October 5, 2018

Priest embraces the American dream—and the joys and duties of being a new citizen

Father Juan Valdes, the administrator of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis and a new American citizen, poses for a photo with the American flag inside the gymnasium of the parish school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Father Juan Valdes, the administrator of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis and a new American citizen, poses for a photo with the American flag inside the gymnasium of the parish school. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The glow of his smile and the light in his eyes reflect just how much the moment will forever mean to Father Juan Valdes.

It was the day when he became an American citizen, the day when the administrator of St. Anthony Parish in Indianapolis was also chosen to speak on behalf of the other 104 immigrants who were becoming American citizens during this naturalization ceremony in Indianapolis.

Looking out on their faces, Father Valdes savored the joy and the pride that he shared with these immigrants from Australia, Brazil, China, England, France, Honduras, India, Mexico and Nigeria. He also noticed the joy and pride of their loved ones.

His thoughts that day returned to his own family, growing up with 10 siblings on his parents’ farm in Mexico. He remembers it as a happy time in his life—a time when the roots of his faith were planted, nurtured and grew into a call to the priesthood and his ordination in the Archdiocese of Guadalajara in Mexico in 1991.

He also recalled coming to the United States in 2006 to become the associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Indianapolis—a journey he made following an agreement between the archbishop of Guadalajara and then‑Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis.

Then it came time for Father Valdes to speak the words he had taken the time to write down—words touched with reverence, appreciation and love for the country he could now call his own.

‘Today, we belong to the United States’

“Today we are going to show loyalty to the United States of America,” he said in his opening remarks. “Today, we come to celebrate our integration as immigrants to this nation.

“I want to welcome all of you. Welcoming means recognition of the other as different, but in the differences is richness. Today, we belong to the United States. Belonging relates to the goal of respecting cultural differences and describes how relationships across cultural boundaries take shape. Today, we practice ownership. Ownership relates to the goal of healthy interaction. There is a sense of joint ownership and trust that allows for generous interaction with one another.”

Father Valdes then shared a message that President Ronald Reagan delivered during his inauguration address in 1981.

“President Ronald Reagan wrote: ‘If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much—prospered as no other people on Earth—it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.’ ”

Father Valdes then turned to thoughts of “the American dream” that has captivated and inspired people since the country’s earliest history.

“Our American dream is fulfilled as we make the Oath of Allegiance during this naturalization ceremony,” the priest declared. “As we become citizens, we are going to make a promise to obey the law of the United States, because the United States is a country of laws.

“Today, this is a special occasion and special day because our American dream becomes true.”

‘To live our lives in freedom’

In closing, Father Valdes focused on the promise, the hope and the responsibilities that have always marked the lives of Americans.

“The pioneers came here because they wanted to live in freedom, and to have freedom of religion, to have economic opportunity and to escape persecution.

“From now on, as citizens, we can participate in [this] democracy by voting in elections and serving in a jury. We have the right to live our lives in freedom. We have the right to life and liberty.

“There are two rights of everyone living in the United States that we can practice: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Religious freedom is one of America’s core tenets. I came here from Mexico [so] I can enjoy the freedoms guaranteed by this early vision of America as a haven for tolerance.”

Father Valdes finished by saluting his fellow new American citizens for their persistence in pursuing their American dream.

“Self-determination and an independent spirit are still two main attributes of the American character. The Rio Grande flows along the border between Mexico and Texas before finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. At Big Bend, the river makes a U-turn. The canyon, formed by erosion, proves that even mountains are no match for the power of persistence.”

‘Their faith encourages them’

Father Valdes became an American citizen and delivered his talk on Dec. 13, 2017. The thrill of that honor and his new status haven’t diminished in the nearly 10 months that have passed.

“It was incredible—a dream come true,” says Father Valdes, who has also previously served in the archdiocese as associate pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis and as administrator of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville.

As Election Day nears, he’s looking forward to voting for the first time as an American citizen.

He’s also focused on leading the members of St. Anthony Parish, where about 75 percent of the parishioners are from Hispanic backgrounds.

For many of them, he says, there are the challenges of learning a new language and adapting to a new culture. But there is also the foundation of their Catholic faith.

“Faith means a lot,” says Father Valdes, who has also assisted in Hispanic ministry in the archdiocese. “They find strength and comfort in their faith. Their faith encourages them to have hope and to endure the challenges of their lives.”

So does their belief in the American dream that has connected immigrants for generations.

“The American dream is still there,” Father Valdes says. “This country means having a better life, having a way of living, and having the opportunity for work and study and health care. Everyone wants to have the things they cannot have at home. When they come here, it brings them happiness.” †

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