Guerrero-Rodriguez, 36, is the newest priest at St. Mary’s. He was ordained on June 27, 2015, at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee. Guerrero-Rodriguez shares a heritage with Mexican members of the congregation. He was born in Guanajuato, Mexico into a very large family.
“There’s 12 of us in all,” he said. “I’m No. 9, so I have a lot of older siblings, nieces and nephews in Mexico and Texas. I try to visit at least once a year.”
Guerrero-Rodriguez trained for the priesthood for nine years, and St. Mary’s is his first assignment. He’s the associate pastor, which means he’s assisting Father Peter Iorio.
"It looked more like an orphanage. I was there to take care of the children just waiting to die. Sometimes my mission was to just clean up the kids."
– Father Jesús Guerrero-Rodriguez
A diocese is a district under the supervision of a bishop. With a population of 60,000 Catholics, the Knoxville diocese makes up about 2 percent of East Tennessee’s population, according to the Pew Research Center The diocese is currently home to 49 parishes and two missions across East Tennessee.
St. Mary’s approximately 1,500 families are affiliated with the church in at least one weekly service. Father Guerrero-Rodriguez and Father Iorio are both fluent in English and Spanish, and take turns presiding over services.
As associate pastor, Guerrero-Rodriguez helps with the sacraments of the church, seven ceremonies that point to what is sacred, significant and important for Catholics. A bishop gives holy orders and confirmation, but Iorio and Guerrero-Rodriguez perform the others: baptism, Eucharist or communion, reconciliation, marriage, and anointing of the sick. They are special occasions for experiencing God's saving presence, according to americancatholic.org.
Guerrero-Rodriguez didn’t always know he wanted to be a priest. In fact, he earned a bachelor’s degree in information systems from the Instituto Tecnológico de León in León, Guanajuato.
“I started thinking about becoming a priest after I finished college. The reason I came to the U.S. after, when I was 23 years old, was because I wanted to learn English to help me be a better at my job,” he said.
When he was in San Antonio, Texas, learning English, he says he met religious people in the form of priests, nuns and seminarians.
“So, we became friends, and I got involved in the eight months that I spent taking English classes. I learned a lot during that time, a lot about my faith and religion. I was born into a Roman Catholic family, but still I didn’t have the opportunity, well I didn’t give myself the opportunity, to learn more about my own faith,” Guerrero-Rodriguez said.
One of the reasons he decided to go to seminary was because of his experience in Texas and the difficulty he faced there trying to find a Spanish Mass to attend.
“I was far away from my family and friends and everything I knew,” he said. “I needed that spiritual support, but I couldn’t get it because I couldn’t communicate with the priest or anyone else at that parish.”
According to Guerrero-Rodriguez, other immigrants in Texas had similar experiences.
“It’s not a secret that Mexican people face difficulties and racisms. They didn’t have any place to go, any paperwork or options. They were invisible people and invisible even in church because the church couldn’t recognize their needs,” said Guerrero-Rodriguez.
The Hispanic population in East Tennessee faces many of the same challenges. Deacon Michael Jacobs, who has worked at St. Mary’s Catholic Church for 18 years, says that Father Guerrero-Rodriguez is an asset to the Hispanic part of the congregation.
“The church is probably 30 percent Hispanic,” Jacobs said. “He really interacts with everyone extremely well, but the cultural knowledge he brought with him seems to really be drawing in more people.”
Lillian Isaac, a member of St. Mary’s who is from Puerto Rico, said that Guerrero-Rodriguez is in charge of the Hispanic ministry.
“In my opinion, Hispanic parish members associate better with another Hispanic that understands some of the issues and concerns because they understand the culture,” she said. “They’ve lived it.”
Though Guerrero-Rodriguez didn’t always plan on being a priest, he did always want to be a missionary. He spent most of 2009 in Russia ministering to the people there.
He felt called to do missionary work there because when he was a child he read about the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. This inspired a life-long ambition to go to Russia as a missionary. He studied Russian while there and learned enough of the language to communicate.
In Russia today, Catholics only number around 140,000 or about 0.1 percent of the total population. After the Soviet Union collapsed, an estimated 500,000 Catholics lived in the country, but most have since died or emigrated to their ethnic homelands in Europe, such as Germany, Belarus or Ukraine, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I have a mission to be Jesus’ voice, his hands, and feet especially in ministry to those that are poor and in need.”
-Father Jesús Guerrero-Rodriguez
“We have a history with the Russian Orthodox Church and that history goes back to the Middle Ages. We have differences, and I knew that I wouldn’t be welcomed as a Catholic seminarian,” Guerrero-Rodriguez said.
It was because of these differences that he acquired a student visa to travel to Russia. Guerrero-Rodriguez did his missionary work on weekends at a children’s hospital that was underfunded and understaffed.
“It looked more like an orphanage,” he said. “I was there to take care of the children just waiting to die. Sometimes my mission was to just clean up the kids because they didn’t have enough personnel to feed them and just be there for them.”
He admits his missionary work was difficult, but still very rewarding in the long process of becoming a priest. In seminary, Guerrero-Rodriguez went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in philosophy and one in theology. He is proud of his ability to reach people in Spanish and English, and is prepared for any Russian people who might want to attend St. Mary's.
Guerrero-Rodriguez said not being able to understand the Mass or pray in English while in Texas shaped his involvement with the church and how he interacts with people.
“I have a mission to be Jesus’ voice, his hands, and feet especially in ministry to those that are poor and in need,” he said. “Here, in St. Mary’s, I’m a priest for anyone. I understand the culture, and I use my Hispanic background to help others feel recognized.”
Above right: Father Guerrero-Rodriguez preaching at St. Mary's, Johnson City (photo: Amanda McNally); left: Father Guerrero-Rodriguez and other priests ordained in June at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee (photo: Dan McWilliams, East Tennessee Catholic).