Fr. Vives went from engineering student to priest

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When the time came to declare his major, aspiring priest Leopoldo M. Vives - then an 18-year-old college student at the Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid, Spain - didn't go for theology or philosophy. Instead Father Vives, now pastor of Queen of Apostles Church in Alexandria since June 2013, spent six years studying electrical engineering.

"I peacefully accepted that I was not mature enough for the seminary (at that age)," said Father Vives. "High school had not been very demanding for me. University was harder, allowing me to grow, become stronger, experience meaningful relationships and enrich my humanity."

When Father Vives wasn't studying, he met up with the campus Jesuit youth group to help maintain his spiritual life. He says that he never abandoned his vocation, yet continued challenging himself in his engineering studies. He served as a teaching assistant and adjunct professor at the university's School of Technical Industrial Engineering, and, for his capstone project, designed a computer-assisted method of controlling factory production.

While such a task may have little to do with his current endeavors, Father Vives said that studying engineering gave him the tools he needed to solve problems. That included the question of where to enroll in seminary once he graduated. Anguishing over the matter, he alternated between meditating and logically weighing the pros and cons of his various choices.

"Prayer and spiritual direction is not enough," said Father Vives. "In the end, you make the decision."

In the end, he decided to complete his religious formation at the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, a new religious community approved by the bishop of Cuenca, Spain, in 1987. Strongly influenced by the teachings of St. John Paul II, the Disciples prioritize family, stewardship and general excellence in all pursuits. Religious life appealed to Father Vives because of the "possibility of going deeper ... the love of God ... (and) the friendship of Jesus" and the "sense of fraternity."

According to Father Vives, growing up religious and studying engineering before entering the priesthood allows him to understand and argue both sides of a discussion. Rather than focusing on differences, he focuses on the similarities between faith and science, which he believes can and should coexist.

Ordained in 1992, Father Vives took his perpetual vows with the Disciples in 1995, the same year he earned an advanced degree in sacred theology. Thus began his period as an assistant professor and later full professor of systematic theology of marriage and family. He taught at various schools, from the Mater Dei Seminary in Castellón, Spain, to the Catholic University of St. Vicente Martyr in Valencia, Spain.

In 2012, he moved to Littleton, Colo., as part of the Disciples' plan to establish a presence in the New World. There, he served as a parochial vicar at a mostly white, American-born, English-speaking parish. Experiencing the culture shock of being a Spaniard in Middle America, he joked to himself that "everything is different except the sins."

One of the main differences he noted was how much more prominent the devotion to the Virgin Mary is in Spain. He also cited the differences in relationships with parishes.

"Americans hold their parishes very dear. In Spain, you go (to Mass) wherever is convenient," said Father Vives. "How much money Americans give to parishes is touching and incredible."

He also pointed out that American parishes tend to be more sociable and involved in the community through ministry.

"In ministries, you open up room for others to join," he said. "Letting others join the group is a beautiful way to grow."

During his time in Littleton, Father Vives appreciated the natural landscape, marveling at the dramatic sunrise and sunset in the Rocky Mountain area. But when the opportunity to shepherd a flock in Northern Virginia arose, he knew that he had to accept it.

"It was a big change going from parochial vicar to pastor," said Father Vives. "And it's been beautiful (at Queen of Apostles). One of my priorities is to help parishioners understand that I'm not just a priest, I'm a religious priest. People appreciate and support the community."

He added that among the sacrifices the Disciples make is taking a vow of poverty. At Queen of Apostles, that means that the priests share, among other things, a car. But that sacrifice is not a huge one, considering the reward: the chance, once again, to grow.

"Real poverty is the poverty of education and humanity," he said.

His time in the United States has helped him further his education and humanity.

"Many people come to America looking for something better, to broaden their horizons and think bigger," said Father Vives. "I'm one of them. That is why I am here."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015