A thunderclap of applause erupted inside St. Mary’s Cathedral Friday evening as the faithful deemed Santiago Torres worthy of ordination to the priesthood.
There was standing room only as young and old watched on as Torres prostrated himself before God and His people, giving his undivided heart to the priesthood on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as a choir sounding like angels sang the Litany of the Saints.
Then the essential moment – the Laying on of Hands – by Bishop William McGrattan, as the Holy Spirit conformed Torres to the priesthood of Christ. It was poignant to see the many faces of Christ come forward one by one laying their hands on their new brother priest as he knelt to receive this gesture in humility.
The word ‘humility’ was repeated through the music, the prayers, the homily and even Fr. Torres’ thank you address at the end of the ordination.
Bishop McGrattan emphasized every priest must possess the gift of the fear of God, a trepidation that they are unworthy to receive this call. “Each priest must respond to their call with confidence and humility inspired by the Spirit of God,” he said.
Sincere, affable, gentle, kind, confident, humble, joyful and a gift to the Church; these are words that the faithful use to describe their newest Calgary diocesan priest. I count myself among the faithful who feel blessed by Fr. Santiago’s “yes” to live for Christ.
A few weeks before the ordination, I had the privilege of sitting down to speak with Father (at that time Deacon) Torres. He chatted with me from his dorm room at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Edmonton via video call. Almost immediately I was reminded of his magnetic personality. We had first met about 13 years ago (summer of 2010) during which time he had just experienced the love of God in a profound life-changing way. By the end of the interview my heart was full of hope for the future of Fr. Santiago’s priestly vocation and for all the ways he will bring glory to God and peace to those he ministers to on Earth.
A chat with Fr. Santiago
The Parable of the Mustard Seed came to mind as I sat down to write and reveal a glimpse of Fr. Santiago Torres’s profound journey of faith: one that began for him as a tiny seed hidden within his mother’s womb.
“When I was conceived my Dad didn’t want anything to do with the pregnancy and so he left my Mom. I never knew who my biological dad was. He pushed [abortion] on her and my mom decided to have me instead – Praise God.”
The 34-year-old priest, born and raised in Bogota, Colombia, considers his mother his primary role model.
“My Mom has always been that solid foundation in my life for security and love – how to give of yourself for others.”
Two days before the ordination, Fr. Santiago’s mother, Maria Cristina Latorre, was busy preparing for the ordination, welcoming her best friend from Germany, her sisters from Colombia, Santiago’s out-of-town seminarian friends and parishioners from his diaconal year in Lethbridge. With emotions running high amidst the hustle and bustle at her house, she stepped away to reflect and answer a few questions about her son.
“I don’t know why Jesus chose me, but I’m here and I’m ready to give back my son to Him,” said Latorre, trying to hold back her tears. “There are too many emotions.
“I ask God why you chose my son?,” she said. “I’m not asking this ‘why’ in a bad way. No, I’m asking why [because] I’m so humbled to be his mom.
“Santiago explained to me ‘Mom, sometimes God, through difficult times, or bad situations, He makes something good from bad,’ which makes sense for me,” she continued.
Growing up in Bogota, Colombia
When Fr. Santiago was two-years-old, his mother married and had twin girls, Ana Maria and Maria Juliana. Then at six-years-old his parents divorced, but the family continued to keep in touch with his sisters’ father, the man who Fr. Santiago considers his earthly father figure.
“It’s incredible how important the love of a father is in a person’s life and yet, even if one hasn’t had that in one’s life, God still wants to give us that love,” said Fr. Santiago. “Looking back on my life in those years that I wasn’t close to Him… even if I didn’t realize He was there, He was always there.”
From early on the seed of faith was planted through Fr. Santiago’s Sacraments of Baptism and First Eucharist, but he was not Confirmed until later as an adult. From an early age watching television soccer matches won out over going to Sunday Mass. Meanwhile, his grandparents played a pivotal role in helping his mother raise Fr. Santiago and his sisters, both practically and spiritually.
Mrs. Latorre remembers those early days of childrearing and how her parents did not approve of all the ways her life had unfolded. Yet, as devout Catholics, they continued to support and love her and her children.
“At this time I was not close to God, I cannot say I was praying, but I can say God was with me all the time. I think He has been by my side all the time,” said Mrs. Latorre, tearfully.
A new beginning in Canada
Mrs. Latorre married Juan Gonzalo Arango when Fr. Santiago was around 14 and then, in 2005 at the age of 16, the family immigrated to Calgary for better opportunities.
