Father Anthony Lickteig celebrates 60 years as a priest at a Mass with the pope
by Jessica Langdon
OVERLAND PARK — Father Anthony Lickteig knew nothing of the massive surprise that was in the works for him until the letter arrived — an invitation from Pope Francis’ personal secretary.
The letter that came in late October invited Father Lickteig to concelebrate a Mass with Pope Francis in Rome on Dec. 9 in honor of his 60 years of active priestly ministry.
Although technically “retired,” he plays an active role in the archdiocese, including celebrating daily and Sunday Masses at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park as parochial vicar emeritus.
The invitation actually surprised everyone, including Father Richard Storey, pastor of Holy Spirit, who wrote the letter that set everything in motion back in December 2013.
At the time, the parish was planning a big celebration in June 2014 for Father Lickteig’s anniversary.
And so, Father Storey sent Pope Francis an invitation, too, just in case it somehow fit into his schedule.
He penned a note about the 86-year-old priest’s years of service.
“What does it hurt?” he figured.
But 10 months passed without a word, until the end of October, when Father Storey received the letter acknowledging his correspondence and inviting Father Lickteig to concelebrate the Mass with the pope at his personal altar.
Father Lickteig was honored, but didn’t rush to book a flight.
Father Storey, however, decided that if there was a way this could happen, it was going to.
Making it happen
Father Storey shared the news with the congregation on Nov. 1.
“There is no way you are not going,” parishioners immediately responded.
But when he checked prices online after that Saturday Mass, things didn’t look promising.
Still, he shared the news again at the Nov. 2 Masses.
“A gentleman came out and said, ‘You’re going. Period,’” said Father Storey.
And with that, the plane tickets were taken care of.
Someone else handled the hotel arrangements.
Someone else, meals.
“They all wanted to be included — part of it,” said Father Lickteig.
Holy Spirit Parish and the Holy Spirit alike played roles in bringing everything together, believes Father Storey.
Father Lickteig had a knee replacement in late August, and so the timing worked out perfectly for the trip, for which he and Father Storey departed on Dec. 7.
The “whirlwind trip” took Father Lickteig back to Rome — the city where he had studied for four years in the seminary and where he was ordained in 1954.
The official anniversary of Father Lickteig’s ordination was on Dec. 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. And on that date this year, he and Father Storey visited the very altar in Rome where he was ordained.
‘The good pastor’
Dec. 9 brought Father Lickteig’s unforgettable meeting with Pope Francis.
He joined several priests from the Diocese of Rome and a Jesuit priest also celebrating a milestone anniversary in concelebrating an intimate Mass with Pope Francis in a chapel at his residence, Domus Sanctae Marthae.
He found Pope Francis in person to be the same man whose spirit comes across in news reports and other stories.
“He’s very animated,” said Father Lickteig, who was touched by the points the “authentic” Pope Francis hit during his homily.
“He mentions that an evangelizer should never look like a person coming from a funeral,” said Father Lickteig.
A church is not simply a “museum” or an organization in which everything is “in its place, all tidy,” explained the pope, noting the importance of joy, celebration and peace.
Pope Francis also referred to Gospel passages about looking for the lost sheep.
From a businessperson’s perspective, losing one sheep yet still having 99 might leave things looking good.
“But he said he’s not a businessman,” said Father Lickteig. “He is the loving shepherd, and he goes searching until he finds [the lost sheep].”
Pope Francis spent several minutes talking with Father Lickteig after Mass.
“In the personal meeting, there’s no formality,” said Father Lickteig. “He reminds me of the good pastor who, after Sunday Mass, is out there greeting the people. And he’s not afraid to take ahold of you and look at you and to smile and to comment, to nod — and his emotion comes through.”
When Father Lickteig told the pope he had studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome — founded by the Society of Jesus — Pope Francis gave him the thumbs up and said, “Bellissimo.”
“It was a beautiful way to finish 60 years as a priest, and to do it there where it all began with ordination on Dec. 8,” said Father Lickteig. “The trip was not a tourist trip, but a nostalgia trip.”
The two priests from Holy Spirit visited places where Father Lickteig had lived as a student and visited the Gregorian University.
Father Lickteig remembered his days of learning in Latin, which the young men at the time would practice in the courtyards preparing for their oral exams.
As they traveled, Holy Spirit parishioners called the office for updates and followed the parish Facebook site with an enthusiasm Father Storey could only liken to excitement during the World Series.
They are grateful for everything the parish did to make this trip a reality, said Father Storey.
He and Father Lickteig have 71 years of combined life in the priesthood, and he feels this pairing of a newer priest with an experienced priest has been a blessing to both of them.
Father Lickteig, years ago as pastor of Queen of the Holy Rosary Parish in Wea, completed the paperwork when Father Storey entered the seminary, but the two have become good friends working together at Holy Spirit.
Father Storey was honored to accompany Father Lickteig on this anniversary journey.
Father Lickteig shared his gratitude with the people of Holy Spirit after they returned from Rome.
“It’s one of those times when you actually feel the presence and power of prayer surrounding you,” he said.
He certainly felt their prayers when he was in the hospital to have his knee replaced over the summer.
“When we were walking through the colonnade to enter Vatican City, I had the same intense feeling: There are a lot of people just praying for you,” said Father Lickteig. “And I thanked them for that.
“I told the pope, ‘The parish really loves you.’ And, of course, he gave his blessing to the parish and its families.”