WASHINGTON, D.C. — For Deacon Elmer Herrera-Guzman, painting is an act of prayer.
On his easel, a peacock bursts into color. It fans out its feathers in bold green and blue strokes.
Herrera-Guzman points to a completed piece, a pelican with a white pelican chick nested at its feet.
Pelicans are ancient symbols of martyrdom, he explained, since it was thought that pelicans pecked their chests to feed their own blood to their young. Christians later connected the analogy to Christ’s sacrifice.
A transitional deacon for the Diocese of Dallas, Deacon Herrera-Guzman is in his final year of studies at Theological College in Washington where he is completing a master’s in divinity and bachelor of sacred theology. In 2011, when he first entered Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving, Texas, his spiritual director encouraged him to incorporate his artwork into his prayer life.
“I get distracted during prayer easily,” he admitted, but “to be able to sit down and pray for hours and use my skills, the gift that God has given me, the talent, really helps out my prayer because I am focused.”
The 30-year-old is working on a series of animals with Christian motifs, inspired by his sacraments of initiation class where he learned that a rooster signifies a “Christian preaching the Gospel before the dawn, before the coming of Christ.”
“I thought, what a revelation!” Herrera-Guzman told Catholic News Service.
He hopes to spur others to preach through art. “My plan one day is take (the art) around Catholic schools and make contests for the kids to also do their research the way I do, and come up with a painting or drawing,” he said. “That will be using what God has given me to teach the Gospel.”
For now, he has encouraged his local community to showcase their artistic skills. Herrera-Guzman founded an annual art exhibit at Theological College, which seminarians and local religious orders participate in and feature their work. February’s exhibit, called “Epiphanies of Beauty,” celebrated the 20th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists,” he said.
Building up others and preaching is a family trait. In El Salvador, where Herrera-Guzman was born, his father began a radio station in his town, Santa Rosa de Lima, to give faith-filled sermons and talks.
His grandfather acted as a kind of delegate for the church, traveling to the areas where the priest couldn’t often visit. “Like the arms of the priest where he can’t go,” his grandfather would go, visiting people, taking Communion, he said.
“I saw the priesthood in my grandfather. Everyone called him ‘Papa Yaco,'” an endearing title for his name, Ciriaco, Herrera-Guzman explained. “So I thought everyone was related to me because everyone called him Papa Yaco. It was later that I found out that he wasn’t everyone’s father,” he said, laughing.
“But that left a great impression,” he added. “He was part of the life of the community.”
At 12, Herrera-Guzman moved to Dallas with his mother and sister, joining his father who had previously immigrated to the United States. The transition to a new country and learning a new language was tough, he said.
After graduating high school, he worked as an operations manager for an insurance company and began teaching religious education and assisting with the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at his parish. “I was basically teaching at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and then another class at 11 a.m. and then I was going to the youth group at 3:00 p.m. and then going to Mass in the evenings. And I was exhausted,” he said.
But “here’s the link to my vocation,” he said. “The exhaustion that I felt Monday through Saturday working a day-to-day job, and the exhaustion that I felt working at church Sunday” were different. “One was fulfilling.”
Today, he continues to find fulfillment in his pastoral work. He is assigned to St. Matthew’s Cathedral where he guides the Bible study group, “Sacred Page,” on Wednesdays and assists at Sunday Mass.
When asked what he’s most looking forward to after ordination, Herrera-Guzman said simply, “Service.”
In a parish, “every day is a new day because you don’t know what’s going to happen. Just having that expectation is exciting for me. Some people might not like it, but I thrive in it.”
“Vocations are really an adventure. You’re being invited into an adventure,” he said.
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