by Marc and Julie Anderson
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — To be a universal brother.
It’s a concept that St. Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) spoke of occasionally. And it’s one Father Mark Mertes, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, was able to live out this past summer by hosting Father Janko Kristof, a diocesan priest of the Diocese of Gurk- Klagenfurt, Austria, a diocese near the Austrian-Slovenian border, for nearly two months.
Father Mertes was first invited to become a member of the Jesus Caritas Fraternity of Priests 36 years ago, shortly after his ordination. The fraternity follows the example of St. Charles de Foucauld, canonized by Pope Francis on May 15, 2022.
Today, the spiritual family of St. Charles de Foucauld includes numerous associations, communities and fraternities around the world. Here in the archdiocese, a number of Jesus Caritas groups composed of five to seven priests meet monthly to read Scripture, pray before the Blessed Sacrament and often share a meal and fellowship. The fraternity also seeks to imitate the saint’s example of being a universal brother to all and serving among those who are marginalized in any way.
Father Mertes’ involvement in the fraternity has deepened over time.
“The reason I stayed and the reason that I got more involved and got involved nationally is I really liked and was impressed by the priests who were in Jesus Caritas,” he said. “They were the ones who went to Venezuela. They were the ones who learned Spanish. They were the ones who were willing to live in the difficult part of town.
“So, I liked that. And then, as I got involved nationally, you meet the same kind of people from around the world and then that just becomes even more enriching.”
It’s through the fraternity that Father Mertes first met Father Kristof more than 10 years ago at an international gathering as national representatives of their respective countries.
“We met speaking Spanish,” Father Mertes recalled.
Fast forward to 2023, when the two priests reconnected through a mutual friend. As part of a modified sabbatical experience, Father Kristof had asked one of the fraternity members for help in finding a priest in the United States willing to host him for two months.
He actually found several — all ministering at St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kansas!
For the first week or so, because Father Mertes had to be away, Fathers Michael Van Lian and Timothy Skoch, the newly ordained associate pastor, showed the Slovenian-born priest around the parish and the archdiocese.
After a trip outside the area to Springfield, Missouri, and Benet Lake, Wisconsin, Father Kristof returned to the parish on July 16, where Father Lian included him in the Burmese community’s celebration of Grandparents’ Day and Father Skoch helped him work on his English.
When Father Mertes returned on July 28 — and for the next month — he showed his friend around the archdiocese. And answered what turned out to be a multitude of questions.
One of the things Father Kristof hoped to take home from his visit was a better sense of how the Catholic Church in the United States operates. And, so, he asked questions — and more questions.
For example, he wanted to know how clergy and laity worked together in the parish, how many priests were in the archdiocese, how many dioceses there are in the United States and much more.
Two months gave him plenty of time, though, to answer most of them. While staying with Father Mertes, Father Kristof attended the Pitching for Priests game, visited Prairie Star Ranch in Williamsburg, attended some regional priest meetings, observed some diocesan-level meetings at the chancery, volunteered at St. Mary’s Food Kitchen, visited the monastery of the Little Sisters of the Lamb, enjoyed the Croatian festival at St. John the Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, shopped at I. Donnelly religious goods store in Kansas City, Missouri, and offered Masses in Spanish. He even won his first game of bingo.
Father Kristof also celebrated the feast of St. Clare with the Fraternity the Poor of Jesus Christ in Kansas City, Kansas, and engaged in street ministry to the homeless on Aug. 22.
Having experienced so much, Father Kristof said he is extremely grateful for the welcome he received.
“I can’t speak of the entire Catholic Church of America, having been here in St. Patrick and some parts of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas,” he said. “But my impression was that there is a greater commitment to the faith and to the Catholic Church here, too, among the youngsters. I have seen more believers kneeling in prayer here — including young people. That fascinated me.
“In the parish, I also met a group of men, the Knights of Columbus, who consciously live their faith, support charitable causes and act as Catholics in society. Because they saw that I admired them, they made me a member the first time we met.
“But what also appeals to me are the many private schools that the church maintains here and thus has the opportunity to give young people a Christian and Catholic education.”
“The church here is much more colorful overall, just like the society,” Father Kristof concluded. “The special challenge here is to make the Catholic profile clear and to live it here, despite all the diversity.
“My impression is that here in this archdiocese it is possible to live both.”