Priest follows call to mission — in the US

| October 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

Glenmary Father Steve Pawelk smiles with parishioners following the Feb. 2, 2019, dedication of St. Teresa of Kolkata Catholic Church. The church is the first Catholic structure built in Union County, Tenn., which had no Catholic presence before Glenmary Home Missioners arrived. COURTESY GLENMARY CHALLENGE MAGAZINE

Glenmary Father Steve Pawelk grew up in a close-knit, faith-filled family on a farm near Maple Lake, but he felt a pull to missionary service at an early age. He experienced particular aspects of that life during college, with three weeks in Guatemala and six weeks of service closer to home in St. Paul.

Gradually, Father Pawelk’s initial thoughts about “mission” being accomplished only in foreign countries turned to considerations about people living in poverty and not fully knowing Christ right here in the United States.

“So, when I discovered the (Glenmary) Home Missioners, it felt real to me,” said Father Pawelk, 60, as he reflected just weeks before World Mission Sunday Oct. 18 on what it means to be on mission in the Church. This year’s World Mission Sunday theme is “Here I am, send me!” Pope Francis is calling on everyone to consider the needs of the missionary life of the Church around the world.

Founded in 1939, the Catholic society of priests and brothers that Father Pawelk joined serves areas of the country where the Church is not yet effectively present and poverty is prevalent, particularly Appalachia and rural areas of the South, where Catholics make up less than 3% of the population and rates of poverty are nearly twice the national average.

Every Catholic is called to mission, Father Pawelk said, just in different ways. “By our baptism we are all missioners,” he said.

Even the word “Mass” points in that direction, as it’s derived from the Latin word “missa” used at the dismissal to send the congregation out into the world, he said.

“The Mass is there for the sending,” he said. “It’s the ‘sending place,’ the fueling station.”

For Father Pawelk, who joined the Glenmary Home Missioners 36 years ago, the call to serve was fueled in part by his fascination with the world, its varied people and places.

“God made the world full of flavors,” he said. “Full of expressions of sound and food and color. I don’t know the body of Christ if I just stay home.”

Having served in states including Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and now as novitiate director of the Glenmary Home Missioners in Cincinnati, Ohio, Father Pawelk has encountered many cultures and approaches to life. He keeps his response to challenges in adapting to changing environments very simple.

“I tell people, ‘I’m a German pig farmer from Minnesota.’ It’s because I know who I am that I can work with other cultures without the stress.”

“I approach it as a learner. Christ is already here. I help that emerge. I can help them find the light and nurture that to great fruit,” he said.

Missionary work far from home can be difficult, as it includes missing family, friends and his home parish of St. Timothy in Maple Lake, Father Pawelk said. Six of his seven brothers and sisters live within 10 miles of his parents near Maple Lake. While smartphones and other technology makes contact from a distance easier, getting back home once a year means much is missed.

“I miss weddings, baptisms and funerals,” he said.

Nonetheless, he remains close to his family, and they accept his vocation. He also knows his siblings are taking care of their parents, Eldor and Joan, allowing him to serve the Church, Father Pawelk said.

His vocation includes helping the materially poor, such as collecting enough donations for two months of rent and other bills faced by 19 families after a 2018 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on a packing plant in East Tennessee that affected parishioners he served, chronicled in the 2019 Netflix documentary, “After the Raid.”

“It was extremely emotional, and it is still ongoing,” Father Pawelk said. “Having children come crying into the church, people hiding in the hills. … Many of the cases (for possible deportation) have yet to be heard.”

What drives him is the opportunity to spread the love of Christ as a missionary, through the sacraments and through service in places where Jesus’ love is not widely known or understood and help is hard to find, Father Pawelk said.

“I can help people who don’t know church, don’t have faith, don’t have self-confidence or suffer with guilt. If a sinner is rejected by family or community, (he or she) might wonder, ‘Why even try? I’m going to hell anyway.’ … We have the ability to accept someone others have judged. God’s mercy is real. We have a small church, so we can spend time with people, listen to their stories.”

And there is the blessing of celebrating the Mass, including prayers for people who might not know Christ and his mercy, he said.

“I am the person there, offering (the Mass) in a place that needs you,” Father Pawelk said. “It’s not about me. But now there are faces and names at that altar, that were not in the minds of someone before this. That will bring Christ to the community.”

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