Getting to Know Fr. Steven

(This is a compilation of the six-part series Fr. Steven wrote for our parishioners, appearing in bulletins and blog posts in November and December 2014. Minimal editing done by Fr. Steven.)

 

My dear friends,

In the pastors column I want to focus my thoughts on us getting to know each other. So I will begin here by sharing with you some things about my own life, a life which has become for me a song I sing in praise of God’s wonderful Mercy to me and my family.

Though I was born in Kansas City Missouri, I grew up in the small river town of Prescott Wisconsin, that beautiful land flowing with milk and butter. There are five in my family. I have an older sister, Susan, and a younger brother, Michael–both of my parents are still living–praise God. For the first nine years in Prescott we lived in a trailer park on the outer edge of town, and next to this park was a large field. This field and the river bluffs became the play ground for me and my brother. As far back as I can remember I was always deeply fascinated by nature, that first book of revelation called “creation.” Though my stronger interests were in rocks and insects, I would bring home just about anything I could find: snakes, lizards, frogs, turtles, spiders–all those things my mother wished I had left in the field. This enjoyment and connection with nature became the place of my first encounters with God, for my family did not practice much faith beyond meal prayers until I was 10 years old. Though I did not have much of an idea about God at that time, I sensed His presence at certain moments, and sometimes it would make me joyful or leave me feeling peaceful. It wasn’t until years later, looking back on this time of my life, that I realized these gentle touches were God. All those days and hours we spent roaming our little wilderness kept us innocent and gave us temporary relief from the heavy burdens of our broken family life.

My father struggled with alcoholism for much of my childhood, and this brought a lot of pain and heart-ache into our family, weighing especially heavy on our mother. While we often struggled financially because of this, the hardest part for me was not having a father who was able to model and nurture in me a sense of identity, self-worth, and those noble qualities of a true man. My father has changed so much since then, and I thank the Lord for blessing him so generously and making him a new creation in Christ–but back at that time I had to try as best I could to figure things out on my own, which I did not do very well.

As part of an attempt to steer our family in a better direction, our parents had us baptized when I was ten years old. I also remember my mother and father sitting us down one evening to teach us the Lord’s Prayer before bedtime. Hope started to grow in our hearts and the sense of a “new beginning.” And things did get better for a time–my father even stopped drinking–but, unfortunately, this new beginning didn’t hold out for very long.

Though we had received the gift of New Life in Christ through the waters of baptism, we had no one to help us understand this wonderful Gift and what it meant for our life. Not having any close adults or peer models to mentor me, and only a weak faith to guide me, I was very vulnerable and weak to the influences of the peer groups at school and the secular culture around me. So, little by little, with my heart thirsting for love and acceptance, I started drifting further and further away from God and the path of goodness by seeking love and happiness in the wrong places and in ways hurtful to myself and others. We tend to think that God is absent or distant from us at these wayward moments of our life, and yet here is where Grace is so amazing, for God, in allowing sin and all it’s painful consequences, is able to use it to love us right back into His arms. It is true, I had abandoned God, but God never abandoned me, nor did He ever stop loving me.

The song lyrics “looking for love in all the wrong places” best describes my teenage years. We see this with so many people today—both young and old—searching desperately for love and happiness, but not finding it where they thought they would. The world promises so much, it glitters and makes a lot of noise–but in the end it’s promises leave us feeling empty, it’s version of happiness disappoints. I wanted to be happy like everyone around me, to know love and true friendship, to find a fulfilling purpose for my life, to become a real man. But where are we to find these things our hearts desire? With many of my peers, we looked to the world for the answers. But the fallen world always seems to propose the same answers: “buy and have more, strive for power and recognition, seek greater comfort and pleasure–for having more you’ll be content; if you become “cool” and “macho” you’ll be a man; there’s nothing beyond this life, Christianity is an oppressive myth, so pursue as much sensible pleasure you can, keep yourselves entertained and you’ll be happy.” So I and many of my high school friends put all our energy into striving for this seductive “ideal,” not realizing where it was leading us, not seeing the sign hidden along this path that read: “dead end.” Following this path made me increasingly more selfish. I became proud and arrogant, competitive and ambitious, tearing other people down to build myself up. By compromising my deeper sense of right and wrong to fit in and be accepted, I often hurt myself further, as well as the people I wanted to love.

