20 years after his death, Charles Untz’s life continues to inspire

| Christina Capecchi | March 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

Steve and Ellen Untz hold a photo of their son, Charles, March 20 near the spot where he was hit by a car and killed 20 years ago. In the background is a memorial with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

The Boy Scout in HEAVEN

There was something special about Charles Untz, the kid who cheerfully served at 6:30 a.m. daily Mass.

He had a kind of reverence — a quiet peace, a glowing face — that people noticed. Priests asked if he was considering religious life, and he answered with ease and confidence: yes.

There’s something special that has come from his death, too, after a tragic car accident took his life March 20, 2000. His parents noticed immediately. As they marked the 20th anniversary at their Andover farm this month, their beloved boy’s impact has crossed the globe, compelling an ardent coalition of both priests and lay Catholics to make the case for Charles’ canonization.

They are stirred by a series of incredible events that have unfolded over the past two decades — events they consider not merely divine connections to Charles but divine actions from him.

Their unequivocal sense of his intercession — as only a saint could do — helps explain Charles’ short life. His 18 years on earth make more sense, they feel, in light of his heavenly purpose.

From the start Charles was enveloped by Catholicism. Ellen and Steve Untz made Mass and eucharistic adoration a priority as young parents. When they lived in Vermont, they’d walk down the road to church for five minutes of adoration “to break the little kids in,” Ellen said.

Before long, Charles asked: “Can’t we stay longer, Mom?”

More so than initiating matters of faith, Ellen and Steve were merely responding to something that already existed in Charles. “I almost feel like we were dragged along for the ride,” she said.

They struggled to give him a sibling, enduring years of secondary infertility. Finally, when Charles was 6, he became a big brother to Bryant.

Charles took to praying the Liturgy of the Hours at age 11, setting an example for the rest of the family and continuing the devotion faithfully throughout his life.

Pure of heart

Raising Charles was easy, his parents insist. He was always obedient. They never had to ask something twice. They didn’t realize that was unusual.

“There are a lot of kids that will do the right thing, but as I see it, they sometimes are doing the right thing out of fear or mere compliance,” said Father Tom Wilson, who was associate pastor of Epiphany in Coon Rapids when the Untzes moved to Minnesota and joined the parish in 1996. “Charles never had that. It was like: ‘No, this is just the thing to do, and I’m going to do it.’”

That perfectly formed conscience made things straightforward, uncomplicated for Charles. His adolescence was not riddled by temptations or peer pressure. Once, when helping with a retreat, a priest said to him, “I suppose you’re beginning to get a little rebellious with your parents now.”

Charles’ face was blank.

“Well, should I be?” he asked.

Ellen homeschooled Charles, a quick learner and hard worker. He anticipated needs on their farm and performed chores before being asked. His industriousness and spirit of service were encapsulated by being a Boy Scout. He proved a natural leader, becoming a senior patrol leader, the top position.

“He set a positive example for everyone he was around,” said Alan Lind, a fellow Epiphany parishioner and Boy Scout. “He was very pure hearted.”

That virtue made Charles bold and decisive, unhesitating in the face of need. In 1999, on a two-week backpacking trip with his dad and fellow scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, the group ran into a problem. Every night they had to elevate their food on a rope so bears couldn’t sniff it out. But one night, the rope got stuck on the cable and they couldn’t hang their bag. As the adults conferred and the scouts stood around, befuddled, Charles began climbing the rope, reached the cable and dangled there — 15 feet up — until he had untangled it.

“It was the right thing to do at the right time, and he was capable and he did it,” Steve said.

At summer camp, his scoutmaster Karen Theisen recalls setting her alarm early to rise before the scouts. But Charles was always awake before her, sitting alone and praying.

One morning a mom awoke upset by a storm that had passed through overnight. She asked Charles if he had checked on all the boys.

Charles didn’t understand her worry, which frustrated her.

“What if someone died?” she blurted out.

His response was calm and earnest: “Aren’t you ready?”

“Charles was always ready,” Theisen said.

“That’s just the way he was,” Ellen Untz explained. “He was not of this world.”

