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The Cathedral welcomes a new rector: How Father René seeks to inspire beyond Sunday

Image: Father Renéby Tom Kendra | Photography by Eric Tank

Paulist Father René Constanza feels right at home in Grand Rapids, even though it’s 3,000 miles from his birthplace of Belize.
 
Little did he know that his faith journey would take him to the northern United States, let alone into the priesthood, when he first left the small Central American country in 1997 with the goal of earning his biology degree – and then returning home to be a teacher.
 
“That was the plan,” says Father René. “Then I started to get pulled in different directions – from teaching, to opening a brand-new Catholic high school, to the Paulist Fathers. It’s a life I never could have predicted.”
 
Father René is the seventh of nine children in his family, all of whom still live in Belize. He admits to sometimes getting a little homesick, but that feeling dissipates quickly because of all the challenges and opportunities that he finds on a daily basis.
 
Since 2016, those challenges and opportunities have come as the director of the Catholic Information
Center (CIC). On July 1, he added the role of rector of the Cathedral of Saint Andrew, succeeding
Paulist Father John Geaney.
 
As rector, Father René is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of the cathedral. But he sees his new job as much more than administrative. In addition to managing staff and serving the needs of the existing congregation, he seeks to evangelize and bring more people into the community – particularly young adults and Hispanics.
 
“I see us as an evangelizing parish,” says Father René, who is bilingual and recently celebrated his 40th birthday by running the Grand Rapids Half Marathon to raise funds for the CIC and the cathedral outreach ministries. “So many people out there are yearning for connection and belonging. When we offer opportunities for others to see how God is at work in them, we, too, become evangelized by the encounter.” 

FROM PRINCIPAL TO PRIEST

Father René feels ready for the challenge of leading the cathedral, especially after the major responsibility he was given at a young age.
 
He had come to the U.S. in the late 1990s to study biology and secondary education at Spalding University in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, a private school affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. He did his graduate work in education administration at the University of Louisville.
 
Everything was going according to plan at that point, and he returned to Belize to teach biology. Around that same time, the 23-year-old was approached about becoming the first principal at the new Bishop Martin High School, a diocesan Catholic high school in Orange Walk Town, Belize.
 
“My initial reaction was like Jeremiah, that I am too young and inexperienced for this,” recalls Father René with a smile. “But I prayed over it. I prayed for discernment. I concluded that this was an opportunity that was meant to be, so I accepted the position.”
 
He served as principal there from 2002 to 2006, when he felt another call upon his return trip from a Caribbean principals’ conference in Trinidad and Tobago. He remembers being moved after seeing an advertisement for the Paulist Fathers on the back cover of a vocation magazine.
 
“The message was very simple. This was an order committed to evangelization, reconciliation and
ecumenism,” recalls Father René. “I thought: ‘That’s me.’ I felt moved to look into it further.”
 
That nudge led him to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned his
Master of Divinity, with a concentration in Hispanic ministry. As a seminarian, he first came to Grand Rapids in 2009 to do a pastoral year at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew with the Paulist Fathers.
 
He was ordained on May 19, 2012, in New York City and spent four years as an associate pastor in Austin, Texas. He returned to Grand Rapids in 2016 to become director of the Catholic Information Center. 

Image: Father René greets parishionersA MAN ON THE RUN

Father René doesn’t start his day in vestments and a Roman collar.
 
After finishing his morning prayers, he puts on workout clothes and running shoes, either for a jog
on the Grand Rapids streets or a visit to the downtown YMCA.
 
“I’m usually at the gym by 5:15 a.m. and then I’ll have my daily run after that,” says Father René, who caught the running bug during his years in Austin. “Like anyone who runs will tell you, it kind of clears your mind and gives you energy for the rest of the day.”
 
He will certainly need that energy to juggle his new responsibilities as rector along with continuing
to oversee the CIC.
 
The CIC has a dual purpose – to provide resources for a deeper understanding of the faith for practicing Catholics and serve as a place for non-Catholics to learn about the traditions and teachings of the Catholic Church.
 
As rector, Father René oversees the mother church of the Diocese of Grand Rapids. The cathedral is open 365 days a year and is known for its Sunday televised Mass and Sunday noon Mass in Spanish.
 
Father René is confident that he will be able to handle both jobs, in large part because of his two
associate pastors, Paulist Fathers Bill Edens and Michael Hennessy, and the rest of the cathedral staff.
 
“[The cathedral] is not a stuffy place at all; it has always been very welcoming,” says Father René. “I will certainly work to keep it that way.” 

FAITH BEYOND SUNDAYS

Father René can sometimes be found having a beer at one of the hipster breweries in downtown Grand Rapids.
 
It’s a way for him to relax, but it’s much more than that.
 
The socializing fits in with one of his major goals: not remaining sequestered in the cathedral, but venturing out into the community at a variety of times and places to evangelize. He has invited young adults to join him for one of his “Holy Brew” sessions, which has brought together as many as 24 people for prayer and discussion.
 
Father John Geaney, the former rector, believes Father René – through his combination of personality,
youth and ethnic background – is uniquely qualified to expand on what he believes is already a great strength of the cathedral.
 
“I am very proud of the diversity you experience at (Saint Andrew),” says Father Geaney, 80, who
returned to Boston after being granted senior ministry status. “It’s a blessing to look out and see the integration of people of all races and all economic backgrounds, coming together. He has a real
opportunity to continue that and to take that to the next level.”
 
The thought of bringing more people into the cathedral of all backgrounds and ages brings a smile to Father Rene’s face.
 
Coming from the small country of Belize with a plan to be a teacher, he believes deep in his heart that he wasn’t pulled more than 3,000 miles from his home to Michigan to simply “preach to the choir” of existing parishioners.
 
“I am energized and excited about this new opportunity to encourage the blossoming of various small
Christian communities within the Cathedral Parish to help our people grow and be sustained in their
faith,” says Father René.
 
“Sundays are not enough anymore. We have to be inspired by our Catholic faith every day. We have a
wonderful cathedral and a wonderful spirit here and I want everyone to know about it.”