During this time our family was attending a Lutheran Church in town every Sunday. Though I did not find the homilies very inspiring, I still heard the Bible stories Sunday after Sunday. But as quickly as I heard these teachings about the Christian life, I just as quickly pushed them out of my mind and tried to forget them. The guilt I felt when I compared my life with the Gospel was more than I could deal with, and the deeper truth was that I did not want to give up my wayward lifestyle—I was a slave to sin, unable to break free. At best I had only a ‘legalistic’ understanding of faith then, a list of do’s and don’t’s—a sense of a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ was not within my experience–I did not yet know the One, True, and Living God speaking to me in the words of the bible.

What I find very moving and wonderful, which I mentioned above, is as I was drifting further and further from the Lord, God was drawing closer and closer to me, pursuing me in ways that I did not recognize until years later. This is the Good News of the Gospel: God does not abandon or forsake sinners, but through Jesus Christ, has come precisely to seek out and save all who are lost.

The light that God was trying to shine into my heart was easy to leave behind at Church. But what was I to do when that same light became tangibly present every day in our home through my little brother, and a short time later through my sister? At the end of my sophomore year in high school my brother was moved to give his whole life over to God and follow Jesus Christ. He was not one of those “preachy” types, but his changes were quick, obvious, and powerful—especially when he stopped teasing me. I’ll never forget the nights I woke up and found him praying. We shared a room together, and often, when he thought I was asleep, he would get out of his bed in the dark, kneel down and pray. I would watch in silence. I didn’t know it then, but my brother was praying for me and our whole family. God heard those prayers of the night, and the fruit they produced in the events that unfolded is still a source of joy for us.

It was during my senior year in high school that my soul and conscience began to awaken and I started searching for God. The same grace was given to one of my close classmates. Together we began to realize that the egotistical pursuit of machoism and the selfish lifestyle of building happiness on the passing pleasures of this world was leading us no where—that it was all vanity–a “house built on sand.” The seductive happiness promised by the secular culture was an illusion, leaving us empty and discouraged. For years I had put on the outward appearance that all was “OK,” that I had it together, that I was “having fun.” Yet inside I was hurting, I felt so restless and lost, so tired of all the games I had to play to fit in and be accepted.

In the span of a few months the “false gods” I had placed my hopes in and which gave me the illusion of happiness completely failed, the house I had built on sand was washing away, leaving me feeling very weak and helpless.  Though very painful, this is a very good place to be in if it breaks our pride and self-reliance and makes us cry out to God–and this is exactly what happened. I could have tried once again to seek that quick, temporary relief as I had done so many times before by crashing another party, finding a new girl friend, buying a new car or stereo system to top the previous one, etc. But there, before me, was my brother and sister and their constant witness of New Life, of something better—by their prayers and example I knew there was something more. So I started to pray sincerely from my heart for the first time, not worrying how the words came out—I seeking a God I did not yet know, but whom I needed so very much.

How beautiful and wonderful is the mercy of God! I had kept God waiting for so many years, but when I called out to Him in my need I did not have to wait even a second—God was right there, ready to lift me up and bathe me in His mercy. Like my father describing his own conversion, “I failed right into the arms of God.” I also like the way St. Augustine describes the moment of his turning point, for at this crucial moment in my life, his experience became mine:

“Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You!

You were within and I was without.

I was looking for You out there,

throwing myself upon the things which You had made.

You were with me, yet I was not with You.

These things held me far from You.

You called and cried out and burst through my deafness;

You shone forth Your fragrance

and I drew in a breath, and now I pant for You;

I have tasted You, and now I hunger and thirst;

You touched me, and I became inflamed with desire for Your peace.”

