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Martina Santos 26 (left) hosts Nieves Gomez as an exchange student from Madrid.
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May 27, 2024

Father Rivera: a priest just like us

Fr. Rivera poses in Solesmes, France, where he sang at a pilgrimage with St. Joseph’s Seminary Schola Cantorum from New York.

Everyone at Carrollton knows who Father Rivera is. But sometimes it’s hard to think of priests as more than just priests. Yet, there truly is more to them than that. They’re people just like all of us, who have their own passions and hopes. Father Rivera believes it’s important for the Carrollton community to understand who he is–not only as a priest, but also as a person.

“Now,” he told me told me after our interview, “You know the reason why I’m here and my mission here as a priest and as a person.” 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

It’s a beautiful thing that on this journey, you are not walking by yourself but with Jesus.

— Father Rivera

How many years have you been a priest? 

Only four years. I got ordained in 2019 in the Annunciation Parish in New York City after studying theology for four years prior. 

What religious order are you a part of? 

It’s called the Piarist Fathers. We were founded in the 16th century by St. Joseph Calasanz, who is the patron saint of the education of children and youth. He was the first to build a school for the poor in the 16th century, so because of him we have a public school right now. 

Where around the world can you find the Piarist Fathers? 

Right now we are in 42 countries around the world. My province includes the United States, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. This means I can be moved either to Puerto Rico, Cuba, or around the United States. 

Do you like it here at Carrollton? 

Yes, definitely. These three years have been a blessing, being able to give my heart as a priest. And Carrollton has helped me with so many things. I was teaching before in Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale and then I moved here. But here I feel like a family, like I’m home. 

So you came to Carrollton in 2021. Why Carrollton? 

So I moved from Fort Lauderdale to Miami because my superior, the provincial, told me to be the director of the community of Piarist Fathers here in Miami. And in the community that we had here in 2021, we didn’t have a school or a parish. We had a pastoral house where we held the youth ministry and other youth groups. But we didn’t have a school. So I told my provincial that I want to continue teaching because that’s one of our charisms and I love to teach. He told me to just apply for schools. I applied to many schools, including Carrollton. 

Carrollton was the first to contact me, and then Belen was second. At first, my idea was to be in Belen because it was an all-boys school, and I could teach them to search for their vocation. But I had Carrollton’s interview first and I fell in love right away. And it was amazing because Father Vallee had been my professor of philosophy when I was in the seminary, so I knew him very well. And Father Vallee was so happy that I was interviewing to work here. And in the end, Carrollton hired me. 

Is there anything you especially love about Carrollton and its community? 

Everything. I fell in love with the school from the start–with St. Madeleine Sophie, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, and their mission, which is very similar to the Piarist Fathers’ because they’re educators too. It gave me the opportunity to be closer with my religious order and its mission. So I decided to be at Carrollton. But ever since I began here, it’s felt like a family. The community is very open and everybody is very welcoming. All the students here are also very beautiful people and very open to learning, to receive that faith from the Lord, and to continue learning about the Catholic faith. So for me it was a blessing–and it still is. 

This is my third year, and I love to come here to teach all day. And I very much enjoy being here and being able to touch the hearts of my students. That’s my purpose as a priest–that I can be that reflection of Christ to others. And I encourage my students to do the same. So being at Carrollton has been an amazing experience and a blessing. These three years changed my life. And it really feels like all my students are my daughters, like I’m a dad, and I’m so proud of them. It’s beautiful to feel that way and have that connection. 

Have you always wanted to be a priest? 

It was a process, especially since I felt the vocation when I was 18 years old. So I had a girlfriend at that time, I was in high school, I was about to go to college. And it was a very difficult time because I didn’t know why the Lord was calling me to the priesthood since I wasn’t single. So when God called me to be a priest, I didn’t get it at that moment until I started my vocational discernment with the Piarist Fathers that year. I continued with my girlfriend for one more year and, since I was still in college, I decided to have a process. So I used to get together every weekend with one Piarist priest and have my vocational discernment. I did that for 5 years until I graduated with my first bachelor degree in 2011 from the University of Puerto Rico. Then, I decided to enter with the Piarist Fathers. 

How did you know that God was telling you to be a priest? 

Since I was a child, there have been many different ways that the Lord called me, but I didn’t figure it out. For example, when I was in second grade, I remember that I was in school, and the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. And my friends were saying things such as a police officer, fireman, mayor, or doctor. Then when it was my turn, I said I wanted to be a priest. And everybody was silent. But I was very confident about it–I just didn’t know at that time why I was saying that. Through that, I figured out that the Lord was, since I was a child, giving me the opportunity to see that as an option in my life. 

