By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
A quiet air of confidence is apparent when listening to Diego Hernan Vinasco-Rivera talk about his life leading to the priesthood.
That security comes from the assurance of a loving family, a consistent Catholic upbringing, an active participation in his parishes, working with people and the resulting devotion to his religion.
The 30-year-old native of Cali, Colombia, who spent the last year working at St. James Church in Conway, will be ordained on July 12 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist after spending half of his life preparing for that moment.
Vinasco was 17 when he acted on what had been a lingering contemplation of the priesthood. He had finished high school and was working in technical drawing for an automobile company yet ready to make a life decision.
“I had the idea (of becoming a priest) at the back of my mind for a long time,” he said.
And up to that age, he had been a consistently active member of his church and leader of its 65-member youth group. He led his peers in helping the poor in their city, building houses, collecting clothes and food for disadvantaged children and other faith-building activities and retreats on many weekends. The benefit of that social and socially-conscious interaction with other young Catholics helped strengthen his faith.
“It made me close to people in a way that was based on knowing we had to do something to make our faith work,” he explained.
But a close family had a lot to do with his religious strength. He is the oldest of four children and he credits his parents, Aleyda and Rivera, for inspiring him and for being the role models who prepared him for the priesthood.
“Everything I am and could be is because of that good foundation I had,” he said. “My family has had the greatest influence on me.”
Vinasco attended St. Peter the Apostle Seminary in his hometown and while there, became interested in being a missionary.
“I wanted to work with other cultures,” he said.
That desire led to the American melting pot culture. By invitation from the chancellor of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, Vinasco went to work with the Hispanic population and finished the last two years of his theological studies in West Palm Beach at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary.
“It was very difficult at the beginning,” he said. “I started an intensive English course and it was hard but I was living with an American family which was wonderful. My classmates were a mixed group and I enjoyed getting to know them.”
Those friends, some of whom are now priests, are also a strong influence on Vinasco because they support one another through good and bad times. They will also share in his joy at becoming a priest.
“I am very excited especially after these last four years working in a parish,” he said. “To be able to celebrate the Eucharist and to offer the sacraments, that is the most beautiful gift that any human being can do.”
Vinasco was ordained a deacon in 1992 in Orlando. He immediately became involved with communications for the Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Orlando. His first pastoral assignment included work in radio creating spiritual programs. He would go on air every day in a five-minute program, in which he read a daily Gospel, gave a brief explanation and an application to daily life. He also helped produced several other, lengthier programs around the state which ranged in content from Catholic teachings to social issues aimed at the Hispanic population.
In 1996, Bishop David B. Thompson brought Vinasco to South Carolina to apply that communications experience into the growing Hispanic and migrant ministry.
“It has been a very beautiful experience because I discovered the large communities of migrants in South Carolina,” he said. “It has been a very challenging one though because Hispanics and migrants don’t have any support and they have many difficulties. But it is a wonderful experience because they are humble and rich with spirituality and that is what I most enjoy, to be able to discover God’s presence among them.”
While working at St. James in Conway, Vinasco was also campus minister of Coastal Carolina University and the coordinator for the Hispanic youth ministry in the diocese. In that ministry he draws on his own experience as a Catholic teen to guide the young men and women in their faith activities.
“I have very strong family values and if you have a background of love and values then good things come from that,” he said.