For his Eagle Scout Service Project, Charles wrote a manual to train altar servers. When he successfully earned that top rank, he was asked to make an Ambition and Life Purpose Statement. He wrote: “My life purpose is to do the will of God. My ambition is to become a saint. There is nothing harder to achieve than this, but I will continue to strive for it.”

Charles Untz’s draw to priesthood was cultivated while altar serving at Epiphany in Coon Rapids. “He had a different grace up there as an altar server that told you that he believed God was there,” said his mother, Ellen Untz. COURTESY UNTZ FAMILY

Charles often expressed a holy longing, saying that he would rather be in heaven than here. In an email to a friend, he encouraged her to pray the Divine Office and rise above teenage dramas. “Don’t let yourself get caught up in that never-ending cycle,” he wrote. “Keep in mind that heaven is the ultimate goal, all other goals and things should be directed in attaining it.”

He wrote to another friend: “Don’t take God’s mercy for granted because death will come when you least expect it, so make sure you are as blameless as possible when that time comes.”

His heartfelt counsel stemmed from good listening, said his brother, Bryant, a mechanical engineer who, along with his parents, belongs to St. Patrick in Oak Grove.

“When people were talking to him, they felt like they were the focus of his attention,” Bryant said. “He wasn’t straining to look or listen to something else. He had this ability to show love through paying attention.”

Priesthood was a natural calling. It was nourished as an altar server and flowed from his love of the Mass, where he could receive the Eucharist, the source and summit of the faith. He was spurred by his devotion to the Blessed Mother, whom he affectionately called “My Lady.” Experimenting on his mom’s embroidery machine, he made a brown scapular that said “My Lady.” It became a fixture, with its two thin bands peeking out above his shirt collar.

As a senior in homeschool, Charles applied to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where he toured St. John Vianney College Seminary. As of that March, he had not yet announced his decision. His faith made him unworried and unrushed, Theisen said.

When she inquired about a recent visit to a monastery, he told her it wasn’t the right place for him. Then he paused and confessed his puzzlement: “I don’t understand why you adults are so concerned about what I’m going to do after I graduate.”

He would never give them an answer.

Tragedy strikes

On a Monday morning in March, two weeks after his 18th birthday, Charles headed out to work at the turkey farm across the street. Ellen noticed “a different look on his face.”

A short time later she heard sirens but didn’t notice anything out front. A police officer came to the door asking if Ellen had seen something, but didn’t identify the victim. Ellen ran over to the turkey farm, finding Charles hadn’t checked in for work. Panic set in. She began frantic Hail Marys.

The worst would come to pass. Charles had been struck by a car as he walked to work. He died in the hospital shortly later, after receiving last rites from Father Wilson, surrounded by his parents and brother.

Twenty years later, Father Wilson still tears up when he recalls that day. “It was one of the hardest mornings of my life,” he said.

Amid the shock and sorrow, stories began to trickle in. The man who had found Charles after the accident described the encounter as “an intense feeling of the presence of God.” He had never experienced anything like it.

A police officer reported the same sensation. When she touched Charles’ hand as he was lifted into the ambulance, she said she felt God’s presence. It changed her life.

Meanwhile, the lector who read at Epiphany the morning of the accident said she had seen Charles in the church, engrossed in Scripture before Mass — but the Untz family hadn’t attended Mass that day.

Two priests, close friends of the family from out East, gathered in the Untz home before the funeral. As they discussed Charles’ life and death, they sensed something miraculous at play and came to conclude that he had preserved his baptismal innocence.

Throughout the wake and the funeral Mass, which was held at Epiphany, Ellen and Steve were struck by the language people used. One after another said they were praying to Charles — not for him. There was a shared sense of intercession.

“It felt right,” Steve said.

Father Philippe Roux, a priest from Massachusetts who is now retired, stood at the lectern before a packed church and gave a rousing homily. He voiced the conviction that so many wondered, whispered: that Charles would be canonized a saint.

“All of us who walked with him were walking in the path of great holiness, and that’s what I weep for, because I still need that holiness around me,” he said. “But I believe now we will have it in a way we never had it when he walked with us because now, seeing the face of God, he is able to bring us closer and closer.

