Father Alejandro Marina relates the story of how he found his home and his calling as a Maryknoll missionary priest in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Excerpts are shared from interviews with Maryknoll Father Alejandro Marina conducted on Oct. 25 and Oct. 31, 2023 at the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers Center and Residence in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
What made you realize you were called to be a priest?
I was born in a place called Martínez in greater Buenos Aires into a Catholic family very committed to our local parish. I am the youngest of seven children born to Clara Colangelo and Angel Domingo Marina. Our father died when I was 4 years old.
My older sister and her husband traveled for his work. They were always in some small town — and anywhere they were living, they started doing mission. Their testimony inspired something in me.
Then something definitive happened that made me say, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I was 16 years old when I learned about the four churchwomen killed in El Salvador; two of them were Maryknoll sisters. But Maryknoll was not working in Argentina at the time. So I decided to enter the local seminary of my diocese, San Isidro.
How did your family receive the news?
At 19, I made my decision. I talked to the bishop — but I still had to tell my family.
I remember it was a Saturday morning. My mother was doing laundry and I was following her around, talking in circles. Finally, my mother said, “What do you have to tell me?” I said, “I decided to become a priest.”
My mother told me that it was a dream she had had together with my father. Before getting married, they talked about what they would say if any of their children wanted to be a priest or a religious sister. They agreed they would accompany and support him or her in their calling. For her, it was the feeling that their dream together was fulfilled.
It was a confirmation of the calling that I was feeling. I hadn’t known about this conversation between my parents, because my mother never talked about it. She didn’t want to pressure us into anything.
How did your family and local church react to your call to mission?
My family knew my passion, which is mission. I have 22 nieces and nephews and — for now! — 21 grandnieces and nephews. They always knew that someday I would go away somewhere to serve. From the beginning, San Isidro has had a missionary commitment. Our first bishop thought that 10 percent of priests should be given in mission. He often received requests from other bishops within Argentina who were in need of priests.
Around the time of my ordination, San Isidro started a collaboration with Cuba. I offered to go. My bishop said to serve for five years as a priest in Argentina and then we would talk. I was ordained on December 10, 1993. When the five years passed, one of the priests serving in Cuba wanted to come back to Argentina. That was my opportunity.
It was amazing to get to know — from the inside — the truth about life for people after the Cuban Revolution. … My first trip was in 1998, when Pope John Paul II went there. It was a time of change.
Many people who grew up during the Revolution didn’t talk about faith or God out of fear. They didn’t even practice baptisms. They knew nothing about Christmas, or the pope. The government allowed the Church to hold meetings in the neighborhoods to do some explaining about who was coming, because the government wanted the visit to be a success, to give a good impression.
When the pope’s visit was over, we continued. I was in the parish of San José in the Diocese of Holguín, in the east of the island. In September, the celebration of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre was coming, and we met in houses, telling who she was. And that was the beginning of the small Christian communities.
At first the government complained but then they accepted it and called these “houses of prayer.” We could not celebrate the sacraments but we could have meetings and catechesis.
I had never before had the experience of talking to someone who didn’t know anything about Jesus. In Argentina, I might talk to someone who doesn’t believe in him — but at least they know who Jesus is.
In Cuba, people didn’t know the most basic things. And the questions the adults asked were very different from the questions a child might ask.
For example, if you say Jesus was born of Mary, a virgin who became pregnant from the Holy Spirit, they answer, “What?” And it makes you reflect, “What does this mean for me?” Because if you are giving the Good News to someone because it really is good news and can change their life, you need to ask yourself, did it change my life?
You have to do your own catechesis again and renew your faith.
Father Marina (far left) ministered as a missionary priest for four years to the parishioners and community of San José in the Diocese of Holguín, in the east of Cuba. His work centered on catechesis and adult faith formation. (Courtesy of Alejandro Marina/Argentina)
How did you get to know Maryknoll?
After my four years in Cuba, I was invited to Cochabamba by a friend, a Chilean religious sister working in Bolivia. She told me, “Why don’t you come visit? Maryknoll is starting a new program of mission formation. I think you would like it.” In 2002, I came to the center, known as the Maryknoll Mission Center in Latin America (CMMAL). I participated in the first International Mission Formation Program course with Father Stephen Judd. Afterward, Father Tom Henehan asked if I could help with the program, coming and going from Argentina.
I did my master’s thesis in theology at the Jesuit University of El Salvador in San Miguel, Buenos Aires, which I completed in 2007, in missiology.
Father Tom and I began to talk about Maryknoll’s associate priest program. My bishop was about to retire, so I had to wait for my new bishop to approve. Finally, in 2012 I came to Cochabamba to work full-time in the International Mission Formation Program.
In 2015 the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers chapter said we would receive vocations from overseas, including associate priests who explicitly ask to become part of Maryknoll. I applied for incardination.
What were your next steps toward becoming a Maryknoll missioner?
The process of incardination takes five years. I made my final oath in Chicago on May 25, 2020 — during the pandemic.
