Sarah Wolf/Catholic SentinelLocal men and women gather at St. Patrick Church in Portland for Quest, a ministry program run by the St. John Society.

Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel
Local men and women gather at St. Patrick Church in Portland for Quest, a ministry program run by the St. John Society.

Jessie Sanchez sits in the parish office at St. Patrick Church with her six-month-old son. She is the administrative assistant here. She grew up in Vancouver and lives there now but commutes to the parish for work.

Just three years ago, Sanchez didn’t go to church regularly. She was raised in a traditional Mexican Catholic family but saw religion as an obligation.

Three years ago, Sanchez accompanied her husband on a retreat with St. Anne Parish in Gresham. The retreat and subsequent course, San Juan Diego, was geared toward Hispanics in the area. It is one of the formation programs run by the St. John Society.

This one retreat changed Sanchez’s young life. The 30 year-old woman found a relationship with God that she had never had.

“San Juan Diego introduced me to Christ in a way that no one had ever done before,” she says.

Sanchez says that the retreat gave her a whole new perspective on life. She compares it to getting a new pair of glasses.

“My life is still the same, but I see things differently,” she says. “It’s amazing.”

This is a success story for the St. John Society. The society was founded in Argentina in 2001 to bring fallen away Catholics back to the church. This devotion to reaching people and participating in the new evangelization takes up a majority of the work for the society priests. Fulfilling this role for the church has been their motivation from the start.

In the early 1990s, a group of college friends were serving as missionaries in Buenos Aires. The students would go to the poorer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to host spiritual activities. Among them was a 20-year-old Lucas Laborde and a 23-year-old Iván Pertiné. As the men began discussing whether or not they were being called to the priesthood, they knew that they wanted to continue their ministry work and stick together. So, with the help of their chaplain Father Pablo Dumas, they discerned that God was calling them to form a society focused on evangelization.

They approached a bishop in rural Argentina who agreed to consider approving the formation of a new society. The bishop said he would pray on the subject to see if the call was coming from God. But the men had to take the risk of becoming archdiocesan priests first. They did. Pertiné was the first of his peers to enter the seminary and the society was approved upon his ordination.

“We didn’t really understand what we were getting ourselves into,” says Father Pertiné who now is director for the St. John Society. Father Pertiné also directs the Newman Centers at Oregon State University and Portland State University.

In the 16 years since he was ordained, he’s never looked back.

“I never had a doubt,” says Father Pertiné, who adds that the fledgling group faced struggles but no one doubted that forming the society was God’s plan.

After seeing new vocations, the society was able to expand. When facing the decision of whether to accept an invitation to expand to the Archdiocese of Portland or to stay in Argentina, they took the opportunity to expand into Oregon. In 2004, Archbishop John Vlazny invited the St. John Society to open up a permanent house in the archdiocese.

Since then, they have come to run the two Newman Centers and the parishes of St. Mary in Corvallis and St. Patrick in Portland.

“The work that they’ve done in the Newman Society, we’re unbelievably grateful for that,” says Deacon Brian Diehm, director of diaconate life for the Archdiocese of Portland. Deacon Diehm is assigned as the permanent deacon for St. Rose of Lima Parish in Portland. He says the society has given young people a place where they feel welcome.

“They are filled with zeal. They’re alive. They’re on fire for God,” Deacon Diehm says.

“They teach what the church teaches and make no apologies for that,” he adds.

The St. John Society challenges Catholics to grow spiritually. But the challenge is not meant to be a rule or imposition but rather to fuel an inner desire to seek God, says Father Ignacio Llorente, pastor at St. Mary Parish in Corvallis.

“We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of spiritual growth,” says Father Llorente.

The society showcases the positive and beautiful aspects of the church, he says.

Through their preaching and formation programs like Fragua for college students, San Juan Diego and Quest, the society has reached hundreds of Catholics in Oregon.

“There is a level of change that only God’s grace can bring,” says Father Laborde, pastor at St. Patrick. “That change, in our experience, takes place when a person encounters Christ and starts to follow him. That encounter is the most powerful game changer there is.”

“I’m very convinced that God called us to this ministry,” says Father Laborde.

The society now has 15 priests and operates in Argentina, Oregon, Uruguay and Italy.