BARCELONA, Spain, OCT. 16, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Neither slaps from his father, nor his friends’ ridicule, nor discrimination by some of his fellow seminarians, nor serious cancer were able to stifle this young gypsy’s vocation to the priesthood.
Born 35 years ago in the marginal neighborhood of La Mina, in Barcelona, Juan Muñoz Cortés felt called to the priesthood at the age of 12, a call which was supported by a number of individuals, whom he holds dear in his heart, but also by intense spiritual experiences.
ZENIT spoke with Father Muñoz Cortés for this week’s installment of God’s Men.
ZENIT: When did you begin to feel the call to the priestly life?
Father Muñoz: In school I felt attracted to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth and I began to be interested in him, thanks to the religion teacher, a nun of the Daughters of Charity, with whom I had a chat.
One night, when I was 12, an image of Christ came to me, like a light, that was weeping the entire time, and I began to weep.
It was 3 a.m. I was in my room, next to my brother. My parents got up and asked me: “What’s the matter with you? What’s hurting you?”
And I answered: “I am crying with joy because in my head I saw a man with a beard and tears; he wore a crown.”
Little by little I went discovering my vocation until one day a priest asked me intuitively: “Why aren’t you a priest? Have you ever thought of the priestly life, of service to the community?”
I hadn’t said anything to him before out of shyness and, at that moment, I blushed and I didn’t know what to say. From then on, everything evolved.
Personal support is very important for an individual, a youth, to discover his vocation. Through the witness of priests, nuns and laymen, we can discover the vocation.
ZENIT: How did your family react?
Father Muñoz: When I told them I wanted to be a priest, they didn’t like it. They said no, that I had to get married and have children.
I belong to the gypsy people and, for my family, to have a son who doesn’t get married and has no descendants is somewhat shocking.
The fact that my family did not accept my vocation resulted in a crisis for me. There was a time when they wouldn’t speak to me; I was even slapped by my father. He did not accept my vocation up to the moment of his death.
But then, in intensive care, after asking for the anointing of the sick and going to confession, he asked for my forgiveness and said: “I’m going with God and I will pray for you, so that you will be a priest; from heaven, I will help you.”
I only replied that I forgave him and that he should go in peace with God. I think God wanted to give me this great witness of my father before he died. It was lovely. My father’s death marked me a lot.
And now, thank God, it all goes well. My mother and my two brothers are very happy.
ZENIT: In your journey to the priesthood, did you have any doubts?
Father Muñoz: All my life, since I was 12, I had wanted to be a priest, but there were very many difficulties, of course.
For example I would hide when going to Mass because my friends laughed at me. I even stopped going to church for two years because I thought that the call to be a priest was an obsession of mine.
At that time, I went out with a girl. I told her that I had a vocation to the priesthood, but that I had doubts. She said she respected this but did not share in it.
However, the time came when I had to tell her: “I am very sorry, but I cannot go on: There is something like a hole between you and me, and the only thing that can fill my life is to serve others, the neediest, and to follow the way on which God has led me for years, which is to be a priest, to be with him very intensely.”
She felt badly, and even went through a depression, but came out of it and now we get along very well. She is married, has children and, thank God, all has gone well.
ZENIT: What other difficulties did you face in the seminary?
Father Muñoz: The fact that my friends didn’t accept me on entering the seminary affected me very much and has affected my vocation.
Moreover, I am a gypsy, and because of this I have felt marginalized by my companions of the seminary, and even by some priests who didn’t accept me.
They said that we were always dirty, which is typical of what is said. Someone even told me that I had to go to the evangelical church because I was a gypsy.
However, you can see where I have arrived with the help of God, with my direct prayer to him, who has always helped me, and who said to me interiorly: “Do not worry, go forward, despite the struggles, despite the difficult moments, I am with you.”
I believe that my success in being a priest has been the work of God.
I was ordained priest in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Sea, with two other friends; 1,600 people attended and some 140 priests.