St. Augustine, The Confession, X

In these early beginnings there was a Christian community of men and women who prayed with me to help me repent and surrender my life over to Jesus Christ, and it was at this moment that I knew God was real, that He loved me deeply, and that everything was going to be OK. I also became deeply aware that I had to change my life, that I could not live as I had before. And so with God’s generous grace, and the help of other Christians, I started to follow Jesus and live the New Way. But this was only the beginning. This new journey of faith was to lead me rather quickly into the Catholic Church.

When I had finally surrendered my life to Christ and committed myself to following Him I was 19 years old. In many ways it felt like a New Life, and it was! The happiness and joy I felt made all that I had, or thought I had before, seem like nothing. Like my brother with his conversion, I started to change rather quickly. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and through the wisdom I found in the Bible and in books like the “Imitation of Christ,” I started to learn from Jesus how to live as His disciple. By the light and grace of God I started to exercise greater discipline and prudence on what I read and watched on TV; I got rid of all the music albums that promoted the sins and attitudes of the “old life” I wanted to leave behind–attitudes like machoism, lust, rebellion against parents, and that “party spirit” devoid of all self-restraint and decency. I started to reach out to those I had formerly looked down upon in my pride and make amends with those I had hurt. Grace left nothing untouched–the Lord even called me to a greater modesty in the way I dressed. Best of all, the Lord began to heal the hurts between me and members of my family–it was a very gradual process–but what a blessing! I was finally learning how to really love, how to receive love and how to give love–it was like having a new heart. How many are the miracles of Jesus that take place in the heart each day!

What also became clear with this new beginning was that I needed guidance and support–which God wonderfully provided. I started to attend meetings held by a small, predominantly Catholic, lay community that my brother and sister were attending up in St. Paul. Even though no one in my family was Catholic, we had heard through some friends that the woman leading this community was very gifted in spiritual direction and counseling. This small group of about 40 people would meet in various homes 3 to 4 times per week to share, discuss, and receive guidance on the Christian life. As I received much help and support from Catherine, the spiritual mother of this group, I also started to encounter the Catholic faith through the sharing and example of the other people who came. Out of curiosity I also started to attend Sunday Mass in various Catholic churches around the Twin Cities, and it was this experience of the Mass that quickly led to my decision to become Catholic.

It is never easy for me to put into words how the Mass tied the knot for me, but it was mainly this: In the lay community I was learning how, with Jesus, to clean up my way of loving, which meant dying each day to the movements of sin in my own heart and rising more with Christ in the way He thinks and loves. As I came to realize that the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, which I was trying to live each day, was the same mystery being celebrated and made present upon the altar at Mass, it was like my heart and the altar became melded together as one—the worship at Mass and my life were not two separate, unrelated things—but one single life. I was living the Mass, and the Mass was living in me.

God also enkindled in my heart a very simple, child-like faith that made it easy for me to believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All I wanted then was to be close to Jesus, and if the Eucharist is Jesus–and it is–then the way forward became obvious: becoming Catholic would help me to be and remain closer to Jesus, for Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. Within a year I was taking instructions to be confirmed Catholic. And, Praise God–in May of 1982, at the Cathedral of St. Paul, taking the confirmation name “Joseph,” I was received into the Catholic Church. I felt many things that day, much too deep for words, but one sentiment that stood out was the feeling that I had come home.

As a new Catholic I was certainly very happy, but God, who is a God of wonderful surprises, was going to manifest many other proofs of His mercy and love for my family. One way God showed this was by bringing my whole family, one-by-one, into the Catholic Faith. My brother entered one year after I did, and then my Father followed two years later. A year after my Father joined, my sister and her family also became Catholic. And then, after several years of deep soul-searching, my mother too made the step. When I look back I marvel at what God has done, and there is something very special about being united in the same faith.

I remained with this Catholic lay community for 13 years–in many ways it was like a family to me–a necessary time of discipleship at the feet of Christ. But God had another surprise for me that would take me in a new direction: He placed in my heart the desire to be a priest.