Also, my grandfather was a Jesuit priest in the seminary in Cuba for 8 years. So when he was young. But because of the exile in Cuba, he left the order and came back to Puerto Rico. He then decided to work as a police officer, met my grandmother, and, thank God, my mom was born and then had me. But I remember that when I was a child, he always said that one of his grandchildren would finish what he started. Nobody knew that it was going to be me. So it was something very beautiful, and now I have my grandfather as a spiritual director too, which is truly a blessing because he knows about the spiritual life and how it’s like to be in an order. 

When you realized you were being called to priesthood, were you happy, confused, excited? What did you feel? 

I still remember the moment when I felt the vocation. It was on April 8th, 2006 at 3:30pm. It’s very specific, I know, but that’s because it was something strong and very important for me. So I was at a weekend retreat for a youth group as a leader in my parish. And there were about 80 young people there. The leaders and I were praying in this little chapel that was there because one of the leaders was giving a talk at that moment while we waited. So I remember I felt something strong inside myself. I felt like Jesus’s hand was carrying my heart. And I got scared. I remember I started praying the rosary. After I finished, I looked at the tabernacle and the monstrance where Jesus is. And next to it there was a picture of the Virgin Mary with the child [Jesus]. Then I saw by the door of the chapel that my mother was there, praying. 

I remember I ran out to her and started crying like a baby. I was 18 years old and 6’4’,’ crying and hanging onto my mom. Then I started to walk with her while crying because I couldn’t figure out what was happening in my heart. But then it was clear that I felt that the Lord was calling me to the priesthood. My mom asked me what happened, and I told her I thought that the Lord was calling me to priesthood. And she asked me if He called my name or if I heard His voice, which is a common question I get asked. But it wasn’t like that–it was something I felt in my heart. So I told my mom and she was the first to know about my vocation. And she said, “If the Lord is calling you to the priesthood, I will be with you until the end of time.” But I was going through a bit of a crisis because I didn’t know why the Lord was calling me. Because as I told you before, I had a girlfriend. So that time was very, very difficult until I started discernment and started to open my heart. 

What was the process to becoming a Piarist Father like? 

So I started here in Miami for two years doing philosophy, where Father Vallee was actually my professor. Then they sent me to live in Mexico City for one year because that was a part of the process of formation with the Piarist Fathers. That year is called the novitiate, which is like a retreat. You don’t have cell phones, you can’t watch TV, you can’t talk to your family often. So it was a little hard that time. But that year gives the opportunity to see if this calling is for you because it’s a lifetime commitment. After that year in Mexico, you do the first simple vows, which are of poverty, chastity, obedience, and vocation because Piarist Fathers are teachers. That’s our main charism. And after that they sent me to Puerto Rico again for one year. In Puerto Rico, I did the certificate as a teacher. Then I graduated again, so they sent me to New York. And in New York, I studied a bachelor in theology and two master’s degrees, for four years. And then after those four years, I got ordained in 2019. Then they gave me the obedience to come to Miami, and I’ve been here so far. 

If you weren’t a priest, like it wasn’t an option at all, do you know what you would want to be? 

When I was starting my first bachelor degree in Puerto Rico, I was studying fine arts. I’m an artist; I used to paint and do oil paintings and stuff. So I was a part of that world and I also used to sing. I love to sing and dance and all that’s performing arts. And when I was in college, I was a part of the choir of the University of Puerto Rico. I traveled to many places–to Vienna, Austria, France, and others–to sing with the choir. And one time I was able to sing as a backup singer in the Latin Billboard Awards in Puerto Rico, where I sang with many artists. And I loved that world–of communication, performing, singing, and dancing. 

I remember that in my last year of college, I was deciding to enter with the Piarist Fathers. But a producer in Puerto Rico wanted me to record an album, that particular year. So it was really hard because I was waiting for this opportunity for so many years while I was there. And it was like: or you do your career as an artist or you do your career as a priest. It’s difficult, right? But I had already done five years of discernment, and I knew that the Lord wanted me to be a priest. It was hard, in the end, to decide to decline this amazing opportunity. I ended up deciding to be a priest, but I would definitely be an artist. Either a singer or an artist in the sense of fine arts in painting. 

You like to dance often. Why do you enjoy dancing? 

In Puerto Rico we dance a lot–that’s something we have in our blood. And I was part of a dance team from when I was about 8 or 9 years old until high school. I used to compete in salsa and dance very traditional dances from Puerto Rico. Later also hip hop and popular music. Through the dance team, I was able to be in different competitions, and it was really nice because I love to dance as well. And it gave me an opportunity to embrace that Puerto Rican tradition. But I did leave after high school, because I was in college and singing and performing instead. 