“This week some extraordinary things have been going on in and around the family,” the priest continued. “We keep saying, ‘Charles is very much at work. He’s doing tremendous things to show us everything is OK.’ He wanted so much to be with God. He was always ready, and that’s why God could come and take him at a time that we would think is inappropriate. But I believe Charles is smiling.”

He addressed the teen’s vocation. “Someone said to me yesterday, ‘Father Philippe, it’s really kind of sad because the Church lost a priest.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but they gained a saint.’”

After the homily, Father Wilson offered a reflection. “Charles was blessed with a vocation that was not fulfilled on this earth but will continue to be fulfilled in the kingdom of heaven,” he said. “Now he will serve us. In an invisible way, Charles will continue. He will continue to serve us, he will continue to pray for us, he will continue to intercede for us.”

A few days later, The Catholic Spirit published a column by Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who had celebrated Mass at Epiphany earlier that year and had been impressed by Charles’ reverent altar serving.

“His death also reminds us of the reality of the Communion of Saints,” wrote Archbishop Flynn, who died last year. “The ties that bind us in the Church do not end with bodily death. Bodily death will cancel out no one.”

The archbishop continued: “Any one of us can look at the untimely death of that young man and wonder out loud to God: ‘Why Charles? He was so good. He could have done so much.’ And the Lord’s silent reply would be: ‘He can do more good from here.’”

Traveling mercies

The good Charles has done from heaven, as many see it, astounded his grieving parents, stitching together a far-flung community in the most unlikely of ways.

Ellen and Steve heard from an EMT who had been on the scene of the accident. For the past 20 years, she told them, she had hoped to deliver a baby on the job. A month after Charles’ death, she did exactly that — some 200 feet from the site of the car accident. Stories like hers, accounts suggesting that Charles was interceding for others, kept pouring in — from different states, from people who had never met the teen.

His story spread through Catholic homeschool networks. Ellen has made thousands of scapulars based on Charles’ design that have been mailed across the globe. Audio recordings from his funeral have circulated.

His prayer card has been slipped into passports and pockets. It shows a picture of Charles in his Eagle Scout uniform and features a prayer for teens written by Father David Engo, a family friend from Massachusetts, to call upon Charles’ intercession.

“You gave the grace of purity, prayer, obedience and fidelity to Your servant Charles,” it states. “We now ask You to glorify Your servant Charles on earth by granting the petition we now make through his intercession.”

A group of young Catholics from the Kansas City diocese decided to hand out the prayer cards at the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland. One young woman was down to her last few cards when, amid a field of 2 million people, she felt compelled to give one to a priest.

It was Father Wilson.

A young man who had known Charles through Youth2000 retreats had a similar surprise when, back in his native England, he picked up a hitchhiking priest who started telling him about an amazing American named Charles Untz.

There was something about the bright-eyed Boy Scout who was like them but set apart that spoke to other young Catholics. Father Steve Hansen, who led the Kansas City group in Poland, had observed this many times.

“Kids who want to live purity, who want to obey their parents and who want to love the Church, they imitate Charles,” said Father Hansen, pastor of the Cathedral St. Joseph in St. Joseph, Missouri. “They ask about him. They memorize his prayer.”

Guiding seminarians

Father Hansen personally experienced Charles’ intercession and credits it for saving his priestly vocation. The Wisconsin native learned about Charles shortly after his death while on retreat, where the young men were informed of the tragedy and asked to pray.

Later, a classmate at the Franciscan University of Steubenville circulated Archbishop Flynn’s column and shared audio cassettes from the funeral with Hansen, who was not yet a seminarian. He developed a devotion to Charles that deepened his prayer life and aided his discernment, he said.

At one juncture in seminary when he was paralyzed by doubt, Hansen heard Charles speak to him while praying in church. It gave him the confidence and clarity he needed to move forward.

He received the call-to-holy-orders letter from his bishop accepting his request on March 20, 2006 — the anniversary of Charles’ death. It happened that that year, as in 2000, March 20 was a Monday and the Feast of St. Joseph.

