Ronald Daniel Perez Arbazua, or “Ronnie,” as he is known, is a 69 year-old man who was born and raised in Puerto Saavedra in southern Chile. At the age of 15, Ronnie entered the Chilean navy and served for eight years. After, he went to Santiago to work in a pharmaceutical factory. There he lived and worked for 23 years. In 1983 Ronnie returned to Puerto Saavedra upon the death of his mother.
In 1995, when I was a seminarian, I was sent to Puerto Saavedra, which was a Columban parish at that time. There I first met Ronnie as a chronic alcoholic. The few times I saw him sober he was timid and shy. The drink always made him aggressive and belligerent. Often, after drinking, Ronnie would enter the church. Sometimes he would cause a disturbance. Twice I had to physically throw him out of the church. I left Puerto Saavedra in 1997 convinced that Ronnie would never change and would die in the streets.
In 2001 I returned to Puerto Saavedra as a priest. When I celebrated my first Mass in the town I was surprised to see Ronnie stand up and walk to the altar to proclaim the First Reading. He was clean-shaven and wearing a suit and tie, and sober! I was shocked by this miraculous change. He stopped drinking completely, reformed his life and was an active participant in the church. For years I talked about Ronnie in my homilies, but I had never actually sat down and talked to him about his conversion, until now. Ronnie agreed to be interviewed.
Ronnie, how did you begin your road to alcoholism?
Previously, I drank but nothing heavy, just in some social occasions. In 1983, at the age of 38, I returned to Puerto Saavedra when my mother died. I was an only child, my father had died when I was 23 years old, and my mother was really the only family I had. When she died I entered into depression. That is when I began to drink heavily and continued to drink every day for 18 years.
What was the worst thing about alcoholism?
The moments when I was sober I had visions of demons pursuing me. I drank so the visions would stop. After I would wake up in the streets and not remember what happened before. It was terrible.
So what happened? What made you stop?
I remember the day precisely. It was March 26, 2001. I drank so much that I passed out in the street. Somebody rushed me to the hospital. It was the first time in 18 years that I was taken to the hospital. I had passed out in the street before but never taken to the hospital. This time I was taken to the hospital and in that moment I felt I had “gone away” but then I suddenly returned to myself. When I woke up I saw Columban Father Mike Howe standing over me, praying and anointing me. I did not recognize Fr. Mike [Fr. Mike was the parish priest at that time]. Then the doctor entered the room. He informed me that I had alcohol poisoning and that I had been in the hospital for three days!
What more did the doctor say?
He said if I drank another cup I would go directly to the cemetery. The exams they did in my body showed the damage of my drinking. The doctor made me swear to never drink again. I did so and also promised to Padre Hurtado that I would never drink again. I put myself under Padre Hurtado’s protection. [Padre Hurtado refers to Saint Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean saint who was a Jesuit priest known for his work with the poor during the 1930’s and 40’s].
And from that moment you never drank again? You stopped “cold turkey” as we would say in United States?
Yes, I never had a drop since.
After the hospital, what happened next?
I was taken to “Hogar de Cristo” [translated “Home of Christ”, an organization founded by Padre Hurtado to help homeless elderly and youth] to begin rehabilitation. There I discovered I had a place to go to. There was a community to share food and life. It was a family that I didn’t have. All prayed for Padre Hurtado to protect me. And it worked! In November of 2001, I returned to the doctor and had my check-up exams. The doctor returned with the results and asked me, “what did you do?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. He showed me the exams and said 98% of my body was completely healed. “It’s nothing short of a miracle,” he said. I than knew it was a miracle from Padre Hurtado.
What more did Padre Hurtado do for you?
Because of Padre Hurtado I was able to participate in his canonization in Rome in 2005.
How did that happen?
There was a lottery for “Hogar de Cristo” to send 36 persons from around the country. They were seven spots for volunteers/workers of “Hogar de Cristo” and 29 spots for those who received aid like me. Different names were submitted to the lottery around the country and my name was submitted from the 9th Region [There are fifteen regions or “states” in Chile] with a few others. When the national lottery was held, and the first spot was drawn, my name was on the ticket. I knew than it was Padre Hurtado’s hand again. In fact, I was the only one from our region to go.
So what was the experience like, to go to Rome and be at the canonization?
First, in Puerto Saavedra, the town raised money for me and gave me a farewell ceremony. I than went to Santiago and joined the group that was going. We had a week of talks, workshops and retreats with the Jesuits. Then we flew to Rome on a military plane accompanied by President Ricardo Lagos, ministers, and other VIPs. But, the highlight of it all was the canonization ceremony. It was beautiful. I got to shake the hand of Pope Benedict XVI. For me it WWW.COLUMBAN.ORG October 2014 7 was a great privilege to receive after surviving the hell of alcoholism. But, somehow I knew something like this would happen to me.
What do you mean?
Well, before all of this, I had a dream. In the dream I was in a large church filled with people. Suddenly Padre Hurtado arrived wearing a black soutane. He came up to me and handed me the collection plate and told me to collect the money from the people. I did, going around all the church and the people gave, than I went to Padre Hurtado to give him the collection. He said, “Give it to him,” and pointed to a person dressed in white sitting on the altar, a popelike figure. Padre Hurtado added, “Give all to him. Not a cent is to go to you because it all belongs to the Church.” And I did. From this dream I understood I was to serve.
How do you serve the Church?
In Hogar de Cristo I am a volunteer who takes food to the bed-ridden poor. I participate in all the activities of Hogar de Cristo. I even began collecting funds for Hogar de Cristo. I have since retired from that. In the Church, I am a lector and participate in the choir. I always help out in the Month of Mary. Father Ulrich [a diocesan priest who was in Puerto Saavedra after the Columbans] once gave me a watch as a gift for being the “Best Lector.” Many times the priests will ask if I can participate in the parish council and other meetings.
What can you say about the Columbans?
I admire their work. They are missionaries that leave their culture and proclaim Christ in other lands. And they take a big risk of being rejected and maybe even losing their life. Also, I admire how they have to learn other languages.
For you, what makes Columbans different from other priests?
Columbans are very close to the people. They share with all, as the song says “ni importa la raza, ni el color de la piel” [a popular religious hymn that says “race doesn’t matter, nor the color of the skin”]. They share with the whole world. They can’t be just in one place; they go where they are sent.
You know several Columbans; who do you remember the most?
Fr. Mike Howe. He was my confessor before I went to Rome. He always said to me, “Don’t change. Don’t return to drinking, maintain your faith in God.” Also, apart from the Columban charisma of “being close with the people,” Fr. Mike is a very mystical, spiritual person. He prays a lot.
What message do you have for our readers?
No one has to feel abandoned; God always gives a helping hand. Also, you don’t have to live in the past, or go back to what was before.
End Note: Ronnie is now happily retired. He continues to help the church and at the end of each Sunday Mass, he collects money for church renovations. As a priest, I am blessed to have known Ronnie. I am happy to say I was wrong about Ronnie, “that he would never change and die in the streets.” God proved me wrong and showed me an instant conversion, like Saint Paul.