“For me it was very difficult,” said Fr. Santiago. “My friends were everything. I had a girlfriend in Colombia at that time as well. We moved in October, which was hard because it was starting to get cold and high school had already started. I only knew enough English to get by.”
Shortly after the move, he began a relationship with a Colombian girl, also newly immigrated to Canada, who, to his astonishment, practiced her Catholic faith.
The seed of faith received some significant watering one day when he was at his girlfriend’s house and the family was on a long-distance phone call with a priest from Colombia. Each person got a chance to speak to this priest, including – to his surprise – Fr. Santiago.
“I was completely dumbfounded because I hadn’t talked to a priest in forever and that was how my conversion began,” said Fr. Santiago “It’s incredible how God works.
“Because I didn’t know him and I knew I wouldn’t see him again ever, I was able to open my heart to him and actually talk about stuff that was going on in my life more than I would talk with my friends or girlfriend.”
Shortly after that his girlfriend invited him to Mass and he began to pray at night again. He sees this period in high school as living a double life – one of renewed faith, yet still steeped in his secular lifestyle. But the seed of faith that had been planted in his childhood began to receive nourishment.
Turning back to God
Two years after graduating high school (summer of 2010) at the age of twenty, Fr. Santiago participated in Impact, an evangelistic mission hosted by Catholic Christian Outreach. It was geared toward bringing lukewarm Catholic university students back into the faith. He took a faith study and attended ‘Summit’, an evening of adoration prayer at St. Bonaventure. It was during this hour of adoration and praise and worship that he gave his adult ‘yes’ to place Jesus at the centre of his life.
“I just remember closing my eyes and feeling so loved,” said Fr. Santiago “It was just incredible. I started crying. It was just an experience of a love I’d never encountered.
“I’d just broken up with my girlfriend, trying to fit into a culture I’d just arrived in, trying to wear a lot of masks to belong. I just felt the love that God was trying to give me, for no other reason than for being who I was.”
His newly sprouted seed of faith continued to grow with good friendships through the former University of Calgary Catholic Community (now St. Xavier Chaplaincy). After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree in 2014, Fr. Santiago worked for a year in his field all the while discerning a call to either explore the priesthood or a budding female friendship.
He received spiritual direction from a number of priests in the diocese and decided to apply for seminary studies.
“I entered [into the seminary] with a lot of reluctance,” said Fr. Santiago. “I just felt I had been on the fence for a long time by then, a lot of wrestling and struggling. But I felt I had tried everything I could to discern outside the seminary, but the one thing I hadn’t done was give the seminary a shot.”
The female friend he wanted to romantically pursue gave him the last push to enter seminary.
“She said, ‘Santi, if you are not God’s will for me, then I don’t want to be with you.’ And that cut me to the heart because it was the opposite of what I was doing. I felt God was calling me to be a priest and I was choosing not to follow His will, but to be with her,” said Fr. Santiago.
The formative seminary years
Fr. Santiago spent his first two seminary years at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, USA where one third of the seminarians were Latino.
“I was able to make really good friends and feel at home,” said Fr. Santiago. “I began to feel this was right, that it was what God wanted me to do. That continued to be the feeling year after year.”
He completed the next six years of training in Edmonton at St. Joseph’s Seminary.
During this time fellow seminarian Serge Buisse became a close friend. They spent a lot of time together, studying, playing sports, confiding in one another.
Fr. Serge was ordained last July for the St. Boniface Archdiocese in Winnipeg. He now pastors the francophone parish of St. Joachim in La Broquerie, Manitoba. He describes Fr. Santiago as down-to-earth, joyfilled, friendly and warm.
“He was always a gift in so far as his desire to grow,” said Fr. Serge “He is very human. I thank God He sent me someone like him; his capacity to be real, to be authentic and we supported each other in almost every aspect of life.”
A note from the Diocese of Calgary:
Thank you to all ministers, volunteers, and staff who helped prepare for the Ordination! Special thanks to St. Mary's Cathedral parish staff, Catholic Women's League & Serra Club Calgary for organizing the reception, St. John Choir Schola, St. Francis Xavier Chaplaincy, Calgary seminarians, photographers Yuan Wang (SFXC) & Victor Panlilio (Canadian Martyr's Parish), livestreamer Rikki Sabater (St. Anthony's Parish) & team, videographers Annie Chirka (St. Peter's Parish) & team.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers