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From humble roots in El Salvador, new Bishop Evelio Menjivar believes ‘faith is a path where God sets the pace’

Bishop-elect Evelio Menjivar-Ayala gives Communion to a young man during a Jan. 29, 2023 Mass at St. Mary’s Parish in Landover Hills, Maryland, where he has served as the pastor since 2017. On Feb. 21, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

(This article originally appeared in the newspaper and on the website of El Pregonero, the Spanish language newspaper of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. The article was translated into English by the author, Andrea Acosta, an award-winning reporter for El Pregonero.) 

 In 1990, Evelio Menjivar arrived as an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, to cross the border into the United States with a change of clothes in his backpack and many dreams. 

On Dec. 19, 2022, Pope Francis named Father Evelio Menjivar-Ayala, the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Landover Hills, Maryland, as one of two new auxiliary bishops of Washington, along with a fellow priest from that archdiocese, Msgr. Juan R. Esposito-Garcia, who in recent years has served as an official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops. 

The two new auxiliary bishops for Washington were ordained by Cardinal Wilton Gregory during a Feb. 21 Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Bishop Menjivar is believed to be the first bishop for the United States who was born in El Salvador, and Bishop Esposito is believed to be the first native of Argentina to be named a bishop in the United States.

In an interview after his appointment, Bishop Menjivar, who is 52, said, “I am happy. It is a recognition of the growth of the vibrant Hispanic communities.”

The Salvadoran native, who is also believed to be the first Central American bishop serving in the United States, said he never dreamed of or expected his new role. Now he will face new responsibilities and challenges in a Church enlarged by a growing faith community of Hispanic origin.

Bishop Menjivar believes that "it is necessary to continue strengthening the good things that have been done so far,” and he believes it is necessary to continue supporting the formation of parish leaders, since they are the true agents of evangelization in their communities.  

“Well-formed lay people can evangelize – especially with the witness of life – in sectors where priests cannot reach: in the workplace, schools, public universities and political environments,” he said.  

 In his approach to Hispanic ministry, the prelate believes it is necessary to maintain a ministry of closeness and tenderness. “People expect us to be a church that is close, that welcomes, that listens, that heals, that nourishes," said the new bishop. 

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar-Ayala (Photo from The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington by Paul Fetters)

Living by his motto

For his episcopal motto, Bishop Menjivar chose a phrase form the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 24, verse 15, “He walked with them.” (“Ibat cum illis.”) 

It is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were doubtful after the resurrection of Christ, and Jesus himself walked with them and explained the Scriptures to them. They did not recognize him, but they invited him to supper with insistence and said to this stranger, “Stay with us.” As he broke bread, those present opened their eyes and recognized Jesus. 

Bishop Menjivar noted, “Faith is precisely that: walking together. Jesus comes to walk with us, he joins the way of the hopeless. In that walk, we discover hospitality.”

The new bishop said the history of the Church is precisely a history of hospitality. He added that people can see that hospitality in the Eucharist at Mass and in the conviviality of a parish potluck supper.

“For the Hispanic community it is a feast, a sharing, a walking together. And then, the people take the time to recognize each other and share joys and sorrows,” he said.

Bishop Menjivar emphasized that Jesus himself is present in these meetings. “This is the experience of faith that transforms lives; it is communitarian and Christian,” he said.

The episcopal motto that he chose represents his faith experience, Bishop Menjivar said, and he is committed to be faithful to it. 

“The new bishop is going to walk with the people, listen to them, accompany them in their joys, sorrows, hopes and anxieties,” he said, adding that he is convinced that this is the work of every bishop, priest, deacon or committed layperson. 

That, said Bishop Menjivar, is precisely what Pope Francis is asking for, a synodal Church where people listen to each other without judging, creating empathy, making the other's feelings their own and thus creating communion. 

He believes that his appointment “is a recognition by the Holy Father of the ministerial work done in the community in the parishes where I have served.”

He served as a deacon at St. Catherine Laboure in 2003, and after his ordination as a priest of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington in 2004, he served as a parochial vicar at Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, Maryland, as a parochial vicar at St. Bartholomew Parish in Bethesda, and as a parochial vicar at St. Matthew's Cathedral. He then served for four years as the pastor at Our Lady Queen of the Americas Parish in Washington, and since 2017 as the pastor at St. Mary’s Parish in  Landover Hills, Maryland.

Walking with humility

Evelio Menjivar was born in a humble home in 1970 in Chalatenango, El Salvador, a rural area inhabited by peasants. His parents, Catalina and Cándido Menjívar, were farmers in the countryside. The new bishop is known for his humility, and some parishioners have encouraged him not to forget his origin, even though he will now wear a bishop’s ring and vestments and carry a shepherd’s staff.

Bishop Menjivar is the fifth of seven children. He lost a sister in childbirth and lost his father seven years ago. His mother still works the land.

“She is a woman of faith, a peasant, (she is) strong and continues to find strength and joy in cultivating the land,” he said. “From her I have learned to love the countryside (and) nature, and to understand that everything created is sacred because it comes from the hands of God.”

The new bishop praises that simple life, which he said is full of love. He recalled that simplicity and the blessing of having a united family that made them happy. 

“Although we did not have everything, we had the essentials for true happiness, that is, faith in God and family," he said. 

When little Evelio was 7 years old, the armed conflict broke out in El Salvador. From that time, he recalls that “the communities were abandoned, as people fled, leaving everything behind.”

So his family decided to escape from the conflict zone where they lived and move to another area in search of safety. He recalled that as they escaped, soldiers were shooting at them. "It was a moment when I felt the presence of God that saved my life," he confessed. 

As a child, he was shocked when his 13-year-old cousin was killed.  

Growing up in the countryside, it was not easy to advance in school. It was not until he was 13 years old that he was able to enter third grade and begin formal education. 

In that new environment, he became active in the Church, joining a youth group and serving as a catechist. When the youth group re-enacted the Stations of the Cross during Lent, he portrayed Christ.

Following a dream

A few years later when he was an older teen-ager, Evelio Menjivar decided to embark on the odyssey of crossing the border undocumented to join a sister living in the United States, and he was accompanied by one of his brothers. “It’s difficult to leave family behind, but it’s part of making one’s way," he said. “I had to leave because of a lack of economic opportunities. You realize that your dreams can’t come true in your country. So, you jump into the unknown with fear, and you are simply motivated by a dream.” 

He made three attempts to start a new life in the United States. On the first trip, he ended up deported from Mexico to Guatemala. A year later he made the second trip, but the coyote guiding the departing migrants decided to return from Guatemala to El Salvador. In the third attempt, he was imprisoned for two days in Mexico, and when he left he immediately continued his journey through the desert. 

The bishop said he knows very well that “the immigrant brings very little,” because he has experienced it firsthand. Remembering that journey, he described bringing “a backpack with only one change of clothes, but it was full of dreams, of illusions that sometimes we do not understand. That dream is a light that guides you and, although you don't understand the plan, you launch yourself with confidence in God.”

Along the way, he prayed for protection, relying on his mother's prayers and the intercession of the Virgin Mary. His mother lit candles for her son when he left home and continued to light them. 

And Evelio Menjivar eventually succeeded in making it to the United States. In 1990 he arrived in Los Angeles and worked as a receptionist for a law firm, then in maintenance and construction. He suffered the anxiety of looking for a job without papers, and in 1992 he arrived in the Washington metropolitan area in search of work opportunities. He worked as a janitor in a commercial store and then as a painter for three years. 

“Those experiences bring back good memories. I just enjoy everything I do,” he said. 

As a newly arrived immigrant, he took the step of studying English and finishing high school to earn a GED diploma. 

The worst part, he said, was missing his homeland and his family, whom he was unable to see for seven years due to his immigration status. 

Answering the call to become a priest

Despite his feeling a continuous restlessness and an ongoing interest in becoming a priest, that path did not materialize for awhile. The new bishop explained that after all, “God is the master of time and destiny.”

As a young man and as an immigrant, he always sought refuge in the Catholic Church, which he said he saw as “a place of encounter and sharing.”

He first felt the call to priesthood as a teenager in the parish of Christ the King in El Paraíso, in his homeland, under the guidance of the Bethlehemite women religious. 

Later, he felt the call again while participating in a prayer group at a parish in Los Angeles. 

The third time Evelio Menjivar felt the call to priesthood unfolded in Maryland in 1994. He recalls that he missed an appointment with the pastor at St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring because he could not find the rectory, so Father Julio Alvarez-Garcia from St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Hyattsville encouraged him to participate in a gathering with young Hispanic Catholics. Then his journey of vocational discernment began after he shared his interest in the priesthood with Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington who is now deceased, and with then-Washington Auxiliary Bishop Alvaro Corrada, who is now retired, and with Msgr. Mark Brennan, then the archdiocesan priestly vocations director who now serves as the bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.

Participation in parish life in El Salvador had a strong impact on him, he said, but he added that it is “at home where you learn to pray, acquire and live values.” The new bishop said he recognizes that what he learned at home accompanied him on the border and in the seminary. 

 The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington sent him to St. John Vianney Seminary in Miami in 1995. For four years he improved his English and studied philosophy and theology. 

He then studied at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome for another four years. He was ordained as a deacon in 2002 and as a priest in 2004, beginning a path of accompanying the Hispanic community in five different parishes while serving those entire parish communities, which he said he will continue to do as a bishop.  

“I will keep in mind not to forget my roots, to continue walking with the poor, humble and immigrants. I am at the service of the entire archdiocese, not just Hispanics, (and) willing to work with other ethnic communities,” he said. 

Explaining that a priest grows with the support he finds, and that parish communities grow when they have a priest who is visionary, active and committed, Bishop Menjivar said that priests in turn grow to the extent that they allow themselves to be challenged by the opportunities at hand.  

This is what Bishop Menjivar said he has experienced in the communities that he has served. “For me, everything is a journey, in which God sets the pace,” he said.

Family members pray during a Jan. 29 Spanish-language Mass celebrated at St. Mary’s Parish in Landover Hills by Bishop-elect Evelio Menjivar-Ayala, the parish’s pastor who was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Washington on Feb. 21. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

The COVID-19 pandemic was a great challenge for him as a priest, but he said it was also an opportunity.

He said that during the height of the pandemic, it was sad to close St. Mary’s School to in-person learning and to close St. Mary’s Church to in-person worship.

“It was sad to close the school and the church. I cried with the children then. In the midst of people’s fear, the temple was closed, but the church was thrown into the parking lot,” he explained. 

Members of St. Mary’s Parish then rallied to serve fellow parishioners, neighbors and community members, handing out 1,600 food boxes every weekend. “We had a great team of volunteers and the sense of community became stronger,” said the bishop, who during that time continued to visit sick parishioners in their homes. 

A man prays during a Jan. 29 Spanish-language Mass celebrated at St. Mary’s Parish in Landover Hills by Bishop-elect Evelio Menjivar-Ayala, the parish’s pastor who was ordained as an auxiliary bishop of Washington on Feb. 21. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Bishop Menjivar said that as COVID-19 cases have decreased after widespread vaccinations, drug abuse has become a new pandemic affecting young people. In recent months, he officiated at a funeral Mass for a 16-year-old boy and another funeral for a 15-year-old girl. 

“Young people are locked up, distanced, not sharing with others, suffering from depression and anxiety as a result of the pandemic,” he said, noting that many young people are now dependent on cell phones and social media in a way that affects mental health. 

 As a bishop, he wants to remain connected to the people and their needs, mindful of the sense of responsibility and faithful to that charge Pope Francis has given him. 

 “Our archdiocese is rich, diverse, with many committed priests who serve the ministry with integrity,” Bishop Menjivar said. 

Following his episcopal ordination at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Bishop Menjivar will wear a pectoral cross as a symbol of his consecration to Christ and an episcopal ring as a sign of the love and fidelity that unites him with Christ and his Church. As a bishop, he will wear a miter as a sign of his authority in the Church, and carry a crosier that symbolizes that he is to emulate Christ as a shepherd to the flock he is serving. 

Bishop-elect Evelio Menjivar-Ayala celebrates a Jan. 29, 2023 Mass at St. Mary’s Parish in Landover Hills, Maryland, where he has served as the pastor since 2017. On Feb. 21, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

And central to Bishop Menjivar’s ministry will be living out his motto, “He walked with them,” as he accompanies the people he serves, including migrants who arrive with nothing, as he once did, while also as a bishop accompanying people from all walks of life, backgrounds and circumstances, helping to lead them to Christ who continues to guide his journey.