AFTER SEVEN months in the United States at the helm of Ss. Agatha and James Parish in University City, the Rev. Carlos Keen has noticed something he finds peculiar: People often equate "value" with personal wealth.
"I've heard, 'So and so is worth $5 million or $200 million.' If anyone said Father Carlos was worth $5 billion, I would be offended. I know I'm worth more than $5 billion. We are valuable because God constantly loves us."
The majority of the church's members are students attending the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the University of the Sciences or the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.
Some of the young people base their worth on their grades, their looks or their overall intelligence. Father Carlos loudly rejects those ideas, noting how quickly life can change. What if that great beauty is disfigured in an accident? What if that young Einstein has a brain-changing stroke?
"Does your value fall? No. You are not the stock market," he said. "If we recognize God's love and see how he really understands us as his children, our value is unaltered . . . Your value is sacred.
"When I go to a job interview, I'm not nervous because the job can not affect my value. It can only affect what I do. The guy who has $5 million, that's not what he's worth. That's what he's done."
Father Carlos came to Philadelphia after 20 years in Peru, where he focused on social work, teaching children and ministering to the very poor. The Holy Spirit - and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput - brought him here. He hopes to impart the message that a relationship with God is essential for a meaningful life."
"Faith is not only for Sunday," he said. "If faith doesn't impregnate my life, if I don't become a better person with my co-worker or the people I study with, then it's a faith that is sad and hasn't found its fulfillment."
Where we worship: The parish church is a gothic-style building at 3728 Chestnut St. On any given Sunday, about 700 people (mostly young ones) attend one of four hourlong Masses - at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 5:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
That final Mass is to accommodate the many students who would rather stay up late than get up early. Each Mass has its own choir.
Father Carlos shares Mass duties with two other priests, one he describes as "very American" and the other as "very Nigerian." He says he is "very mixed:" He was born in Spain but has spent most of his life in Latin America.
Something old: In the youthful parish, confession is cool again. The church is open 30 minutes before each Mass for those seeking to make penance.
"People need to speak," Father Carlos explained. "There's a psychological need to get it out."
He added: "I'm good for confession because I forget everything."
Something new: On Dec. 7, about 100 of the parish faithful joined in a procession to commemorate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Carrying a statue of St. Mary, the group set off from Drexel's Dornsife Center at 36th and Spring Garden streets, then slowly walked along Locust Street through the heart of the Drexel and Penn campuses.
"It was close to finals and cold, and the odds were not great" that people would take part, Father Carlos said. But when the procession ended, at the church, 200 people were on hand for a Mass.
Big social issue we're grappling with: Poverty - in both the financial and the spiritual sense.
Father Carlos said poverty in the U.S. is very different from poverty in Peru. "When you're poor among other poor people, it's not that hard on you. But when you're poor among the rich, it's much harder.
"We have people who are poor and very needy, and their hearts are hardened. They're bitter. They need extra doses of love to heal that heart."
Good works: After receiving a "very special" anonymous donation last month, Father Carlos and his team began to look for people in need. They would ask for suggestions, then surprise recipients with gifts of $200 to $400.
"We go to their houses and bring the gifts and the tears flow," he said. "I believe very much that faith has to become concrete. You have to hit the street. You have to help the people in need. Otherwise it doesn't make sense."
God is . . . Love, as Father Carlos sees it. "He's not angry. He's not going to send you recklessly or capriciously to hell. This misconception of God is a grave problem: strict, punishing, very distant," he said. "He's a good dad, and he wants the best for you."
Words of hope: "I try not to use formulas. Each person is so special and so particular that I really try to give that person what the Holy Spirit is inspiring me to give at that moment," Father Carlos said.
"But one core thing is value: You are precious in the eyes of God."