Young priest felt God’s call from an early age

Father Jonathan Raia is associate pastor of St. William Parish in Round Rock. He was ordained in 2009. (Catholic Spirit file photo)

By Amy Moraczewski

Correspondent

Father Jonathan Raia, associate pastor at St. William Parish in Round Rock, first felt called to the priesthood around the time of his first Communion. Entering seminary following graduation from the University of Texas, the Houston native faced a critical decision. Would he remain in the Diocese of Austin or return home to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston? And there was a third option of pursuing priesthood as a member of a religious order.

Thanks to the guidance and support of Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who at the time served as bishop of Austin, Father Raia was able to enter the seminary while continuing to discern where the Lord was calling him to serve. Father Raia got to know Archbishop Aymond while working at the Chancery as a college student.

"He helped me a lot in my discernment. He was very generous in opening the door and not putting any pressure on me," Father Raia said.

Ultimately, the connections he formed across the diocese while working at the Chancery helped draw Father Raia to Central Texas. Although Archbishop Aymond played a large role in his formation, the young seminarian knew that the bishop would not be here forever. As it turned out, six days after Father Raia’s ordination in 2009, the bishop’s appointment as the Archbishop of New Orleans was announced.

While the loss came sooner than expected, the recently ordained Father Raia had formed strong bonds with other priests in the diocese throughout his time in seminary, and through the priestly fraternity Cor Jesu, which means "Heart of Jesus." Looking back, Father Raia is now convinced that this brotherhood of priests, the first of its kind in the Diocese of Austin, is "a large part of why the Lord has called me to this diocese."

In his three years as a priest, Father Raia has discovered a multitude of other reasons for his presence here, many of which stem from his role in walking with people on their path to a deeper relationship with Christ.

"A big thing both my brother and I received from our parents growing up was having a personal relationship with the Lord," said Father Raia. That personal relationship began at home and was fostered through Catholic school, involvement in their parish and especially through the friendships he formed at the University Catholic Center as a student at the University of Texas.

Now he has the privilege and responsibility of leading thousands of parishioners on their own spiritual journeys. Whether through preaching, the sacrament of penance, faith formation classes, or individual spiritual direction, Father Raia is acutely aware of the transformation occurring in people’s lives. Speaking to a diverse audience who may all be at different points in their faith, he has realized that the Gospel message can transform people in a variety of ways.

"We have people coming back to the faith and your faithful every Sunday Catholic saying ‘I’ve never heard this before, and this really helped bring it alive for me.’ It’s amazing to see how it transforms people’s lives, even people who have been faithful Catholics. Getting to see that conversion happening is so rewarding," Father Raia said.

As a testament to the importance of on-going religious education, Father Raia continues to deepen his own knowledge of the faith by pursuing a master’s degree in Christian Spirituality. Father Raia has spent five months over the course of three summers in Omaha, Neb. studying at Creighton University. He has also helped provide spiritual direction for seminarians from all over the country in the summer Institute of Priestly Formation on Creighton’s campus. When time allows for a study break, the men enjoy their relentless search to discover Omaha’s best steakhouse.

As an undergraduate student, Father Raia spent a semester in Spain. As a dual major between liberal arts and Spanish, he was no stranger to the language, but that time abroad enhanced his ability to communicate effectively in Spanish, he said. This has proven to be a key component in building relationships with parishioners, as Father Raia now conducts nearly half of his ministry in Spanish. However, he has occasionally learned the hard way that certain jokes and stories do not translate well when he receives nothing but blank stares during a homily.

Although priesthood remained at the forefront of his mind throughout his college years, Father Raia imagined a possible alternative career in international relations. Instead he has been able to channel his passion for languages and traveling into his ministry, including a recent mission trip to Guatemala.

God has provided Father Raia with opportunities to pursue two other passions –– theater and music. Shortly before Christmas, Father Raia put his theatrical talents on display for the high school youth group, alongside members of the core team, with a skit the adults wrote. Earlier in the fall, the associate pastor joined members of the parish in performing Mozart’s "Requiem" as part of the parish’s Sacred Music Concert Series.

"It was a great change of pace to sit in rehearsal and be part of the choir, and not be the one leading for a change," Father Raia said.

While he has enjoyed the vast array of duties assigned to him as a priest, he said, "The things that I thought I would most love when I was discerning and in seminary were celebrating Mass and hearing confessions, and I would say those are the two things still that are most rewarding. In terms of celebrating Mass, one of my favorite things is preaching, especially the Sunday homily. I just really love that opportunity to help people see how God’s Word speaks to their life."

Although the initial inclination toward the priesthood came at age 7, what Father Raia refers to as his "burning bush moment" did not occur until the summer before his sophomore year of college. During adoration, the thought of priesthood came to mind. This was nothing new, but his response suddenly changed when he heard himself say, "There’s nothing I want more than that."

Father Raia now realizes that, "It was really God calling me through my own desire."