And now I am the happiest person. I live the priesthood very completely, as if I had always sought this.
ZENIT: What was the hardest thing in this process?
Father Muñoz: The hardest thing was that, when I was already a deacon, doctors diagnosed that I had cancer. I was very shocked and had a crisis.
In fact, I discovered my illness in my dreams. In them, my father, who had already died and was next to a lady who was illumined, though I did not see her face, advised me: “Go to the doctor.'”
I explained this to my mother, who also encouraged me to visit the doctor. On the third day of having these dreams, I felt an intense pain, which frightened me. Then I did go to the doctor and he detected it.
It was a very aggressive cancer. The doctors told me I needed surgery, although there could be a lot of metastasis and I might not leave the operating room.
I rebelled against God. I asked him why when I was coming to my fulfillment, to what I had most dreamed about, to be a priest, I got cancer that could take my life.
Then I said to my spiritual director that I wanted to go to Lourdes and I entrusted myself to Doctor Pere Tarrés.
We went to Lourdes, we slept in an inn and were very cold, and the next morning we went to Mass in the grotto and went to the pools.
Just he and I were in the pools. When it was my turn to get into the water, I felt a strange sensation and began to weep.
One of the volunteers asked what was wrong with me. I told him about my problem, that I didn’t want to die and that I was afraid. And he answered me: “You’ll see how the Virgin will cure you; pray here.”
He bathed me and I began to weep again. I stayed there a few minutes praying before the image of Lourdes, and I left there transformed.
Then I said to my spiritual director: “The Virgin has cured me, I feel much inner peace,” and he was surprised.
On returning to Barcelona, friends who came to see me also asked what was the matter with me, and they said: “You are changed, you are as though illumined.”
When the physicians operated, they saw there was no metastasis. I was not given chemotherapy or radiotherapy, and I do not take any medication, although they do continue with the checkups. For me, it was a miracle.
ZENIT: What experiences, positive and negative, have surprised you in the year and a half that you have been a priest?
Father Muñoz: I thought I would find more respect, love and dedication among my fellow priests, but I have felt somewhat disappointed on seeing a lack of union among priests, I don’t know if it’s a sort of loneliness because of the fact that diocesan priests live alone.
But at the same time I have met wonderful people who have supported me in everything; people of all kinds, of all cultures, of all races, young and elderly, from whom I have learned very much.
I have truly seen the face of God in these people. I had never imagined how God can t
alk through people.
Some persons, interestingly enough especially women, have impressed me a lot and have given me help of all kinds in becoming a priest — spiritual, financial, etc.
I think of Mary Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus; I imagine she consoled him many times and helped him with her words, when he felt misunderstood, unprotected and even alone, to get the strength and pray to God that his will be done.
I think too, for example, of a great friend, who now works in the bishop’s offices. I was with him on the eve of my priestly ordination.
I couldn’t sleep. We gave each other a hug, wept together and spoke about God, about the total surrender I was going to commit to, on consecrating my whole life to God and to the most needy.
And the most wonderful thing has been to attain the fullness of being a priest. I live this with very great intensity; at times words don’t suffice.
I live very passionately dedication to the Eucharist. Sometimes I am overwhelmed on singing the Preface.
ZENIT: And what has impacted you the most in your priestly life?
Father Muñoz: The morgue. I am helping with the funeral services of Barcelona and have been very affected by people’s grief, being able to transmit hope and faith in the next life to people who suffer the pain of the death of a loved one, who feel alone and abandoned by God.
[The fact] that they enter weeping bitterly and leave with faith, thanking me for having transmitted a living witness and message of Christ and hope in the next life, is what has most impressed me.
I have even officiated at the marriages of people I met in the morgue and I have made many friends who have started coming to confession with me and I have become a spiritual guide for them.
If a priest is a person who prays and gives himself to others, he is the happiest person.
[Interview by Patricia Navas; translation by ZENIT]