We’ve all seen your viral video–what’s the story behind that? 

So when I got ordained in 2019, they sent me to Fort Lauderdale to work in Cardinal Gibbons High School, which was the first school I worked at. And it was my first year as a priest and as a teacher. So in the beginning of the school year, one of the girls on the school’s dance team asked me, “Father, since you’re from Puerto Rico, you should make a special appearance and dance in the pep rally. Do you want to do it?” And she explained that I would be making an appearance at the end of the dance, and nobody was going to know. So it was kind of like a surprise. I thought that would be cool, so I spoke with my Piarist brothers to make sure they knew what I was going to do and were okay with it. And they told me to go for it. And since I was teaching seniors, I thought it would be a good opportunity to get closer to them. I was young too, and I wanted to make the students feel like I could relate to them. Because sometimes people see priests so far from them, but I wanted them to realize that I’m like them–I do sports, I dance, I like music, I do everything like them. So I decided to do it and only the dance team and the Piarist fathers knew. So at the end I just came in and started dancing, and everybody went crazy. 

Of course someone was recording, and the video went viral soon after. So when I went to the game, the pep rally had been for that night, it felt like I was a celebrity. Everybody was taking pictures and there was a line of people who wanted to greet me. It was crazy. I got nervous at first because for me that wasn’t the purpose–I didn’t want to get famous or to have a viral video. It all felt really crazy. I mean, that year on New Year’s Eve in Times Square, they played on the screen the top 10 viral videos of the year. And I was number 5, which was also so crazy. So yeah, I was everywhere. 

But I remember that the following day was a Saturday, and I spent the whole day in the chapel in silence with the Lord because I didn’t want to get distracted from what the Lord wanted for me in that particular situation. And I stayed the whole time in prayer in front of the blessed sacrament, thinking about what I should do now. And that Saturday and Sunday I was receiving interview requests from Good Morning America, the Kelly Clarkson Show, America’s Got Talent, from Spain, even from Japan and Puerto Rico too. But whenever they’d ask me, I’d thank them for the offer but say no. 

My students didn’t understand why I didn’t accept the requests. So I explained how I didn’t do it because I had done this for them, to be closer to them. And I got it. I didn’t need the media. But then at the seniors’ graduation, one of them thanked me for doing that for them and not the media. For me it was a gift, though, because my whole point of doing that was to be closer to them. And I got it because after that my students come to my classroom to have confession or to just talk about life. And that was what I wanted to have after this. My mission was to get closer to them, and I got it. 

What have been your hardest or most difficult experiences as a priest? 

It was probably my second year as a priest. Because I was teaching at Cardinal Gibbons High School, during the year of the pandemic. So it was really difficult for me to not be in the classroom but in my room in the house of my community, teaching through Zoom. It was challenging, especially making sure that their cameras were on, that they used the proper uniform, and all of that. Also getting their attention was hard since the classes were so long. And I’m very personal and like to be in the classroom with the students, so it was hard not being able to do that or forming a connection with them. 

What’s a normal day like for you? 

It’s a very long day. So I wake up at 5:30 in the morning every day and get ready and have breakfast. Then I have the morning prayer, which I do in the chapel of the house with my other Piarist fathers. Afterwards I just come to school at 6:30am, where I first have Mass at 7:30am. Then I teach until 3:45. When I come back to the house, I have the evening prayer with my Piarist brothers in the chapel at 5:30pm. Afterwards, we have dinner at 6:00pm. Then, on Wednesdays, I have the young adult youth group, called the Calasanz Movement, which I coordinate. So we have Mass at 7:00pm at our new parish, which we now have, called St. John the Apostle. Then after Mass, we have the gathering with the group. And we talk about formation, spirituality, human formation, different topics that help them be closer to the Church and Jesus, but also with the charism of St. Joseph Calasanz, who is the founder of the Piarist Fathers. So on Wednesdays, I finish my day at around 10:00pm-10:30pm. So that’s a regular day of a Piarist father–it’s very packed. 

So you live with other priests. What’s that experience like? 

It’s good. Especially because I live with a priest that’s 89 years old, one that’s 68, and another that’s 38. And I’m 35, making me the youngest, but I’m the superior of all of those priests. But it’s a very nice experience because we live like a family–living in the same house, sharing together, eating together, and praying together. 

How does your faith affect or play a part in your everyday life besides things such as your prayer? 

Well, besides my prayer that I do with my community, I also have my personal prayer which I usually do before going to bed. I go to the chapel and have a moment with Jesus in the blessed sacrament. Also, in religious life, we have spiritual directors who help us put our lives in order in different ways–spiritually, as a human, and as a Piarist father. It also helps me to continue growing and to continue being open to my ministry and the missions the Lord has for me. 

