‘Give your life to Jesus’: How a World Youth Day put a young man on the path to priesthood

Nelson Cintra At World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Nelson Cintra (at left in top row) was changed by Christ — and now he will go to Lisbon as a new priest for World Youth Day 2023, Aug. 1–6. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Father Nelson Cintra

At World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid, Nelson Cintra knelt and prayed: “Christ, I give you my whole life.”

Those heartfelt words sent him on a surprising journey to the priesthood.

After graduating from Ohio State in 2008, Cintra began questioning his life and pondering the more profound questions: “What is the meaning of life?” “Why am I here?”

Though he had received all the sacraments, his family members were nominal Catholics. During high school and college, he questioned God’s existence, especially since he had experienced a great deal of hurt, including the loss of his father to cancer.

Now parochial vicar of Pope St. John Paul II Parish in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Father Nelson Cintra recently told the National Catholic Register: “Growing up, I didn’t really know what Catholicism was.”

However, a crisis in his life motivated Cintra to pray and ask for God’s guidance and help, and he began looking to the Church for answers.

“I knew some of the major tenets of Catholicism, and so I started investigating them and seeing if there was good reason to believe in them,” recalled the now-37-year-old.

A ticket to WYD Madrid

A ticket to Madrid further encouraged Cintra on his conversion path. His sister, Nalita Maria Mugayar, purchased a ticket and made plans for him to attend. Cintra didn’t know what to expect from WYD, even though, as a child, he and his family attended a papal gathering for a World Meeting of Families in Brazil (Cintra lived in Brazil until he was 13).

What surprised him the most about the WYD event wasn’t the enormity of the crowd but the faith of his traveling companions.

“For the first time, I was around people that were all in with the faith. They weren’t picking and choosing what to believe,” he said. “I saw the love that that produced.”

Cintra was impressed by how the people in his group were more respectful, thoughtful, modest, and humble than he had encountered in the secular world.

Seeing Pope Benedict XVI

In Madrid, Cintra recalled waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive in his popemobile, noting the expectation and eagerness of the crowd. To see the Holy Father up close, he and his group had made their way to the fence early in the morning. During the long hours of waiting for the pope to arrive, he listened to other pilgrims speak about Pope Benedict’s teachings and share stories about him. It struck Cintra how the pope, the vicar of Christ, “is the primary representative of Christ on earth.”

“All these people are flocking to him because he’s representing Christ,” Cintra recalled. “Though some people might have had an allergy to that, I understood the attraction.”

Father Nelson Cintra at his first Mass at Holy Apostles Church in the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, June 2023. Credit: Emily Woodham
Father Nelson Cintra at his first Mass at Holy Apostles Church in the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, June 2023. Credit: Emily Woodham

Hearing Pope Benedict speak was an eye-opener for Cintra. In one of his speeches, Benedict spoke about the dictatorship of relativism — one of the major themes in his pontificate. It dawned on the future priest that relativism was precisely the moral system in which he had been raised.

More in US

“It’s not like my parents were teaching that to me that intentionally, but it’s what I had absorbed through the culture, both in Brazil and the United States,” he said, “this sense of ‘we can all define our own truths and our own moral values.’”

Pope Benedict addressed the crowd about how relativism enslaves and how freedom is only found in the truth and in Christ. His words hit the young man hard.

“I remember sitting in the plaza, hearing him say that, and feeling like he was speaking to me very directly,” he recalled.

Cintra said the pope’s speech illuminated the core reasons for many of the problems troubling him.

‘Christ, I give you my whole life’

Later in the day, dark storm clouds began rolling in, along with thunder and lightning: A storm began dumping torrents of rain upon the crowd of approximately 2.5 million pilgrims — and their sleeping bags — packed into an airfield. With no place to escape the weather, everyone either braced for the storm or reveled in it.

“During this time, people are jumping and dancing and singing songs and celebrating and waving their flags, and we’re just getting dumped on buckets upon buckets,” he remembered.

(Story continues below)

Cintra said he decided to take some time away from his group and knelt to pray. As the rain pummeled him, he vowed, “Christ, I give you my whole life,” adding: “I don’t know what that means, I don’t know where this is going to go, but whatever it is that you want to do with me, I give you permission.”

“Until this point, I’d been trying to live my life my way,” Cintra said. “And that hadn’t been working out very well.”

Being open

That short, sincere prayer became a turning point for Cintra, but he didn’t immediately recognize that God was calling him to the priesthood. Not 12 hours later, someone in his group asked him if he had considered becoming a priest. His knee-jerk reaction was a dismissive “No.” Cintra thought he had lived too sinful a life to become a man of the cloth.

“I said to her, ‘You don’t know me; you don’t know the life I’ve lived. … I can’t be a priest,’” he recalled.

But the woman smiled and shot back: “Have you heard of St. Augustine?”

St. Augustine had existed in the periphery most of the young man’s life: He attended an Augustinian Catholic school from first to seventh grade, chose Augustine as his confirmation name, and owned Augustine’s “Confessions,” but he had never cracked open the book.

Even though he initially rejected the idea of the priesthood, when Cintra returned home, he realized he would need to open himself up to the idea. He returned to his job at a boarding high school for at-risk youth outside Arco, Idaho, but his life didn’t look the same.

He began praying the rosary daily, reading the daily readings in “Magnificat,” listening to Catholic radio and religious podcasts, and reading about the Church.

“I was consuming as much as possible,” he shared.

“I’d [also] tried to talk to my co-workers about Jesus and the Catholic faith, but way too aggressively, and I quickly burned bridges and pushed people away.”

Getting heavily involved in his local parish over the next two years was the final step.

In 2013, he decided to go to seminary, but he needed to spend a year fundraising with the Labouré Society to pay his remaining school debt. 

That same year he attended WYD in Brazil, but this time in a leadership role. This second WYD solidified his decision to enter the priesthood.

Bishop Peter Christensen receives the first blessing from newly ordained Father Nelson Cintra in June 2023. Credit: Vero Gutiérrez photo
Bishop Peter Christensen receives the first blessing from newly ordained Father Nelson Cintra in June 2023. Credit: Vero Gutiérrez photo

Returning to WYD as a priest

On June 9 of this year, Cintra was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Boise — and it all began with a promise at World Youth Day. It’s exciting for him to return to WYD 2023 in Lisbon as a priest. He hopes he will have the chance to hear many confessions.

“In WYD, Madrid, I made a general confession to a Mexican priest sitting on a park bench. The patience of this priest left a mark [on me], a novice penitent,” he shared.

“I am looking forward to being available to pilgrims in the same way [that priest was for me].”

Overall, his advice to young people attending World Youth Day is: “Give your life — your whole life — to Jesus! Hold nothing back!”

This article was first published July 21, 2023, at the National Catholic Register and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.