I was spending a year in the United States to improve my English and to learn more about the culture, environment and Maryknoll life. I took English classes in Chicago, then the idea was to spend time at Maryknoll headquarters in Ossining, New York, and our retirement community in Los Altos, California. During lockdown, all that changed!
However, it was a good time to be with the students and experience the Catholic Theological Union where our candidates study. In many aspects, my seminary experience in Argentina was different from what our seminarians experience now. It was good for me to understand their process and their studies.
Can you describe your role supporting Maryknoll priest and brother candidates in Cochabamba?
The Overseas Training Program (OTP) has always been an important part of Maryknoll formation. The first requirement of OTP is that they really experience a missioner’s life, what it is like living in another culture, in another language and whether they will feel comfortable in that situation.
When Father Paul Masson finished six years as coordinator last year, the General Council asked me to coordinate the program.
With vocations from the mission regions, we face a new challenge. Here in this community, we are one Canadian, five from the United States, one Argentinian (me), three from Kenya and one from Tanzania.
In Argentina, there is a Mountain called El Cerro de Los Siete Colores. Because of the minerals in the mountain and its layers of richness, seven distinct colors are visible. Intercultural living here is like that. To learn how each culture feels the presence of God, it is amazing. And maybe you used to do something in one way, but you learn that there is another way to do it.
One of my dreams is to promote the brothers’ vocation. It is a prophetic vocation for a world of broken relationships. There are deep divisions in all of our societies, with so much violence and racism. You build brotherhood through the testimony of your life, saying that in spite of our differences, we are brothers and sisters.
(Left, right) Father Marina and Myrna Arevalo are shown at the Maryknoll Mission Center of Latin America in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he started serving as a priest associate; Father Marina and Maryknoll Father Paul Masson, with guitars, pause at Mass in the center chapel in 2019. (Nile Sprague/Bolivia)
You were already a missionary priest, but you “became Maryknoll” here in Cochabamba. What does this center mean to you?
What I love here are two things. One is the history of what we have done here as Maryknoll and how many thousands of people passed through here for formation. Second, I love the ongoing potential of this place in service to mission.
Since 1965, more than 12,000 people came through our Maryknoll Language Institute. Priests, religious and laypeople learned Spanish, Quechua and Aymara.
In 2002, CMMAL started expanding its services. The International Mission Formation Program was born to give theological formation in the renovation of mission understanding and action. For 18 years, people from all over Latin America and the United States participated in the program.
Our leadership programs, such as Despertar (“Awaken”) and the Cristóforos (“the Christophers”) prepared people for leadership roles inside the Church or in organizations.
In all our programs, we taught new tools and methodologies with Father Eugene Toland. The purpose was to offer our people tools for a transformative process of formation.
By the time the CMMAL project closed in 2020, around 15,000 people from all over the world had been formed here for mission by Maryknoll.
You have said that CMMAL closed, but Maryknoll continues. What does that mean?
When I was reassigned to Latin America and Cochabamaba after incardination, I asked, “How can we continue giving this famous formation for missioners that Maryknoll is known for?” Let me give an example. I was approached by the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) to teach classes. I help with an online course in transformative leadership for participants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras and Colombia. I wasn’t invited on my own merit, but because of Maryknoll’s legacy. Maryknoll is well-known in Latin America not only for our projects but for how we help and support others to be in mission.
Talking with other Maryknollers and praying, I created Servicios Misioneros (Missionary Services) as an apostolic project, to continue work in mission formation — concentrating on two themes, ecological spirituality and active citizenship.
The Maryknoll Society members in Bolivia committed ourselves to care for creation, inspired by Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and the Maryknoll Society chapter of 2021.
Other organizations use the buildings to have a place to do mission. The groups started coming, and talking to each one of them we saw possibilities to work together. And that gave new life to this place.
Mate in hand, Father Marina surveys a garden space at the Maryknoll center, which he says has recently been given new life through partnerships with local organizations helping with the center’s green project. (Adam Mitchell/Bolivia)
As the local superior, can you describe the new life taking place?
Four of our former language teachers began their own school, here on the property, and people started coming again to study, including our own missioners, our seminarians and brother candidates, lay missioners and short-term volunteers.
We made an agreement with a local collective of organic farmers. They hold a fair here on Thursdays — not only to sell vegetables, but also to teach people in the city about nutrition. Another organization teaches sustainable ecological practices. We are working with them in our “green project” to make this place more friendly to the ecology. Our center now has fish, bees, chickens, two llamas and gardens.
I love this work. In Argentina, I never had the opportunity to do something like this because I lived in the city. Here, with the help of our partners, there is an opportunity. Our goal is to make this center and residence an ecological witness for Cochabamba. I love to do it. … It is my passion.
Featured image: Maryknoll Father Alejandro Marina plays the guitar as he says Mass for four Maryknoll seminarians completing overseas training in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Incarnated into Maryknoll in 2020, Father Marina celebrated 30 years as a missionary priest on December 10, 2023. (Adam Mitchell/Bolivia)