by Karen Bonar
Special to The Leaven
SABETHA — During his first few years as a priest, Father Jaime Zarse was immersed in ministering to the youth of the archdiocese.
Six years into his priesthood, he’s taking a different approach.
“In my last assignment, I spent 75 percent of my time with our young people. What that experience showed me is if Mom and Dad are checked out and don’t care about their faith, it doesn’t matter how strong your youth programs are,” he said. “I have made it my mission in this assignment to spend 75 percent of my time pursuing my adults. I want to get to know them and share my heart with them, share my story.”
Father Zarse’s story is this: He moved to nine different cities before entering high school. He settled in Overland Park and graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in 2005 before embarking on a collegiate soccer career at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
“I was thinking I would become like my dad: Get married, have a good Catholic family,” he said.
But — naturally — God had other plans.
“I lost my college girlfriend and the game of soccer within seven days of each other,” he said.
This allowed him time to pause and reflect.
“It was the greatest blessing of my life,” Father Zarse said. “I feel like sometimes the Lord takes everything from you. It was like God was saying, ‘Son, I’ve tried to be subtle, but I love you too much to leave you where you are.’
“I couldn’t begin to tell you why he called me to the priesthood. He saved me from myself, from the man I surely would have become, and he did it through love,” he said. “Once you experience the tender, merciful love of God, you can’t go back to counterfeit love.”
Sometimes, however, seeing God’s wisdom and love in a situation is difficult.
A prime example was when Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann appointed him to be pastor of a triad of parishes near the Kansas-Nebraska border. In 2018, he was appointed pastor of Sacred Heart in Sabetha, St. Augustine in Fidelity and St. James in Wetmore. An Overland Park native who also lived in Topeka, a seemingly remote assignment was a significant change.
The landscape of rural Kansas is far different from that of St. Louis, Milwaukee and Houston, where he lived as a child.
“Unlike those places where nobody knows who you are or cares who you are, up here, everybody knows your name,” Father Zarse said. “Whether it’s the grocery store or wellness center or country club, everybody looks at you and acknowledges you and asks how you are.”
But it isn’t the only difference.
“If something happens and you need help, people drop everything to be there,” he said. “I suspect many small towns share a strong work ethic and an integrity.
“In this part of the world, parish members see the need and they fill it. If they see something that needs to be addressed in the church or hall, they just take care of it — they don’t even ask you to fix it for them. It’s incredible.”
Living in a more rural environment provides an opportunity to reflect upon the life of Christ.
“I think there’s a reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth, not Jerusalem or Rome,” Father Zarse said. “When I think about Sabetha, I think of it as my Nazareth. I drew closer to Our Lady and to Jesus because there was silence and quiet. I was alone with ‘The Alone.’”
The process of settling into the region took roughly 18 months, he said. With about 2,500 residents and no stoplight, Sabetha has a significantly different culture than his first assignment in Topeka.
Being immersed in a large parish and high school at his first assignment, however, allowed him to gain a perspective and focus on his current assignment. The three parishes have a dozen Bible studies between them, all aimed at adults.
“I want my little footprint in the history of these parishes to be that I took the time to know the parents,” Father Zarse said. “The focus has always been, ‘If we don’t invest in our kids, we don’t have a future of the church.’
“It’s true. But if you can light fires in the parents and the homes, great things can follow.”