“I would not be a priest today if he had not helped me,” Father Hansen said. “There’s no question about it. He’s part of the hope that kids need to navigate the many challenges to adolescent and young adult life. He’s also part of the hope that parents and grandparents need, that they can pray for their kids.”

Father Hansen has been tireless in telling Charles’ story. Every year on the bus ride home from the National March for Life, Father Hansen hands out prayer cards and tells the passengers from his diocese about Charles. He’s talked to thousands of people, including Carolyn Anch, youth director at St. Andrew the Apostle in Gladstone, Missouri.

A devotion to Charles revived their fledgling youth group, Father Hansen said. “When they started praying to Charles, everything changed.”

Today Father Hansen estimates that 12 to 15 young men from the diocese have been inspired by Charles to pursue seminary.

Father Wilson said he believes “absolutely, unequivocally” that Charles intercedes for seminarians. Five years after Charles’ death, Father Wilson had identified four seminarians from Epiphany parish and several women religious candidates who were deeply influenced by Charles.

On a personal level, Father Wilson said he felt Charles’ intercession during the seven years he served the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as its vocation director. During that tenure, he heard from the late Father William Baer, who was then rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary. Father Baer credited Charles for the creation of Team Vianney, a dynamic program that invites young men to visit the seminary once a month for prayer and fellowship.

“We believe that the people who go before us have a place to continue to pray for us, and the gift of the communion of saints is real,” Father Wilson said. “We can count on it.”

The ties between heaven and earth forged by Charles were bolstered by a seminarian from Kansas City named Wesley McKeller, who battled brain cancer for two years and offered up his sufferings to advance the cause of Charles’ canonization.

Wesley felt a special connection to Charles, said his mom, Wendy. “He was young, he wasn’t well known and he had a real heart for God from a young age, and Wes resonated with that. He used to say: ‘If the purpose of my life is to spread devotion to Charles Untz, I’m happy with that.’”

Wesley died in 2016 at age 22. Wendy has no doubt he achieved his goal, and that the two young men are now united in heaven.

“They have a beautiful connection,” she said. “They did down there and they do up there, I’m sure.”

Last year, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis was updated on Charles’ continued impact. Thirty-eight “favors” — or answered prayers — attributed to his intercession have been reported to Ellen and Steve, including people returning to the Church, priestly vocations, help with personal matters, healings and guidance. They assume many more extraordinary experiences have not been relayed. They have also been told of many graces from Charles such as purity, a strengthened prayer life, consolation at death, openness to life and peace at difficult times.

Though Ellen and Steve have never campaigned for Charles’ canonization — they do not see that as their role — they have saved all the letters and emails they received chronicling his impact, most from strangers. The notes are stored in two boxes in the closet of Charles’ bedroom.

The next step in the cause for canonization is to demonstrate “sustained widespread devotion” to Charles.

“We’re just passengers on that road,” Steve said.

For his part, he will go about his quiet work on the farm.

“I’ve learned to trust in the Holy Spirit and allow him to work through me,” Steve said. “I try not to get in the way.”

Each year on March 20 the Untz family hosts a Mass in the woods behind their home to celebrate Charles’ life and commemorate the anniversary of his death. This year — the 20th anniversary — they had to change their plans due to Archbishop Hebda’s directive on suspending public Mass in light of the coronavirus.

It was a last-minute disappointment at an emotional time, but they took it in stride.

Instead, when March 20 arrived — a bright, brisk Friday — Ellen and Steve pulled on their jackets and headed to the woods, along with a few others, including Father Hansen and Ellen’s brother, Deacon Mike Carney. They did the Seven Sorrows of Mary walk, prayed the Stations of the Cross and had a private Mass, which they were permitted to do.

They believed Charles was with them, as Father Wilson had promised at the funeral. The communion of saints celebrates with us at every Mass, the priest had said. “Every time you go to Mass, Charles will be surrounding the altar with you.”

Ellen’s parting message hasn’t changed much from 20 years ago, back when she was offering her industrious son to neighbors in need — an elderly woman across the street, younger Boy Scouts in his troop. She sees he can still be useful.

“Charles is ready to help anyone deepen their faith and their relationship with God,” she said. “Put him to work!”

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