I find it quite amazing how radically God can change our hearts. If my high school classmates would have taken a vote on who would be least likely to become a priest, I’m sure I would have been toward the top of their list, and I would have cast my vote in along with theirs. But in Christ we truly become new creations, our minds and hearts convert to a whole new way of thinking, living, and seeing. After entrusting my life to Jesus, my former desires to become a rich and famous rock star, or simply a great (and probably obnoxious) macho man faded and disappeared.  My dominant desire changed: I wanted to be like Christ–I no longer wanted to live for myself–I wanted to live generously for God and others.

Two years after becoming Catholic I started to date one of the women in our small Christian community and we became engaged a year later. With my longing for companionship and desire for children, I felt fairly confident that marriage was my path and vocation in life. My dream was to raise a good size family on a hobby farm in the country, living off the land like a pioneer. But all this was soon to change.

There are times in our life when we want something too much, to the point that it blinds us to what is truly wise and good for us, and which can lead to bad decisions. Our willfulness makes it difficult to be open to God’s voice and will. This was the case with our engagement. We both wanted to get married, but we were unwilling to face and deal honestly with certain concerns arising between us. We were good friends, thank God, but if we had married it would have been a disaster waiting to happen. God was very merciful toward us. As we continued to pray each day and surrender our will to God there was a moment of mutual awakening–like a bucket of cold water poured over our heads–we both realized it was not a good idea to marry. And so, with God’s help, we called off the engagement.

What a painful moment this was for both of us! And it just so happened to coincide with the beginning of Lent. I had a heavy, emotional cross to carry that Lent, but the pain was good, because it brought me to God many times a day. Eventually my heart healed and I felt stable again, and started reconsidering the possibility of marriage—thinking perhaps that there was someone else God had planned for me to marry.

The biggest surprise in my life began to unfold about a year and a half later. I was somewhat of a restless soul, going from one activity to another, somewhat like a jittery butterfly moving from flower to flower. Outside of work I usually filled my free time with playing guitar, listening to classical music, hiking, getting together with family and friends, touring garage sales and antique shops and various other things. But one evening God’s voice broke into my restless cycle of activity: “Why are you keeping me waiting? . . . why are you running from me?” I did not hear these words audibly, but they were very clear within my heart. The moment I heard them I knew exactly what God was saying to me. I sat down in a chair and responded: “OK God, I’m ready, please help me.”

From this moment on God started drawing my heart closer, to be alone with Him in silence. As I followed these interior impulses, going against my urges to “do something,” I began to experience God’s love in a deeper, more intimate way. Everything I had lived and experienced before then seemed like a grain of sand in comparison to this new intimacy God had inviting me to share with Him. This experience made me realize that we are never alone, even when we think we are. God is always there–often waiting for us to stop and be still–all silence is filled with His presence. How patiently God waits for us in the silence we fear and avoid–waiting for us to come closer, to hear His gentle voice whisper “peace . . . be still–let go–just be with Me.”

After several months of this experience I found my heart no longer desiring marriage, but wanting rather to live for God alone. The desire grew to the point that at one point I knew I would never marry—a grace I realized later to be the gift of celibacy. What I find so amazing is that I was not looking for this gift–the gift seemed rather to find me. What was God up to? Where was all this leading? Well, about a year after this, at the age of 27, I started to feel desires and attractions to the priesthood.

When the call to be a priest started tugging at my heart, I was a tradesman, fixing copy machines for a company in St. Paul. I did not have a BA degree from college, so it was suggested by my parish priest and a friend that I get a philosophy degree before entering the seminary. I was never very academic, and after a few months of college, I found it too overwhelming.  After taking counsel, I decided to put college on hold for the moment. This began a long period of waiting, a time of deeper growth and maturity. When I look back on this time in hindsight, I see how much I needed that extra time. In God’s divine providence, delays always serve a good purpose, even though we don’t like them and often fail to understand what God is doing. We have our time line, but it may not be the same as God’s. I had heard once that the Israelites could have made it through the desert of Sinai in six weeks, and yet it took them forty years before they finally reached the “Promised Land.” Israel’s forty years in the desert was a necessary time of testing, a time where God was forging a covenant relationship with them, forming their hearts to trust Him and faithfully obey His will.

