Ripon, CA 2003 --
Sometimes it becomes obvious what path you were meant to take. That's what happened to turn Escalon's Fr. Peter Carota from a symbol of the American dream into a Roman Catholic priest committed to living an austere life in a modest rural parish out in the country.
Raised in affluent Aptos, Peter Carota was a successful real estate broker with more than his share of worldly success. He had a great career, owned three homes and had done it all before the age of thirty -- the very definition of "success." The year Carota turned twenty-nine, a friend invited him along on a trip to Brazil. The friend was a surgeon who donated time working in a hospital down there each year. Carota went along, thinking that it would be a valuable experience, never dreaming that it would change his life.
"I had three houses while others had none. Is that fair?" Father Carota asked, remembering. "I had so much and they had so little. The first world causes poverty and the third world suffers it ... I realized I didn't want to be part of the greed, part of the system that causes poverty." Adding to that powerful experience in Brazil, Carota found himself drawn to the example of Mother Theresa, the little nun in Calcutta who gave up everything she had and ministered to the poorest of the poor. The gospel passage in which Jesus instructs a man to sell all his possessions, give everything to the poor and follow Him began to carry great weight with Carota, as did the story of St. Francis, the firstborn son of a wealthy family who followed those instructions and gave up all his wealth to minister to the poor.
The change might not have happened over night, but it did happen rapidly. By the time he was thirty-three, Peter Carota had sold everything he had and opened up a small facility he called the "St. Francis Catholic Kitchen" to feed the hungry. "I had to go to Santa Cruz," Carota smiled. "There were no poor people in Aptos." Santa Cruz in 1982 didn't have much to help out the homeless, but Carota did what he could. His efforts garnered some national attention in the press, and as always, some criticism. "It's easy for people to come in and tell you 'change this' or 'you should do that.' I told them, 'Open your own soup kitchen,'" Carota grinned. He also looked for ways to shelter the homeless, and in 1987 Carota was able to purchase a set of buildings on Santa Cruz's Lennox Street, where the Jesus Mary Joseph Home is still in operation.
The decision to become a priest took a little longer, but that, too seemed obvious. One of the major factors in his decision was the nature of poverty in the United States. Although Carota did his best to help with the physical and material needs of the poor in Santa Cruz, he says, "Most poverty in the U.S. comes from drug and alcohol addiction. That comes from sin." He saw a need for spiritual help that was not getting met in many of the visitors to his kitchen. People's need for spiritual guidance was a theme that began recurring in Carota's life. Visiting jails as part of a prison ministry, Carota was constantly asked by inmates to hear their confessions, a role that in Catholicism, only a priest can perform. He had a chapel built on the Santa Cruz boardwalk for migrant farm workers who wanted to go to Mass, but getting a priest to come perform the service was difficult. Peter Carota began to think that maybe he was the one who needed to step in and fill that void. Carota recalls, "I said, hey, I'm not the greatest guy, but I'm willing to be a priest for the poor."
Becoming a Roman Catholic priest is a big decision. It requires four years of training in a seminary, a period of constant evaluation and self-examination. Candidates for priesthood are also required to take vows of chastity and obedience, and encouraged to lead simple lives. That means no wife, no children, and few worldly goods -- all for the opportunity to spend the rest of their life serving others. It's a trade-off that seems contrary to everything most of us spend our lives working towards. But for some people, like Peter Carota, it just makes sense.
It's been "Father Carota" for six years now, and though the soup kitchen and shelter are both still going strong in Santa Cruz under the guidance of volunteers, the good reverend has moved. He has recently become the pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church on Highway 120 in Escalon, a rural parish along Highway 120 that acts as something of a catch-all for Catholic families in Escalon and Ripon, where he ministers to the material and spiritual needs of farmers, migrant workers, and commuters. Carota describes his new parish as being very prayerful and kind. "I'm amazed at the faith here," he says, enthusiasm evident as he talks about St. Patrick's. "It's an exceptional community. It's not exaggerating to say that. [St. Patrick's is] a wonderful church." Here, just as in Santa Cruz, Carota says the hardest part about serving the community is that there is never enough time to do all the things that need to be done. But when all is said and done, how does he like being a priest?
A big smile lights up his face at the question. "I love it."
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.