Fr. Astor Rodriguez, CM, has done a 360 in life. He realizes what he has always known: The greatest treasure are the people.
From Brooklyn to Central America to Spain and locations in between, Fr. Astor Rodriguez, CM, has lived, ministered, and studied in a variety of places as a Vincentian. Brooklyn, though, is home, and where he often finds himself returning to serve.
Today, it takes a while for Fr. Rodriguez to walk through the buildings of St. John the Baptist Parish in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. As the pastor, he greets and talks to everyone he encounters. But unless you are like him and are fluent in English, Spanish, and slang-variations of both, you’d have trouble following the conversations.
“As a pastor or just a priest serving in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, you realize that the greatest treasure we have are our people,” Fr. Rodriguez says. “They are so caring and supportive. And they truly help mold you as you minister to them, and as you are ministered by them.”
St. John the Baptist is a diverse parish in a low-income neighborhood that is beginning to see the signs of gentrification, which threatens to dislocate its longtime residents. “The ongoing gentrification of our neighborhood brings good and bad changes to the lives of many who are living in city housing and fixed incomes,” Fr. Rodriguez says. “That affects all concerned, and our parish feels what our people feel. We try to respond as best as we can. Plus, St. John the Baptist has always been a Vincentian parish. The Vincentian charism has been ingrained in the community.”
For the time being, the economic hardships remain, and being a Vincentian Priest working in that neighborhood is exactly where Fr. Rodriguez wants to be.
And, it isn’t far from where he started in life.
Born in Park Slope and raised in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in the mid-1960s, Fr. Rodriguez’s childhood parish, St. Peter, St. Paul, and Our Lady of Pilar, was staffed by Vincentian Priests from the Barcelona Province of Spain. It was through his interaction with these Spanish Vincentians that Fr. Rodriguez discerned his vocation to the priesthood and to religious life.
“I was truly moved by the Vincentians, who were so immersed in the community they served,” he recalls. “Being in our Vincentian parish was like being at home. They were available at all times. They lived in a community and shared their lives. They were also willing to go to wherever needed. That really spoke to my spirit.”
Since he was fifteen years old, Fr. Rodriguez participated in youth retreats run by the Vincentians in Brooklyn, and of those times he remembers: “They [Vincentians] nourished a life in Christ and being there for each other.” At the inauguration of a new extension to a retreat house, the Provincial of the Barcelona Province asked him if he’d like to enter seminary. “The answer just flowed from my heart in thanksgiving. I said ῾yes’ to try out life in the seminary.”
Having decided to pursue his formation through the Barcelona Province, there was one glaring hiccup—he wasn’t fluent in Spanish.
“We’re part Puerto Rican,” he says of his family, “and we spoke some slang Puerto Rican Spanish, but I was not a fluent Spanish speaker. We spoke English at home, at school, and in the streets. I needed to learn Spanish.”
Before pursuing his formation and academic studies in earnest, the Province sent him to the Dominican Republic to learn Spanish and serve in apostolates. Once fluent, he moved to Barcelona and completed his academic and formation requirements. With his family and friends to bear witness, he was ordained in Brooklyn and his first assignment as a newly minted priest was as Parochial Vicar at his childhood parish, which he calls St. Paul’s.
Soon, he returned to Barcelona to pursue an advanced degree in moral theology and assist in the seminary. What seems to be a common theme for Fr. Rodriguez, Brooklyn was calling, and he returned once again to the Cobble Hill neighborhood, this time to be the pastor at St. Paul’s.
Four years later, Fr. Rodriguez was transferred to the community in Alicante, Spain, to serve at a youth retreat house. It was here that he first started being involved in FamVin, a multi-lingual network that unites and supports the many branches of the Vincentian family. He remains involved with FamVin today, currently serving as a translator.
Fr. Rodriguez is fond of saying, “You can be a missionary anywhere.” In this spirit, and with the blessings of his superiors, he decided to transfer from the Province of Barcelona to the Eastern Province of the United States in 2004. During this transition period, he became part of the Philadelphia Hispanic Ministry Team situated at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
His transfer was completed in 2005, and in 2006, he was Brooklyn-bound again, this time to St. John the Baptist Parish, serving as Assistant Pastor for five years.
Fr. Rodriguez is proud that he challenges people to examine their lives, which makes him a natural fit to lead vocations. In 2011, he was assigned to St. John’s University (a Vincentian institution) in Queens, New York, to serve as the Vocation Director and work with men considering religious life.
However, Fr. Rodriguez sees promoting vocations as a lifelong pursuit, and one that doesn’t have to focus solely on promoting consecrated life. “I know how to stir the pot to remind people that God is calling you to something,” he says. “God is calling everyone to something, and that is your vocation.”
He is proud of the men who he mentored who chose to enter formation with the Vincentians, and he is equally proud of those who discerned that religious life was not for them. Many of those men still connect with him about their life decisions. “I hear from them all,” he says. “The guys in formation, the guys who went another way. You form a bond with them when they are discerning their life’s path.”
Returning to St. John the Baptist Parish in 2015 as Pastor, Fr. Rodriguez, the Assistant Pastor, Fr. Steve Cantwell, CM, and his lay staff tend to the pastoral needs of this vibrant parish, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019. The sacramental life is celebrated in both English and Spanish, and the parish has a thrift shop and an emergency food pantry.
Fr. Rodriguez is always looking for ways to best serve the needs of the parishioners. But the important thing for him is quality over quantity. “We can’t do everything for the neighborhood,” Fr. Rodriguez says, “but what we can do, we do well.”