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Clergy: Congregations, prayer keep them going

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Catherine W. Idzerda
July 15, 2010
— Ordinary men with an incredible calling.

From June 2009 to June 2010, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated the “Year for Priests.”


Planned to include the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, the year was designed to celebrate priests—not as heroes, but as ordinary people charged with being spiritual shepherds.


Christ’s first apostles were fishermen, ordinary guys who could mend a net and manage a small sail. Their faith descendents are charged to bringing the Gospel message to their congregations and their communities. They’re also expected to be administrators, educators, counselors—and it helps if they know where salt for the sidewalk and oil for the lawn mower is kept.


During the past year, they also had to cope with another round of the sex abuse scandal playing itself out in the media: It turned out not to be such a good year for priests.


In his remarks at a ceremony marking the end of the year, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the latest news and asked for forgiveness from God and all the persons involved.


“Had the Year for Priests been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events,” Benedict said.


Instead, the events served as a call to renewal, a reminder that even amid human weakness, God’s love is still present in the world, he said.


As for local priests, the latest scandal didn’t alter their workload, their appreciation of their congregations or their commitment to their vocations.


We asked priests from the Janesville-Milton cluster of parishes what sustains them in their 24-hour-a-day vocation. Monsignor James J. Uppena, St. Mary Milton, was away from his parish on retreat and vacation and was unavailable to participate in this story.


The Rev. Randy Timmerman

Age: 43


Parish: St. John Vianney, Janesville.


Home parish: Holy Ghost Parish, Dickeyville.


Spiritual influence: His grandmother, Rosalyn Timmerman. In particular, it was her “awareness of gratitude, that everything was a gift.”


Background: Studied elementary education at UW-Madison and planned to become a teacher; ordained in 1993.


On the church’s struggles: Timmerman embraced Pope Benedict’s words and emphasized that the year wasn’t “glorification of individual performance.” This wasn’t the year of priests as superheroes, but priests as humans.


“This year, we wanted to reawaken our joy at how close God is to us,” Timmerman said. “God entrusts himself to us despite our infirmities. We’re just human, yet he guides us and sustains us daily.”


What sustains him: His prayer life, the scriptures.


“It’s my walk with the Lord. He sustains me,” Timmerman said.


What he says about his parish: He’s proud of how the “parish is a real presence in the community.” The school and congregation are involved in a variety of outreach projects, and the church was one of the first to host the traveling homeless shelter.


The Rev. John Auby

Age: 53


Parish: St. William Parish, Janesville.


Home parish: St. Patrick’s, Madison.


Background: He was a social worker before becoming a priest. He was ordained in 1994.


On the church’s struggles: “The church is often a target for something—sometimes people have a legitimate reason to criticize,” Auby said. “But we’re a human church, we have human frailties, that’s just the reality.”


Most priests are “trying to be obedient, really trying to be the presence of Christ in the world,” Auby said.


What sustains him: “Certainly, I think prayer; and certainly, you can glean a lot of energy and wisdom from the scripture,” Auby said.


Auby celebrates Mass most weekdays at 7:30 a.m., and that sets the tone for the rest of the day.


What he says about his parish: He’s particularly impressed with St. William’s ministry to its sick and homebound members.


“It’s an extension of community,” Auby said. “They can receive Jesus Christ in Holy Communion.”


He also said he was grateful for the great staff and core of volunteers, both in the parish and the school.


The Rev. James Kuhn

Age: 65


Parish: St. Patrick’s Church, Janesville.


Home parish: St. Mary’s, Janesville.


Spiritual influences: Monsignor Beck, who was pastor at St. Patrick’s when he was a boy.


When Kuhn was in kindergarten at Adams Elementary School, his teacher asked students to draw a picture of what they wanted to be. Kuhn drew a priest, and his teacher saved it and returned it to him at his ordination in 1971.


What sustains him: His prayer life helps him renew spirits, and it’s at the center of his efforts to keep his life in balance.


What he says about his parish: “I’m very impressed with the volunteerism here—we need our parishioners to do so much.”


He’s also moved by his congregation’s charitableness.


“They’re really striving to make Jesus’ message real,” Kuhn said.


The Rev. Stephen Umhoefer

Age: 70


Parish: Nativity of St. Mary or St. Mary’s, Janesville.


Home parish: St Patrick’s Janesville.


Special spiritual influences: The Rev. Bill Stack, one of the associate priests at St. Patrick’s when he was a boy.


Stack was the “go-to” guy in the parish, and Umhoefer saw him as a man who “knew answers and would do the right thing.”


On the church’s struggles: “The phrase, ‘all politics is local’ comes to mind,” Umhoefer said.


In other words, while local Catholics are acutely aware of the sexual abuse scandal, they remain extremely supportive of local pastors.


“There’s generally a very great appreciation for pastors,” Umhoefer said.


What sustains him: He is sustained spiritually and practically by the prayers and volunteers in the parish.


It’s hard to analyze the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life, he said.


“Really, there are so many days when I reflect with a sort of amazement after I’ve said something to someone that was clearly helpful when I didn’t think I had the answer,” Umhoefer said. “I say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ ”


What he says about his parish: “The central thing is the liturgy, the participation of the people—praying, singing, responding, their strong support for one another in word and gesture. I certainly can feel that, and that’s another source of sustenance.”



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