(Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)
Father John Jimenez, the new pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in San Francisco, teaches at the parish school.
Father Jimenez: Vocation sparked by his students’ slaying in Oakland
November 5th, 2014
By Valerie Schmalz
When two of his middle school science students were killed “hanging out on a Friday night” in Oakland, John Jimenez made a radical decision. He decided to become a priest.
“I was going to get married. I wanted to teach and coach sports,” the new pastor of St. Charles Borromeo, told the eighth grade math class he teaches at the parish school in San Francisco’s Mission District. He also teaches seventh grade mathematics.
“I wasn’t even thinking of a vocation until that happened,” Father Jimenez, 53, said in an interview. He was seriously involved with a Catholic girl who shared his values. But losing those two students shook him up. “Why is there violence? Why is there family breakdown?”
Those deep questions, asked by a young man whose own parents had separated, was answered by God calling him to the priesthood.
Born and raised in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Father Jimenez lives his vocation today in the streets, in his parishioners’ homes, in the church, the school and the city’s hospitals.
“The only way this violence will end is if we give ourselves to Jesus,” Father Jimenez told the students on a sunny October Monday as they clustered noisily at tables in the basement classroom, boxes of World’s Finest Chocolate for the school’s primary fundraiser stacked against one wall.
He went on to explain how to use a number line to help determine if the answer to an equation was a positive or negative number.
“As a teacher, I teach them math and help them to succeed,” he said.
“You get to know them personally and help them see Christ’s outlook to their lives, that’s where the vocations will come,” said Father Jimenez. “I’m hoping that they will see their lives as wanting to help others. A natural way to do that is through the church.”
A product of San Mateo public schools who attended City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University, Father Jimenez also taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade mathematics at St. Peter School, where he was in residence at the parish for five years as parochial vicar and as chaplain to San Francisco General Hospital. He learned Spanish while studying for the priesthood at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University.
“I’ve been through many hard things with my students. It is a ministry to reach the family, reach the parents especially in times of trouble,” Father Jimenez said.
“Another reason I teach in the school is the school needs help financially. We’re one of the few inner city schools that reach out to low income and so we need help to keep the tuition lower,” the priest said. “Families want their children in a safe place with good values,” he said.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and on the sanctity of life are necessary for peace, said Father Jimenez, who prays at street corner murder sites and at 40 Days for Life vigils outside the local abortion clinic as well as saying Mass in Spanish each week at Laguna Honda Hospital. He began volunteering at Laguna Honda as a youth when his grandfather was a resident.
“As a culture, we’ve come to turn the human person into an object – whether it’s in the creation of life or whether it’s not treating what’s sacred as sacred,” said Father Jimenez.
“It’s tough to be a single parent. I grew up with separated parents also. I thought deeply about these marriage breakups because I experienced it myself,” said Father Jimenez.
“It is what the archbishop is saying about marriage. What’s sacred about intimate relations belongs in marriage to keep it sacred,” Father Jimenez said. “When we break that, the result is the taking of human life, treating people as objects to manipulate. You can see that economically or even in the violence we have.”
At St. Charles Borromeo, the parish’s Neocatechumenate movement promotes marriage on a person-to-person basis, Father Jimenez said. “They really have this Catholic culture here. The apostolic groups, the prayer groups encourage people to get married who might be living together. People really want to do that,” Father Jimenez said.
“The parishioners see God in their life. They are able to touch the people around them,” Father Jimenez said.
“We are always, every day, evangelizers,” said St. Charles principal Sister Nelia Pernica, a Dominican of the Most Holy Rosary. Six Dominicans teach at St. Charles, and their white and black habits and veils model religious life, as does a daily life of prayer embedded into the school’s schedule, Sister Nelia said. In the spring, the sisters talk to the students about the possibility of vocation to religious life and the priesthood, she said.
During 16 years as a priest, Father Jimenez says he has learned from the priests and people he has worked with and served. “Catholicism enables people to work together,” Father Jimenez said. “The Catholic way and the ritual of the Mass in particular unify people.”
“Christ connects our humanity to God’s divinity. We can’t do it only in a human way. We are going to fail. Our pride’s going to get in the way. We need God’s help,” said Father Jimenez. “That was the other thing with my vocation, I realized only with God’s help.”
To donate to St. Charles School, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send to St. Charles School, 3250 18th St., San Francisco CA 94110.
From November 7, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.