ROCKAWAY BEACH — Father James Rodriguez visited Paris when he was 15 years old and found that spending time in the City of Light helped him see the light.
God planted a seed in him during that trip, and it eventually led him to answer the call to the priesthood. It wasn’t a sightseeing trip. In 1997, James Rodriguez attended World Youth Day in Paris.
Within a decade, he enrolled in a seminary and was ordained in the Diocese of Brooklyn in 2008.
While there are no hard numbers to prove it, World Youth Day, an international gathering of young Catholics which will take place this year in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1-6, has proven to inspire vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Father Rodriguez, now the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Rockaway Beach, said he believes that the Paris visit “helped propel me” in the right direction.
Pope John Paul II established World Youth Day in 1985, and the first gathering took place in Rome the following year. Since then, it has taken place every two to three years, with hundreds of thousands of young people gathering in places like Buenos Aires, Denver, Toronto, Sydney, Madrid, and most recently, Panama City in 2019.
Father Rodriguez was a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jackson Heights in 1997 when the church organized a contingent to go to Paris that year.
Luckily, he was studying French at his high school, Holy Cross, and had a familiarity with the language.
The thing he remembers most is the night of Eucharistic Adoration, an all-night vigil at Longchamp Racecourse that preceded the Mass the following day celebrated by Pope John Paul II.
“To be with kids from all over the world was amazing. You just felt the excitement,” he recalled. “I remember looking at all of the flags from all the different countries and thinking about how unifying World Youth Day was. It made me think about how universal the Catholic Church is.”
The Mass was a defining experience and a real spiritual journey for him.
“To see the pope was incredible,” he said. “I really felt like something was changing inside me.”
Sightseeing wasn’t the focus of the trip, but young James and his companions still managed to see some tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower.
While he didn’t decide during World Youth Day that he would enter the priesthood one day, Father Rodriguez said the experience set him on a path.
When he arrived back in Queens, he started becoming more involved at Blessed Sacrament Church. The parish formed a youth group that met weekly to organize community service projects like cleaning graffiti.
“We did a Passion play. I was Jesus,” he recalled. “The Lord was definitely working on me.”
Two years after his memorable journey to World Youth Day, he graduated from Holy Cross High School in 1999. He attended New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s in philosophy, graduating in 2003.
By that point in his life, he knew for sure that God was calling him to the priesthood. He entered the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York, and was ordained in 2008.