Column: Few professions make a difference like the priesthood

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

The cover story of the Jan. 11 edition of The Leaven featured Msgr. Heliodore Mejak, who died this past Christmas Eve at the age of 98. To live to the age of 98 is quite a feat, but what was most remarkable about Msgr. Mejak was that he was still an active pastor.

The story about Msgr. Mejak’s death was picked up by several news services,
appearing in secular and Catholic papers in other parts of our nation. Several bishops from other parts of the country, having read about the longevity of his priestly service, inquired about this amazing priest from Kansas.

This past June, I made a pastoral visit to Holy Family Parish in Kansas City, Kan., where Monsignor served as pastor for more than 63 years. I was inspired not only by Monsignor Mejak’s unflagging priestly zeal and dedication, but also by the devotion of the parishioners of Holy Family to their pastor.

He was able to remain active right up to a few days before his death — in part, because of his own remarkable determination and energy, but also because of the collaboration and assistance of the parishioners of Holy Family. It was beautiful for me, as a bishop, to observe the love between this amazing priest and his people.

During my pastoral visit, after Mass on Sunday and a meeting with the parishioners, I had lunch with Monsignor and some of the parish leaders. They encouraged him to share with me some of the more interesting and amusing stories of his ministry at Holy Family. He related one incident when an intruder had stolen his wallet from the rectory. Monsignor tracked him down in a nearby bar where the thief was just about to purchase a drink. Monsignor, with a crowbar in hand, inquired if he was intending to pay for that beer with his money. The robber sheepishly returned to Monsignor his wallet with all of the contents intact.

Monsignor told me that one of his few regrets was his inability to read because of his deteriorating eyesight. I told Monsignor that, with the talking books program from the Library of Congress, it was possible to acquire an audio version of almost any book. Monsignor thanked me for the suggestion, but he said that he did not really have time to read because he spent the better part of most days using the copier to perform a series of enlargements of the prayers and readings for Mass. I thought to myself I hoped I had half of Monsignor’s zeal and determination to proclaim the Gospel. Monsignor told me he could not imagine being retired. His whole life had been devoted to serving the Lord and caring for his people. Monsignor could not conceive life without the opportunity to give priestly service to the people of Holy Family Parish.

Monsignor Mejak was emblematic of the goodness of the priests of our Archdiocese. I am frequently inspired by the way our retired priests continue to be so generous in providing priestly service and pastoral care to the people of the Archdiocese. Without the generosity of so many of our priests beyond the normal retirement age, it would be impossible to keep all of our current parishes open and functioning.

Holy Family Church was packed with people of all age ranges for Msgr. Mejak’s funeral. It was beautiful to witness this final great outpouring of love for a remarkable priest. I thought about many funerals I have celebrated as a parish priest, with a very tiny congregation, for people much younger than Msgr. Mejak who had outlived most of their friends and contemporaries. The packed church for Msgr. Mejak’s funeral was a testimony of the fruitfulness of his priestly ministry even at his advanced age.

I was reminded of the biblical stories of both Sarah and Abraham and Elizabeth and Zechariah in which God made them fruitful long beyond the normal age. No matter our age or our infirmities, if we are striving to the best of our ability to do God’s will, the Lord can and will use us to be instruments of his amazing grace in our world.

I was also reminded of the importance of the priesthood in the life of the church. If a young a man desires to make a real difference with his life, no other vocation can compare to the priesthood in the ways that God can use a solitary life to touch, inspire and heal the hearts of so many of his people.

The lives of few people can compare to the full life that Msgr. Heliodore Mejak enjoyed in this world. Moreover, I have to believe that when Monsignor went to meet the Lord on Christmas Day he heard: “Well done, my good and faithful servant. . . . Come share your master’s joy” (Mt 25: 21). It is not a bad compensation package the Lord offers his priests: a full life in this world and the fullness of life in eternity!

I encourage everyone in the Archdiocese to identify a young man who could make a good priest. Take the time this week to encourage him either in person or in writing to consider seriously if he is being called by the Lord to serve as a priest.

Who knows? You may be the instrument the Lord wishes to use to inspire the next Msgr. Mejak to respond to his call to the priesthood!

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