On Sunday, Dec. 2, Father Jeremy Santos will be among 14,000 runners in the California International Marathon, the third time he will run the challenging course from Folsom to the state Capitol.
The mindset of a runner training for a marathon -- one step, one mile at a time -- is an apt analogy for his life and ministry as a priest, says Father Jeremy, 32, who since July 1 has served as parochial vicar of St. Basil Parish in Vallejo. He has been running on and off for the past five years. His first marathon was in 2012, his second in 2017.
“Running is a way to relieve stress – to be able to reflect and think about whatever is going on in my life at the time. it’s also a good analogy for life –sometimes when you are running you feel you can just run forever – a runner’s high, they call it – you feel unstoppable, and then on the next corner you want to give up already and you wonder, ‘Why am I doing this’? When these thoughts happen in a marathon, you just keep on going forward, one step at a time.
“In life, there will be times when we feel good and maybe even invincible, and nothing can dissuade or stop us. But in those low moments, we keep pushing until we get to our goal. In running it’s important to remember, what is the purpose, what is the goal? And in life, what is our purpose? Our goal is eventually to get to heaven. As a believer in Christ, that’s our goal.”
Two-and-a-half years into his priesthood, he speaks fondly of his first assignment as parochial vicar of Holy Rosary Parish in Woodland from July 2016 to July 2018. One of his goals was to be around town and visible. “We should try to invite others in any way we can. I try my best to connect with people who don’t normally come to church,” he says. This included running with parishioners in the annual “Running of the Turkeys” on Thanksgiving Day and visiting classic car shows in downtown.
“I’d walk down Main Street in my clerics and I would get stares from some people,” he chuckles. “Even a kid said to me, ‘Are you allowed to come out of the church? Why are you here?’ A priest doing normal things was foreign to many.” After he became friends with some of the car owners, one of the car clubs invited him to the show in 2017, to take a ride with some low-riders and bless their cars.
“At that moment they can be reminded that the church is there and welcoming them,” he says. “We don’t know where people are in their spiritual life, but if we plant the seeds and continue to invite, they might remember when this person or priest invited me.”
In his homilies he tries to connect with where people are in their faith journey. “I like to remind people, do you want to be a saint? They kind of look at me like I’m crazy, like it’s not possible for them to be a saint. But it is possible – you just have to work toward it one day at a time.”
At Holy Rosary, which he called a “family-oriented congregation with many families of three generations,” he had ample opportunity to hear confessions. He became more proficient in Spanish, as there were nine Masses each weekend, five in Spanish and four in English. “I struggled a bit not knowing exactly the language and how to express myself freely. I learned that even though the priest can’t say all the words, you can show you love people and are available to them even though we’re from different cultures. In that way I know many people felt the Lord in the sacrament of reconciliation.”
He observed the many responsibilities of a pastor. “What I learned is to be available to people and also to take time to reflect and pray on the decisions that are being made. Father Jonathan Molina (pastor) was very prayerful in that sense. Even though we encountered problems and difficulties, he would say let’s pray first about it and see where the Spirit is guiding us in every situation. That will be one way I move forward as a leader.”
His style in meetings is “I like to listen and see where everyone is – I try to understand their point of view first. But if it is not how our church is guiding us, I am willing to tell them this is the way that our church is trying to teach us.”
His days were filled with sick calls, funerals, Masses and weddings, as well as working with laypeople in ministries. It’s stressful at times, especially when he is called to minister to a parishioner or family he does not know. “If I am called in that situation, I first remember why I am there. I am there so Christ can be there with them. They see a priest as the representation of the Lord, so I always remind myself that my purpose is to bring Christ’s peace to the experience of darkness they have currently.
“When I do have a chance to meet them, not in a stressful moment, I enjoy it. I see parishioners Sunday after Sunday and you get to know their own story of life and faith. You see they are always doing the best they can to live out their faith. I enjoy being with them in conversation.”
The path of priesthood was an unlikely one for Father Jeremy, who grew up in Holy Spirit Parish in Fairfield, but fell away from the church during his high school years. While studying criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento, the priesthood was not on his radar. When 9/11 happened, his father, who had been in the military in his youth, re-enlisted and Father Jeremy sought to serve as well.
“I wanted to become a police officer because I wanted to serve society as my father and grandfather had in the military,” he says. His plans changed in February 2006 when he met a friend who invited him to attend the Upper Room experience, a two-day spiritual retreat for young adults at Holy Spirit Parish. “It was the first time I had done anything other than attend Sunday Mass. That was the beginning of my real conversion.”
He read the Bible, prayed the rosary and went to events, even building his CSUS class schedule around attending daily Mass. In March 2006, again at the invitation of his friends, he experienced eucharistic adoration for the first time. After that night of prayer, “I knew God was calling me closer.” Later that year he attended the Youth 2000 retreat in the Diocese of Oakland, led by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and the possibility of becoming a priest was strengthened after meeting young priests and religious.
It was important to him to be invited by other young adults to be more involved in his faith. “It was always through invitation from friends that I came to know Christ. For me now, I always try to be a person who invites people, no matter where they are in their spiritual life. I try to be open and available to people.”
After discerning for one year, he entered Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., in the fall of 2007 to complete his bachelor’s degree and then completed his theology studies at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. Looking back on those years, he says they prepared him well for unexpected twists and turns he might encounter as a priest.
“In every career, just as in the vocation of priesthood, you study for a long time but the actual experience is different. What the seminary prepared me for is a life of prayer and to have a love for the liturgy, for the sacraments, and to able to research what the church teaches about certain issues and to give informed homilies. But those years can’t cover everything, especially the life experiences of people you will encounter in different situations.”
His pastoral years at St. John the Baptist Parish in Chico and St. John Vianney Parish in Rancho Cordova included working with youth and young adults, at times helping them to understand their faith and discern their vocations. While serving at Holy Rosary, he celebrated Masses and the sacrament of reconciliation, and assisted with student retreats at the Newman Catholic Centers at CSUS and UC Davis.
“Young adults do want to be connected to the church,” he says. “Even though there is a group outside the church that doesn’t see any value in the faith, there are young adults who do love coming to Mass and do love the faith. They want to know God and what our faith teaches. It’s hard to give a definite answer about how many have left their faith. Trying to discern what they want to do in life, what to commit to, is a big challenge for them. Young adults I’ve worked with are open to new challenges and they want to learn. They are open to opportunity for human growth and to improve their own virtues.”
Father Jeremy says he doesn’t think of himself as being “a millennial in the priesthood.”
“Yes, it’s my age category, but I will be getting older,” he laughs. “But I do feel comfortable around young people and try to spend time using their forms of communication -- social media and texting -- so I’m more connected with them.
“Young adults talk with me. I was on the path of one career and then I switched, and that might be their experience at some time. I’ve met many young men who are thinking about the priesthood, and also young adults thinking of single or married life. Social media and videos and allow them to see what the lives of priests and religious are, and this generation is blessed to have that. Yet it’s still hard for them to commit to a vocation, as they have lots of options.”
Priesthood so far has shown him “I can experience an entire lifetime of a family in one week,” from baptisms to marriages to funerals in a parish, whose members become like family to him. “It’s important to know that priests come from families,” he says. “For young people to see this, it can help them consider it as a possibility to devote their life to the Lord.”
In photo above, Father Jeremy Santos speaks with students following a Sunday night Mass at the Newman Catholic Center in Sacramento. Left to right: Cecilia Flores (Newman Center director), Willie Cuellar, Maritza Ortega and Raymond Santiago.