NORTH PALM BEACH | As a boy, Robinson Aza was asked to become a priest. He said no.
As a young adult, he was asked to go through a discernment period about the priesthood. He said, “Sure, why not?” And he’s now a seminarian.
The difference is more than wording, he said during an interview. It was also about giving him space to pray and consider whether he was meant to be a priest.
“A vocation isn’t black or white, right or left,” Aza, 46, said at St. Paul of the Cross Parish in North Palm Beach, where he was serving for several months during his studies at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. “It’s something you have to discover. It’s only by prayer and discernment. The end point is to allow God to speak to us.”
Serving God and Church was never the issue for Aza as a boy in his hometown of Cali, Colombia. His parents brought him, his three sisters and two brothers to Mass at their local church, just a short walk from their house. His father always pitched in whenever the church held a festival or procession, and led the family in prayer.
“Prayer was the best thing he left me with,” Aza said. He would later use it extensively in parish life.
The preteen found himself drawn to parish life. He served at the altar, in the sacristy and with the office staff. He attended youth rallies and praise and worship services. He joined various dedications to various saints, including Mary and Cecilia.
He also admired priests from Boise, Idaho, who were serving in Cali on a mission tour. “Why would they leave comfortable lives to come here?” he remembered thinking. “It was beautiful to give themselves to serve.”
Yet when one of them asked him to consider the priesthood, Aza declined. “I was a teenager. I wanted a job,” he explained. “I wasn’t ready. I wanted to serve at the parish and to grow.”
He became a social worker, lining up housing and recreational opportunities for people. But he continued to take part in parish ministries, drawing the attention of his spiritual director. “I see that you’re always serving in church,” that priest said. “Would you like to go through a discernment period about becoming a priest?”
That time Aza agreed, an assent that launched him on several years of soul searching, then culminated with him entering St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami, followed by St. Vincent de Paul.
At St. Paul of the Cross, Aza assists Father Thomas Lafreniere in a variety of duties: lector, extraordinary minister of holy Communion, religious education, hospital visits and office calls by parishioners. The latter is one of his favorite parts, he said.
“I love to talk with people, and listen and pray with them,” he said. “I find that prayer is the foundation of our spiritual life.”
Aza has even built up a concept of prayer into his philosophy of ministry, complete with a Bible verse: 1 Thessalonians 5:17, in which St. Paul urges believers to “pray without ceasing.”
“It doesn’t mean literal prayer,” he explained. “It means prayer in your actions for your brothers and sisters and for our God. Everything comes from God and goes to God. In the process of life, it includes family, friends and neighbors.”
In his leisure time, he enjoys music of his youth, during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. In movies, he likes comedies as well as classical dramas like “The Passion of the Christ.” And he reads books that “help people find themselves and grow.”
Beyond his immediate ministry, he voices concern for people who claim to be Catholic, yet do little to show it. “They say ‘I love God,’ but they’re living another way. How do they identify with the Church?”
Fortunately, he sees good signs as well. Experiences as simple as walking the oak-shaded campus between the church and the parish office. Sights as basic as smiling faces in the congregation during Mass. Or when parishioners go out of their way to welcome visitors. And, of course, his meetings with people who drop in at the office.
“When I approach people and talk with them, something happens — I feel the presence of God,” Aza said. “I truly believe God has a plan. He shows his presence in many ways. And you can feel it in many places.”
For that reason and others, Aza brushes off talk of sacrificing for the priesthood. He acknowledged that a priest must leave his family and give all of his time to the Church. But he sees that not as a burden but an opportunity.
“It doesn’t make me sad. It gives me joy to respond to the call of God,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sacrifice.”
What of other young men who may wonder if they should take the path to the priesthood? Aza offered two bits of advice: Be yourself, and serve where you are.
“Don’t start by filling out forms and going to seminary,” he said. “Find yourself, the values you have, what you’re going to build. Start to be good to your family and those who are close to you. And be close to God.”
That’s how it worked for him.