Photo: Felix Carroll
Br. James Cervantes: What God Has Taken, What He Has Given
James Cervantes was praying one day in October 1999. But on this day — unlike all his prayers of the previous five years — he didn't focus on healing for his brother Jerry. It had become clear his 20-year-old brother would soon die.
James' prayers took a different tone.
"OK, Lord," he said, "whether my brother dies or he lives, I give my life entirely to You."
He hadn't planned on that prayer. It just came out that way. It startled him.
James is now "Brother James." He made what is known as "perpetual vows" with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, May 31, at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass. By making perpetual vows, he has committed himself to God through a life with the Marian Congregation. The vows constitute a permanent promise made public.
+ + + View a photo gallery of the vows ceremony. + + +
For Br. James, the weight-bearing load of his religious vocation is upheld by brotherhood — his life as a religious brother growing closer to Christ, his life with his fellow Marians, all of whom shape each other "like rocks in a tumbler," he says, and his life with his blood brother, Jerry, whose birth he beseeched and whose death he prayed to forestall.
A Birthday Gift
James was 5-years old, and had just started kindergarten. After school he noticed a classmate going home with an older brother.
"I thought, 'Wow, that's so cool. He gets to go home and go play basketball or baseball and games with his brother.' That's like a forever friend," he recalls. Without hesitation, he asked his mom if he could have a brother.
"I want someone to play with at home," he told her. "I don't have anyone here."
The following year, on May 29, the day after James' birthday, he got the gift he wanted: a brother.
Well, his brother wasn't quite what James had in mind. Not yet learned in the biological tenets of procreation, James had hoped he'd get an older brother.
"Wait, he's so small," he thought. "He can't play. He doesn't do anything!"
As soon as his brother gained hand-eye coordination, James was teaching him to throw a ball and even play chess. "I had someone to play with," Br. James says. "He was my best friend. It was so much fun."
A Return to the Faith
At the age of 15, Jerry was diagnosed with cancer. His illness prompted James' parents, Oscar and Yolanda, immigrants from the Philippines, to pray the Rosary, to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, to pray intensely for Jerry's healing. James, hitherto unpracticed in prayer, joined them. Prayer was the only thing he could do, so he did it, out of love for his brother, and out of desperation.
Jerry died in October 1999.
Some people might be inclined to get up off their knees for good. After all, God didn't seem to answer all those prayers. But for James, 26 years old at the time, his conversion had begun.
A Clear Choice
"I accepted his death as God's will," he says. "And then I just felt a hunger to know God more."
A few months later, James quit his job as a computer programmer. He felt a calling to the religious life. He was advised to pray on it more. So he did. He was invited to teach CCD at his parish in Rowland Heights, Calif. Through teaching, he delved more deeply into the Catholic faith. Just to confuse things, he met a girl. They dated. They loved each other. The choice soon became clear: Either propose to her or answer the Lord's calling to the religious life.
Providentially, during a trip to northern California to visit his grandmother, James attended Mass and met Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC, the Marians' vocations director whose conversion story has inspired many vocations. Father Calloway was in town to give a talk. James wondered that day if God was calling him to the Marians.
Two weeks later, he received a sign in the affirmative. Not knowing that James had met Fr. Donald, one of the Confirmation teachers James worked with handed him a DVD. It was Fr. Donald's powerful conversion story.
"I watched it and thought, 'Wow, this guy's amazing."
He knew God was leading him to the Marians. That was further confirmed when he learned he was one of three men from the same part of California, all of whom were inspired in their vocations by the work of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary who run a parish in Hawaiian Gardens, a gangland section outside of Los Angeles.
One of the men, now-Brother Angelo Casimiro, MIC, also came from a Filipino heritage. The other, now-Deacon Michael Gaitley, MIC, James had met in Boston when James had first considered joining the Oblates.
All three joined the Marians for similar reasons — they were responding to their love for The Divine Mercy message and devotion and their love for Mary Immaculate, two charisms of the Marians.
"Three guys associated with the same parish — this was amazing," said Br. James. "I don't know what the chances are of that."
James joined the Marians in 2005.
Now Come More Tests
It's been a whirlwind since then, particularly these last few weeks. In May he completed — and passed — his comprehensive exams, which mark the completion of three years of theology. The exams were written and oral — and stressful.
"I had to really rely on God's grace," he says. "It just comes down to trust. Just a total surrendering to God."
This week, new "tests" begin. Brother James flies off to the Philippines to serve in the Marians' new Filipino mission. He'll complete his last year of theology there and serve with his fellow Marians at Divine Mercy Hills, in Mindanao.
His assignment in the Philippines fulfills a desire that has tugged at his heart ever since he served pilgrims at the National Shrine's annual Filipino Day a few years back.
"That day was the moment when God put in my heart the desire to learn more about the Philippine culture," he said. "I felt a love for my Philippine identity. I love the people. I love being part of them."
The plan is for him to be ordained to the diaconate in the fall and ordained to the priesthood at his home parish in California.
This spring marks a dispersion of many of the Marian brothers who joined the community around the same period, in the mid-2000s.
The day of his final vows was bittersweet: He is excited for a future serving Christ and His Church, and he is sad to leave his brothers — the men whom Mary Immaculate gathered together, the men who have contributed so much to each other's formation and development and holiness.
They are his forever friends.
"God took away my brother," Br. James says, "but then He provided me with even more brothers than I could ever imagine."