Have there ever been any challenges or doubts in your faith? 

Yea, definitely–since the beginning of my discernment when I decided to start with the Piarist brothers. I was 18 years old, so through all the formation and studies, it was challenging. And during this time I also doubted and thought about if this calling was truly for me and what the Lord wanted for me. Because at the beginning, I had wanted a family and to be married, but the Lord wanted me to be a priest. So during those first few years, I was seeing what the calling was and what the Lord wanted from me. And I had to be open to hear the voice of the Lord and to do his will, not my will. But definitely at some point we always have doubts. Yet those doubts didn’t separate me or put me aside from my vocation. On the contrary, those doubts helped me to discover my true vocation. 

Are you still passionate about what you do every day? 

Definitely, I am so happy with my vocation, and I feel like you can tell. I love to be at school, to be teaching. I’m so glad that the Lord gave me the opportunity to be here and to give my whole life to all of you. It’s a blessing because I have always wanted to reflect the face of Jesus to everyone. And this is a way for me to give that love that the Lord has given to me to others. I’m always searching for the face of Jesus in others too–I can see Him in all of you. And for me it’s a blessing to be able to say that I truly found my vocation–the vocation that the Lord chose for me. I feel really blessed to share my vocation with others. It’s truly a gift to have this vocation. 

Has there been anyone in your life that inspired you to be who you are today? 

Well, first my parents. I always say that they were my first teachers in faith. But also my grandfather who has been a role model to me since forever. He had been a Jesuit seminarian for eight years when he was young, and he knows how religious life is. So it was a big help, and it was a blessing to see him as the face of Christ too. He got ordained as a permanent deacon when I wasn’t born yet. But when he was ordained, he changed his wedding ring for another ring, which has a cross. And I remember that when I was a child, I always liked seeing his hand with that cross on his finger, and I always told him how much I loved it. And he’d say, “Don’t worry because you will have it someday.” So on the day of my ordination as a priest, he gave me his ring, the one he got when he was ordained. And I use it every day, so it’s like I always have my grandfather with me since he lives in Puerto Rico. 

So you’re still close with your family? 

Oh, yes, definitely. That was one of the things that kind of stopped me a little bit from completing this step to be a priest. My family was on it and they were so happy about me finding my vocation. But it was hard for me to leave them. I grew up in a very Catholic family and my parents were my first teachers in faith. So then I realized that because the Lord had given me so many blessings since I was a child, becoming a priest was kind of like paying it forward to God. It was a way of saying, “Thank you for all these blessings,” and realizing I now had to share all of this with everyone. I cannot keep it for myself, because it was too much, so now is the time to kind of give that back to everyone. And that’s also why my family is part of my vocation. 

How do you apply your grandfather’s and parents’ teachings to guide you every day? 

Well, I grew up in a very Catholic and healthy family, and my parents taught me all the values. So I always say that I have received so many blessings since I was a child through my family, that the Lord called me to share those blessings and everything I got from my family to others. I received so much love, so it felt a bit selfish to keep that to myself. And the Lord called me to share that with others. That’s why I live fully my vocation–because I’m giving all the love I received as a child. 

What is a valuable lesson that you’ve learned in your life that you’d like to pass on to others? 

I think that if you have Christ in your heart, you can overcome everything and anything. And you can reach any goal that you want. You will be happier, you will be more patient, and give more love to others. I think if you have Christ in your heart, you pray, and you trust in His will, everything that you want or your heart desires will be accomplished. Because the Lord will listen to your intentions. And I think that it’s a beautiful thing that on this journey, you are not walking by yourself but with Jesus, who is always there for you. And with his help, you will be stronger. I think that’s a valuable lesson to learn. With Him everything, without Him nothing.

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  • M

    Mr. AlkonNov 11, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    What an amazing interview! I learned so much about Father Rivera and about what it is like to be a priest. Thank you, Father Rivera, for sharing your life with us, in this article and every day — and thank you, Emma, for preparing and presenting this beautiful interview!

  • S

    Sofia BarreraNov 1, 2023 at 10:00 pm

    Absolutely loved reading this! We are so lucky to have Father Rivera here at Carrollton.

  • P

    Paola ConsuegraNov 1, 2023 at 8:32 pm

    Excellent interview ! Carrollton is blessed to have Father Rivera ❤️

  • D

    Denise FernandezNov 1, 2023 at 2:04 pm

    Loved learning about Father’s journey of faith

  • M

    Mrs. AzanNov 1, 2023 at 1:44 pm

    It was so wonderful reading about Father Rivera’s discernment process. He is a blessing to our community.