by Father Pat Murphy
On Dec. 31, 2007, a long line of priests solemnly processed into Holy Family Church in Kansas City, Kan., to celebrate the funeral Mass of Msgr. Heliodore Mejak. If ever there was an urban legend in Kansas City, it must have been Msgr. Mejak, who dedicated 63 years of his priestly life to serving an immigrant community on Strawberry Hill.
In listening to the songs in three different languages and in hearing the stories of his life, it became crystal clear to me that Msgr. Mejak was indeed a man who understood the challenges of a successful pastoral ministry to immigrants. In fact, as we reflect back on his life, I believe he has some valuable lessons to teach us as we try to get a handle on our modern-day ministry to the Hispanic community.
The first lesson has to do with language. He understood the need to learn the language of the people that he was called to serve. Therefore he made a great effort to go out and meet people where they were and gently move them along the road of their faith journey. And, of course, speaking their language was an indispensable tool in this process.
The second lesson was his great belief in preserving the faith traditions of the immigrants whom he served. He had a great appreciation for the faith traditions of his parish and thus encouraged people to keep them alive in the practice of their Catholic faith.
The third great lesson was in his undying concern that the faith and the culture of the people would be passed on to the next generation. To this end, he was instrumental in starting up a Slovenian Club which is still very much alive today with over 100 members. Monsignor understood the intimate link between faith and culture, and so he became one of the bridges that kept alive that connection.
In sum, as we reflect on the lessons that Msgr. Mejak taught us the challenges for our archdiocese remain very clear:
1) We need more Spanish-speaking priests to care for the new immigrants. I wonder who will be the next Msgr. Mejak?
2) We need to work hard at helping Hispanics preserve their traditions as an essential point of reference in keeping their faith alive.
3) We need to give extra pastoral care to the children of immigrants. Because they are often caught between the cracks of the two cultures, they are in the greatest danger of losing their faith.
There is no doubt that Msgr. Mejak taught us some valuable pastoral lessons with regard to the ministry among the immigrants. I hope and pray we can pay him the ultimate homage by applying these lessons to the modern-day challenges of ministry to Hispanic immigrants.