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FINALIST

Father Omar Soto Torres

Diocese of Ponce, Puerto Rico

See how this young pastor is bringing renewed energy to a hurricane-damaged Puerto Rican town

In the small, rural town of Salinas, Puerto Rico, more than half the population lives below the poverty level, with a median household income of just $16,000. On top of this, residents are still recovering from the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In the poorest area of the town, not far from the oceanside where the storms first crashed in, sits a simple white church called “Parroquia Sagrado Corazón de Jesus,” or Sacred Heart of Jesus parish.

Inside, and, often, around the town, people will find Father Omar Soto Torres, a young priest with a big smile, relentless energy, and passion for inspiring faith in everyone he meets.

He has served as the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus for just a couple of years; he began only a month after Hurricane Maria, when the town was still in great need of supplies and help.

When Father Omar arrived, he did not know anyone in Salinas, but knew the community was in peril. More than half of the residents suffered significant damage to their homes.

Parishioners, in the midst of their own struggles in the aftermath, welcomed Father Omar and helped him as he worked to mobilize the community to come together and distribute food, water, and first aid.

The church served as a distribution center and resource for the entire community.

They also brought help to outside parishes and towns, including Utuado, Naranjito, Jayuya, Vieques, and Juana Diaz.

“Father Omar was able to bring hope to that bereaved community, working with this team, delivering humanitarian aid for almost a year,” said Rev. Carlos A. Collazo Santiago, vicar for social ministry in the Diocese of Ponce. “He has not stopped working tirelessly in favor of that community.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus parish received $5,000 in financial assistance after the hurricanes through Catholic Extension’s Patrons of Puerto Rico program. This funding helped the parish to reach out to their neighbors in need.

Father Omar’s ability to engage the community extends beyond emergency aid; he has inspired a renewed closeness and dedication to the faith among parishioners and townspeople.

He makes the parish present in distinct sectors of the community. Since his arrival, he has brought about more social works of charity for the most needy, and has emphasized a need to be more human and fraternal.

This call has resulted in more people approaching or returning to the faith after being absent for many years. Parishioners say this resurgence has helped them feel more together as part of the Gospel of Jesus.

When he began at the parish, he noticed that it was mostly made up of older people. He immediately began to involve children and young adults, though he initially experienced some resistance from parishioners that were not used to seeing children included in everything. He said, “Ask yourselves, who will be sitting in your place in 20 years? Now answer if truly the children are the future of the community.”

He dedicates 10 minutes of every Mass to explaining the Gospel to the children.

Now the parish is growing, with new energy from the children’s involvement and more people joining to hear his accessible homilies that explain the Word of God and the necessity of seeing their lives through the perspective of faith.

“The greatest thing I have received in my life is being a priest,” he said. “What I do is influence lives with the Gospel and let one know that there is always hope.”

“I am convinced that I am where God wants me to be to proclaim Jesus.”

The Lumen Christi Award is proudly presented by Catholic Extension, a non-profit that

provides grants to build the Catholic faith in the poorest areas of the United States.