Everybody should spend 10 days with a group of priests

| November 4, 2010 | 1 Comment

Father Frank Fried, pastor of Corpus Christi in Roseville, proclaims the Gospel at Virgen del Valle (Virgin of the Valley) Church, the parish in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, where he once served. Photo by Bob Zyskowski / The Catholic Spirit

I spent 10 days this fall traveling, touring, riding in the back of pick-up trucks, dining, praying, shooting the breeze and solving the problems of the world with a handful of our priests. If every Catholic got the chance to do the same they would all have a renewed love for their faith and a renewed faith in the priesthood.

What great people.

What great storytellers.

What a tonic for the troubled times our church is going through.

Although the trip ended up rejuvenating me and my spirit, this was no vacation.

I went down to South America to report on the 40th anniversary celebration of our archdiocesan mission in Venezuela. I joined a group of priests who had served there, Bishop Lee Piché and two other lay people from our archdiocese who do mission work.

The mission today is at Jesucristo Resucitado (Risen Christ) Church in San Felix, a growing city that’s inland some 300 miles from Caracas.

The mission lies amidst teeming barrios beset by poverty and unemployment.

But this story isn’t about the mission.

It’s about priests.

Servants first

We weren’t in Venezuela for 15 minutes before the first incident happened.

Waiting for our luggage to come down the chute at the airport in Caracas, Father Greg Schaffer excused himself from our conversation to help a middle-aged woman pick up the several pieces of luggage that had just tumbled off the piled-high cart she was pushing.

It was a scenario repeated over and over and over.

Somebody would drop something and Father Frank Fried would be bending over to pick it up for them.

Somebody would be carrying something heavy and a priest would grab a portion to lighten their load.

Father Thomas McCabe, who is stationed in Ven­ezuela now with Father Greg, had a calendar full of pastoral appointments but never hesitated to make himself available to drive one of us visitors where we needed to go.

The coup de grace was the hat incident.

To ward off the blazing Venezuelan sun, Eric Simon, who works for the Center for Mission in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, wore a new, white UnderArmour brand ball cap — until the day we were riding in the back of a mission pickup and a gust of wind blew it right off his head.

We watched it blow into the street behind us and into the gutter along the median of a busy city road.

Eric said it wasn’t worth turning around in the heavy traffic to try to retrieve it.

Some five or six hours later, Eric’s hat mysteriously sat on the kitchen table at the mission’s parish center.

Father Dennis Dempsey — maybe the most in-shape 62-year-old priest you’ve ever known — finally admitted that when we got back to the mission he had biked back through the 90-degree heat and 95 percent humidity to see if he could find Eric’s hat — and, sure enough, there it was in the weeds on the boulevard.

Random acts of kindness

Everywhere we went, at every turn, the priests impressed me.

Father Greg had lined up dinners just about every night so we could meet with members of the various ministry groups at Jesucristo Resucitado. After the first dinner, we all carried our dirty dishes to the sink in the kitchen. Before anyone else said a word, Bishop Piché had his hands in the water and started washing the dishes.

Walking through the hospice for AIDS sufferers run by the Missionaries of Charity, the bishop made a point of going over to shake the hand of a patient in a wheelchair who had called to him.

At the anniversary Mass on Oct. 2 one of the altar boys dutifully took the miter of Diocese of Guyana Bishop Mariano Parra, but no one came to take Bishop Piché’s.

I watched as he caught the eye of one of the other servers, a little girl, and with a couple of subtle movements of the head and a lift of the miter, motioned for her to come to get his. She did, and came back to her seat beaming with this unexpected, new-found respon­si­bility.

Loved and remembered

Father Dempsey, who is pastor of St. Dominic in Northfield, is an extrovert who walked all over the 11 barrios during the visit. On the very first day we arrived, we hadn’t gone more than a block and a half when he heard voices in an inner courtyard and went over to say hello through the wrought iron fence.

“Hola Padre Denny!” came the cry from within.

Parishioners remembered him by name, even though it had been 11 or 12 years since he’d served in Ven­ezuela.

When he arrived at Jesucristo Resucitado Church for the regular 5:30 p.m. Mass, he was mobbed by parishioners whom he had served years ago.

Father Larry Hubbard, retired now after serving several parishes — St. Stephen in Minneapolis most notably — always seemed to be talking about going to visit so and so or having lunch with somebody or other — people who he had befriended during the two different stints he served at the archdiocesan mission at three different San Felix parishes.

“The people here are so good and so warm and welcoming,” he said.

Father Tim Norris, pastor of St. Mark in Shakopee, had a similar experience, but he is the introvert in the group, the quiet one who listens more than speaks. It took one of the other priests to mention that while our trip wasn’t over yet Father Tim had already visited the homes of 73 families to reconnect with those he had ministered to during his seven years in Venezuela from 2000 to 2007.

Not lost in translation

While my four years of high school and college Spanish started to slowly come back, I really depended on the priests to act as translator for me when interviewing Venezuelan parishioners and parish staff. As the current pastor who has been at the archdiocesan mission for 12 years, Father Schaffer never hesitated to make sure I was getting the story.

Father Dempsey helped, too. He hasn’t lost much of his fluency in Spanish, especially when it comes to singing.

“When I got here I didn’t know any of the hymns in Spanish,” he explained. “I ended up putting together the parish songbook because I realized singing was a good way to push out the proper pronunciation. I realized how important music is in our culture and in theirs, too.”

And if it wasn’t for Father Fried’s ability in Spanish, we might never have gotten out of the airport in Caracas.

Still, it was how the liturgy affected our priests that impressed me more than anything.

Priorities in order

Father Fried, pastor of Corpus Christi in Roseville, seemed visibly nervous, obviously wanting to do well, when he was asked to proclaim the Gospel and preach at Virgen del Valle (Virgin of the Valley) Church, the Puerto Ordaz parish where he had served years ago.

Invited to preside at one of the regular parish Masses at Jesucristo Resucitado, Father Dempsey pored over the Spanish-language Bible and was still re-reading the next day’s Scripture to prepare his homily when the rest of us called it a night.

Father Hubbard, a short, slight man who is never out of energy, is a walking, talking Wikipedia on both the history of the people of Venezuela and of the work that priests of the archdiocese and the Little Falls Franciscan Sisters have done with the Venezuelans through the years. He’ll readily share what he knows with anyone and everyone.

Yet, you have to see him preach to see him really get energized.

Walking down the main aisle as he preached at Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd) Church, where he had started the mission, he asked questions, called for people to raise their hands in response, and led shouts of “Viva”!

It was fun to watch.

And even more fun to get to know these “fathers” who have dedicated themselves to helping us as we make our way back to the Father.

Bob Zyskowski is associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit.

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Category: This Catholic Life