Photo: Felix Carroll

Br. James Cervantes: What God Has Taken, What He Has Given

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James Cervantes was praying one day in October 1999. But on this day — unlike all his prayers of the previous five years — he didn't focus on healing for his brother Jerry. It had become clear his 20-year-old brother would soon die.

James' prayers took a different tone.

"OK, Lord," he said, "whether my brother dies or he lives, I give my life entirely to You."

He hadn't planned on that prayer. It just came out that way. It startled him.

James is now "Brother James." He made what is known as "perpetual vows" with the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception on Monday, May 31, at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass. By making perpetual vows, he has committed himself to God through a life with the Marian Congregation. The vows constitute a permanent promise made public.

+ + + View a photo gallery of the vows ceremony. + + +

For Br. James, the weight-bearing load of his religious vocation is upheld by brotherhood — his life as a religious brother growing closer to Christ, his life with his fellow Marians, all of whom shape each other "like rocks in a tumbler," he says, and his life with his blood brother, Jerry, whose birth he beseeched and whose death he prayed to forestall.

A Birthday Gift
James was 5-years old, and had just started kindergarten. After school he noticed a classmate going home with an older brother.

"I thought, 'Wow, that's so cool. He gets to go home and go play basketball or baseball and games with his brother.' That's like a forever friend," he recalls. Without hesitation, he asked his mom if he could have a brother.

"I want someone to play with at home," he told her. "I don't have anyone here."

The following year, on May 29, the day after James' birthday, he got the gift he wanted: a brother.

Well, his brother wasn't quite what James had in mind. Not yet learned in the biological tenets of procreation, James had hoped he'd get an older brother.

"Wait, he's so small," he thought. "He can't play. He doesn't do anything!"

As soon as his brother gained hand-eye coordination, James was teaching him to throw a ball and even play chess. "I had someone to play with," Br. James says. "He was my best friend. It was so much fun."

A Return to the Faith
At the age of 15, Jerry was diagnosed with cancer. His illness prompted James' parents, Oscar and Yolanda, immigrants from the Philippines, to pray the Rosary, to pray the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, to pray intensely for Jerry's healing. James, hitherto unpracticed in prayer, joined them. Prayer was the only thing he could do, so he did it, out of love for his brother, and out of desperation.

Jerry died in October 1999.

Some people might be inclined to get up off their knees for good. After all, God didn't seem to answer all those prayers. But for James, 26 years old at the time, his conversion had begun.

A Clear Choice
"I accepted his death as God's will," he says. "And then I just felt a hunger to know God more."

A few months later, James quit his job as a computer programmer. He felt a calling to the religious life. He was advised to pray on it more. So he did. He was invited to teach CCD at his parish in Rowland Heights, Calif. Through teaching, he delved more deeply into the Catholic faith. Just to confuse things, he met a girl. They dated. They loved each other. The choice soon became clear: Either propose to her or answer the Lord's calling to the religious life.

Providentially, during a trip to northern California to visit his grandmother, James attended Mass and met Fr. Donald Calloway, MIC, the Marians' vocations director whose conversion story has inspired many vocations. Father Calloway was in town to give a talk. James wondered that day if God was calling him to the Marians.

Two weeks later, he received a sign in the affirmative. Not knowing that James had met Fr. Donald, one of the Confirmation teachers James worked with handed him a DVD. It was Fr. Donald's powerful conversion story.

"I watched it and thought, 'Wow, this guy's amazing."

He knew God was leading him to the Marians. That was further confirmed when he learned he was one of three men from the same part of California, all of whom were inspired in their vocations by the work of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary who run a parish in Hawaiian Gardens, a gangland section outside of Los Angeles.

One of the men, now-Brother Angelo Casimiro, MIC, also came from a Filipino heritage. The other, now-Deacon Michael Gaitley, MIC, James had met in Boston when James had first considered joining the Oblates.

All three joined the Marians for similar reasons — they were responding to their love for The Divine Mercy message and devotion and their love for Mary Immaculate, two charisms of the Marians.

"Three guys associated with the same parish — this was amazing," said Br. James. "I don't know what the chances are of that."

James joined the Marians in 2005.

Now Come More Tests
It's been a whirlwind since then, particularly these last few weeks. In May he completed — and passed — his comprehensive exams, which mark the completion of three years of theology. The exams were written and oral — and stressful.

"I had to really rely on God's grace," he says. "It just comes down to trust. Just a total surrendering to God."

This week, new "tests" begin. Brother James flies off to the Philippines to serve in the Marians' new Filipino mission. He'll complete his last year of theology there and serve with his fellow Marians at Divine Mercy Hills, in Mindanao.

His assignment in the Philippines fulfills a desire that has tugged at his heart ever since he served pilgrims at the National Shrine's annual Filipino Day a few years back.

"That day was the moment when God put in my heart the desire to learn more about the Philippine culture," he said. "I felt a love for my Philippine identity. I love the people. I love being part of them."

The plan is for him to be ordained to the diaconate in the fall and ordained to the priesthood at his home parish in California.

