A blessed journey that began in Brandon
By ERNEST HOOPER
Published July 6, 2007
Monsignor James C. Lara ended his 30-year tenure as pastor of Brandon's Nativity Catholic Church eight years ago, but parishioners still revere the man who helped turn Nativity into one of the area's largest churches.
On Saturday, more than 700 people are expected to attend a special Mass and celebration commemorating Lara's 50th year as a priest. The size of the crowd surprises only those not familiar with the monsignor's firm but warm guidance, or his contributions to the community. Under his leadership, Nativity created its own food pantry, started the popular Novemberfest and initiated an annual mission to La Victoria in the Dominican Republic.
Over lunch at Landry's Seafood in Tampa, I spoke to Lara about his humble beginnings, his affection for Nativity and how he nearly never came to Brandon at all.
Pull up a chair and join us.
Ernest: You received the calling to be a priest at age 10, and enrolled in a minor seminary in Spain in September of 1944. What was that like?
Lara: Spain had been an empire, but things went down, down, down after the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939. By the time I went to the seminary, Spain was very much a Third World country. ... I was lucky because my father had a store, so we never lacked for food. But many young men were very poor and if they wanted to go to the seminary, they needed the backing of somebody wealthy in the town. At the time, the expenses were $300 to $400 a year.
That was a lot back then.
It was a lot, but imagine what we would eat. Lentil with worms. Before you would eat, we had to separate everything because we didn't want to break our teeth. That gives you an idea of how difficult it was for us. We didn't have heating in the rooms or the classrooms or the dormitories. In the winter, the temperature was in the 20s and 30s. We could not take showers because the water was frozen. But those years were great years. They were happy years.
Those were happy years?
I had fun, great times. We continued to grow even though we were deprived of material things. The camaraderie between us and playing soccer and making grades helped.
Of your 60 classmates when you started in the seminary, only 16 were ordained. And only eight of those stayed in the priesthood.What motivated you to stay in?
I think God has a lot to do with that. His grace is very powerful. He calls you and instills in you that desire. I never dated girls or anything like that. The average age of a priest today is 35. That means they have had careers, they have been with girls and they have known more life. ... In Spain when I was ordained at the age of 23, I was so young I couldn't be ordained with the rest of my class. I needed special permission to be ordained at that age.
After coming to the United States to serve, you ended up at Blessed Sacrament near East Tampa. How did you come to Nativity?
I said to the bishop "give me another challenge, " so he wanted me to start a new parish in Holiday, but the average age there was 75. My gosh, I thought, that's not for me. I knew that Brandon was going to have an explosion. ... I asked him for Brandon and he gave it to me. That was the beginning of 30 years of tremendous opportunity.
You've been retired for eight years, but you still hold a special place in the hearts of Nativity members. Why is that?
It's because I empowered the people. I was raised to understand the role of the laity in the church. I was very young when the Second Vatican Council took place. That, for me, was a revelation. Pope John XXIII said it's like opening the windows for fresh air. I was young so I could assimilate all the changes. ... I knew we had to get away from the whole concept that the priest and the nuns run the whole parish. That is one reason I was popular.
Do you feel like the Catholic Church as a whole is in good shape?
The Catholic Church has gone through a period of crisis, as you know, with pedophilia. Thank God it's getting out of it. I think the most serious problem is the lack of priests in the Third World. ... I think the church has to deal with that situation.
What do you tell young men interested in joining the priesthood?
I tell them it's a job in which you will never get bored. ... You are a counselor, you are a priest, you are an administrator, you are a healer. ... The only inconvenience is that today young men don't want to become priests because they want to get married. ... But, again, it's through the grace of God you have balance in your life. I don't have a wife, but I have so many families that I can go to. ... That keeps you going.
Do you think we'll ever get to a point where the Catholic Church will allow married priests?
The church had married priests for 1, 200 years, 12 centuries. Celibacy is not a matter of doctrine, it's church law. Jesus chose his apostles, and they were married. Jesus never said you should be celibate. That is one of the topics we have to address. Also, the role of women in the church is another issue they should take into consideration.
Dessert: A postscript from Ernest
One of the more exciting aspects of Saturday's celebration for Monsignor Lara is the attendance of his brother and sister, who have come from Spain with their spouses.
Although Lara, 73, is retired and lives in Clearwater, he still spends 20 to 25 hours a week serving the church.
He occasionally helps in Brandon, and also has a Spanish ministry at St. Luke in Palm Harbor. Lara says, "You work, you play golf, you eat and your social life is a little more opened."
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 226-3406.
If you go
What: 50th anniversary Mass for Monsignor James C. Lara reception immediately following
Where: Nativity Catholic Church, Brandon
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.