it echoed loudest in a place of very literal emptiness in his life: an empty house. In his 12 years of priesthood, Fr. Ray had lived alone for all but one year.
In his first discernment retreat with the Augustinians, just three years ago, Fr. Ray was faced with a question by Br. William Gabriel, O.S.A., then 24 years old and only in the novitiate stage of his formation. “Bill Gabriel, when talking about his discernment experience, posed the question 'who do you come home to' as a general reflection to the group. The question he posed for us really spoke to my heart and resonated with a desire to find a community that I could belong to, work with and call home.”
This question captured Fr. Ray’s attention, and led him to a moment where he saw the difficulties of his faith life revealed to him more clearly. “I said to Bill and the other men on the retreat, ‘As a diocesan priest, I come home to an empty house.”
As an undergraduate student in Psychology at Western New Mexico University, Fr. Ray felt his first attraction to the priesthood through the ministry of the campus Newman Center. Following college, Fr. Ray began working as a guidance counselor for a middle school and entered into what he describes as a 9-month personal and informal discernment. “I kept asking God what is it You want me to do. My work was three hours from my family, and on the drive to see them I would turn off the radio and just try to listen to God as I was driving.”
THE BLESSINGS AND CHALLENGES OF DIOCESAN PRIESTHOOD
One Sunday while still working at the middle school, Fr. Ray attended a Mass at the Las Cruces Cathedral celebrated by Bishop Ricardo Ramirez. “All the timing came together. It felt as though God were addressing me personally. Bishop Ramirez focused his homily that day on how the Church in the future may not have enough priests and how God was calling men, if they would listen.”
Fr. Ray entered formation in the Diocese of Las Cruces in 2000 and was ordained six years later at the age of 32. Three years after that he received an assignment from Bishop Ramirez to take over as Pastor at the small parish of Our Lord of Mercy, which served a town with a total population of less than 1,000 people.
“It was located in an area called the Hatch Valley, a wonderful strip of farmers known for producing the best green chili peppers. It was a great, small place in which I could learn how to be a pastor.” Following this, Fr. Ray returned, two decades after his first thoughts of priesthood, to the setting of a college Newman Center, this time as pastor and vocation director for the St. Albert the Great Newman Center.
A BISHOP AND PRIEST DISCERN TOGETHER
While at St. Albert, Fr. Ray began to see that one piece of insight he regularly shared with the college students began to reveal, for him, a lack in his own spiritual life. “I used to tell the guys discerning a vocation, ‘As a priest you can be as active as you want, or you can be as lazy as you want, and no is really going to hold you accountable.’” This lack of external accountability and fraternal companionship began to develop into a sense of loneliness and isolation, Fr. Ray recalls.
Fr. Ray received his first glimpse of Augustinian life when his former spiritual director, Fr. Brian Barker—himself discerning a vocation with the Augustinians at the time—invited him to visit the Novitiate House in Racine, Wisconsin. “Their community life attracted me and I always felt that that was missing in my priesthood.”
Fr. Ray continued to communicate his interest in Augustinian life to Vocation Director Fr. Tom McCarthy, O.S.A., but truly began to feel his call in earnest after attending the discernment retreat weekend and hearing the testimony of Augustinian brothers at various levels of formation and profession.
However, Fr. Ray had yet to communicate any of this discernment process with his bishop or his parishioners. Fr. Ray recalls the complex emotions surrounding his choice to enter religious life:
For me discerning a call to the Augustinian Order was not just about my future; I had to also think of the parish, diocese, and students I currently served and what it would mean to leave them. When I first presented my thoughts to Bishop Cantu, the man who’s sermon at the Cathedral first pointed me to the path of priesthood, he responded with great charity. He told me ‘Who am I to stand in the way of the Holy Spirit?’
Since Fr. Ray’s path also affected the path of the Las Cruces Diocese, Bishop Oscar Cantu requested that the two of them must each go through a discernment period that demanded prayer, contemplation, and forethought.
“He wanted to make sure it was an authentic calling, not only for the sake of his diocese, but for my sake as well.” In 2016 Fr. Ray received the blessing and formation of his bishop to enter the Augustinian Novitiate.
After a year of prayer and education in the Augustinian Rule and Spirituality--spent with Augustinian novices from across the world—Fr. Ray made his first vows to the Order this August. He has now joined a community of brothers at St. Rita High School Monastery.
“I am looking forward to working with a team and being part of something larger than myself.”