The Brotherhood
This spring marks a dispersion of many of the Marian brothers who joined the community around the same period, in the mid-2000s.

The day of his final vows was bittersweet: He is excited for a future serving Christ and His Church, and he is sad to leave his brothers — the men whom Mary Immaculate gathered together, the men who have contributed so much to each other's formation and development and holiness.

They are his forever friends.

"God took away my brother," Br. James says, "but then He provided me with even more brothers than I could ever imagine."

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Be a part of the discussion. Add a comment now!

Liza - Jul 23, 2010

I lost my 26 yrs old son on April 22, 2010. It was a sudden death.I have so much pains and wondering why!!!I have faith in God and Mother Mary and prays for my family`s benefit but why!!!
Now I`m trying to accept the will of God..
Hopefully with prayers my son is in Heaven with the Lord and Mother Mary..
Pls also pray for the soul of my son..
Ur story is an inspiration to me.

Marisa June 14, 2010 - Jun 14, 2010

Br. James
A beautiful and touching story. May God bless you always through your journey in the priesthood.

God - Jun 12, 2010

Thanks for surrendering - you understand what it means to love, and what that means to me. Im here for you, Bro.

Anthonia - Jun 11, 2010

It pays to serve God Iam happy you took to serving him may your brother's soul rest in peace.

Arleen Black - Jun 11, 2010

May God Bless you and thank you for your story. It shows God's great love for all of us.

Christine - Jun 11, 2010

Thank you for sharing your story, and for giving us hope in the Lord's amazing grace!

Br. James Cervantes - Jun 10, 2010

Dear Br. James - I am so encouraged by your story. Thanks for sharing. I read that your parish is in Rowland Hts. Could it be St. Elizabeth Ann Seton? I was married there - and by God's grace am still married to the same man. Br. James I would like to ask your help in promoting the Living Rosary Pilgrimage in wherever you may be assigned. I have an affinity to you because I too am a Filipino. I will tell you my story later. But for now perhaps in the near future, may I ask you to consider this as part of your journey, being a Filipino.

Thanks once again for sharing your story. You are in my prayers. - Jane Sonoda.

David Martinez - Jun 9, 2010

Dear Br. James,
You have a special name for me: my son is named Santiago (St. James).
Your story scares me. I am divorced. 3 years ago, while praying and asking what I should do, I felt letters written in silver on my chest. They said "I want all of you." What does that mean? Thank you for your story.

Br. James - Jun 9, 2010

I was touched to your story I was in the Phil last week and I could see how Filipinos love our Blessed Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ. They recite Divine Mercy every 3:00pm and I was amazed. May God Bless you to your new vocation and I will pray for you.

Cecilia Ramirez - Jun 9, 2010

James, May God richly bless you as you walk this new journey. Please pray for me and my family!

Cecilia Ramirez - Jun 9, 2010

James, your story touched my heart deeply. It actually made me weep remembering my late husband. He was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007 and died in 2008. He was so brave, he never complained or blame God for his illness. He was a devout Catholic man who prayed for healing, yet understood if not in God's divine plan for him, he would accept it. His death brought me closer to the Lord, too. The Lord took our loved one, but He gave us more than we could ever imagined! I am filled with God's peace, love, and mercy!

farah - Jun 8, 2010

God bless you James, your story touched me, my son is going through alot of difficulties since he lost his older sister less than 2 years ago, through her illness we were so touched with the divine mercey messages,he has faith and he loves jesus, he prayed to have another sibling, but he started to get festurated as the time is passing by and cant see a response, I have difficulties in my pregnancies,when Iread your story it confirmed to me that he'll hear an answer one day,Itrust Jesus in my life.I love the philipino comunity faith, May the lord Jesus Christ bring his blessings,peace and mercy through you every were you serve,pray for us

John Nahrgnag - Jun 5, 2010

Congratulations, James! May God abundantly bless you as you embark on this new adventure. You will remain in our prayers!

Vi - Jun 5, 2010

As I read your article, I felt prompted to pray for the gift of joy for you and that you get to know the Lord Jesus intimately and fall so in love with our Lord that this love will spill out of you in a constant stream of joy to refresh those who come in contact with you.

Allie - Jun 4, 2010

Your example of praying and then following where the Holy Spirt led you is so powerful. Thank you for your committment and most of all your prayers.

fr. donald calloway, mic - Jun 3, 2010

Your a good man, Br. James. So glad Jesus and Mary brought you to the Marians. On my way to Brazil in an airport writing from my phone so hope u get it.
Fr. Don

Br. Angelo Casimiro, MIC - Jun 3, 2010

Thank you, Felix, and also thanks to Dan for writing these awesome articles on Br. James' final vows. Since the time Br. James and I entered the Marians five years ago, he has become like a blood brother to me. He's been a rock of support for me, especially through difficult times like the death of my mom from cancer this past year. Thank you again, Br. James, for your friendship and brotherhood. I will miss you, more than words can say, but I know that somehow we will always be connected. With fraternal love, Br. Angelo