Following in namesake’s footsteps led Minnesota priest to his own Latin American mission

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

In a way, Father Greg Schaffer, 53, was set up from the beginning to serve as a missionary priest in Latin America. But perhaps not in Venezuela.

The St. Paul native was named after his priest-uncle, Father Gregory Schaffer, who established the Diocese of New Ulm’s mission in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. He grew up listening to his uncle’s stories whenever he came home.

He made his first trip to San Lucas in the seventh grade and couldn’t wait to go back. He recalls that at some point he met martyr-to-be, Blessed Stanley Rother, who served a nearby parish. After graduating from St. Bernard’s High School in St. Paul in 1984, he entered St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul and joined the U.S. Army Reserve to pay for college.

During a leave of absence from the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, the future priest spent two years with his uncle at the Guatemala mission from 1989 to 1991. Father Schaffer said he experienced profound peace in the midst of what was effectively a war zone. Seeing how his uncle was able to bring hope to people in such conditions gave him an image of priestly life that proved inspiring.

“That really helped solidify my vision of priesthood,” said Father Schaffer, who returned to SPS and was ordained in 1994.

Although Father Schaffer was prepared to accept whatever assignment he’d receive as an archdiocesan priest, his hope was that he’d be able to serve in Latin America ­— specifically Guatemala. But after serving for three years at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood, he was asked to serve at the archdiocesan mission in Venezuela.

“Without skipping a beat, I said I’d like to go to Guatemala,” he recalls. “[The bishop] told me, ‘I know you do, but you can’t.’ And that was that.”

Father Schaffer accepted the Venezuela assignment, but not without another attempt at keeping his Guatemala dream alive. When classmate Paul McGee expressed interest in serving in Venezuela, Father Schaffer went to Archbishop Harry Flynn and asked that his classmate go in his place. Instead, Archbishop Flynn sent them both. Father Schaffer has been serving in Ciudad Guayana ever since.

In Venezuela, Father Schaffer said he has had to learn to rely both on God and the people around him.

“To really connect with the people and serve, you have to depend on them and listen to them,” he said.

Father Schaffer’s time in Venezuela has made him grateful for his seminary preparation, as it’s helped him work through questions that have come up in his ministry, like how to appropriately incorporate local music into the liturgy. Serving in Venezuela has also made him appreciate spiritual truths that often go unheeded in modern America — such as the dangers of witchcraft and voodoo, which are far more prevalent realities in South America.

“It’s nothing to fool around with,” he said of such practices, which are part of the Santeria religion prevalent in Latin America.

Father Schaffer has served as pastor of Jesucristo Resucitado since 2000, but he recently picked up an additional assignment: vicar general of the Diocese of Ciudad Guyana. He said it’s a humbling and “surreal” experience, which included representing the diocese at last year’s meeting of Venezuela bishops. He found that talking about baseball was an easy way to make connections with the bishops, given the success of Venezuelan players like Johann Santana and Carlos Silva, both of whom once played for the Minnesota Twins.

Now in his 21st year of ministry in Ciudad Guayana, the Minnesota priest admits that he never thought he’d be in Venezuela this long. But after serving as vicar general and seeing the difficulties facing local priests, he said he can’t envision leaving now.

“It’d be really hard to go back to a nice, comfortable situation in the archdiocese, knowing the sacrifices the other priests are making here,” he said, adding that he feels obligated to help generous people back in Minnesota make a difference in Venezuela. “I have to take advantage of that while I’m able to.”

And if Father Schaffer is going to match his uncle’s feat of serving 48 years in the mission, he’ll need to continue to draw on the original inspiration he encountered in San Lucas all those years ago.

“It’s a humbling experience,” he said. “Being an instrument of God’s grace and love in the midst of all the struggles makes all the difference in the world.”

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