During this time of waiting I took several jobs in the area of social service: working with the elderly, with the mentally ill, and with young adults who had special needs. Even though I needed money to pay the bills like everyone else, this work was more like a vocation for me, a ministry, and my ongoing “school of love”—stretching and forming my heart in patience, gentleness, compassion and other virtues.

I also went back to trade school and learned how to repair mechanical clocks and watches. I especially enjoyed repairing the old cuckoo clocks and pocket watches. My goal was to eventually work out of my home so I could live a more simple, contemplative life in the world, and be more available to serve the spiritual needs of my Christian community and others.

But the call to be a priest would not go away, it would not let me settle into anything I tried. Based on my previous experience of college, I did not have confidence I could survive the intense study required. But with encouragement from my parish priest and the nudges of grace I decided to give it another try–I was now 34. To my surprise, the door that closed earlier now opened wide. Just a year before my decision, the seminary had started a 6 year program for older men who did not have a BA degree, and the College of St. Thomas had launched a new degree program called “Catholic Studies,” which combined philosophy and theology together, serving as a good under-graduate preparation for the seminary.

Though these years in the seminary were certainly challenging and intense–sometimes feeling like we was drinking from a fire hose–I treasure them and all that I learned. I was able to immerse my self in Scripture and the beautiful teaching of the Catholic Church, which deeply enriched my prayer life. It was also a time of forming deep and lasting friendships with many other seminarians whom I still see and serve with today.

I took a 6 year detour while in the seminary to explore the possibility of religious life with a community of brothers and sisters from France, called the Congregation of St. John. Most of my time with them was spent in Laredo Texas, where they had a monastery and retreat center. Though I would eventually return to the archdiocese, the grace of this stage of the journey was the discovery and growth of certain gifts from the Lord, which indicated specific ways He wanted me to serve Him, share the Good News and glorify Him. When I returned to the archdiocese years later to finish my formation as a priest, I was then ordained by Archbishop Flynn on Dec. 8, 2007, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The message from Mary was clear: I was to be her priest, and she wanted to be, and always will be, the Mother of my priesthood.

How beautiful the mercy of God, and how diverse the paths He leads us. They say that God can writes straight with crooked lines–I believe this, for it certainly is true in my case. I hope this little sharing has been helpful. Together let us praise the wonders of God’s unfailing, merciful love.

God love you,

Fr. Steven

2 Responses to “Getting to Know Fr. Steven”

  1. Donna Dovel says:

    Fr. Steven,
    I just read your letter to your new parish and I was ‘again’ enlightened by your journey. Ohhhhhhhhhhhh, I miss you! Your letters to us in the weekly bulletin and your homilies were so enlightening and helped to guide all of us to a closer relationship with our Lord. I will continue to listen to your homilies. They are indeed inspired by the Lord and your great love of Him.
    As we begin our journey this Lent I am reminded of my past Lenten seasons that have been filled with challenges. This one Gary is waiting to have hip surgery. Looks like lympes may have done serious work on the ball of his femur. Looks like someone took a major bite out of it. The doctor said it was one of the worst cases he has seen. Gary is waiting for a surgery date. We’ll look forward to Easter and our risen Lord.
    We continue to bless you in your new calling and are upset by the Archdiose taking you out of St. Luke’s too early. We realize that when you are called you must answer the call. Darn!
    We hope all is going great and that you continue to have the energy to do all you are called to do. I know the Lord will give you that grace to serve His people.
    God’s blessing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11
    Donna and Gary

  2. Mary Peltier says:

    Fr. Steven, A couple of years ago I contacted you since I was looking for a speaker for a 1/2 day retreat sponsored by the Daughters of Isabella at St. Philip’s in Litchfield, MN. At that time you said you were new to your Mendota Heights Parish so your declined, but said I could try again in the future. I am looking for a priest to conduct a two talk presentation on September 18 or Sept 25th, or October 23rd or OCT. 30th.
    Since you were ordained on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I hoped you could speak to us about the Jubilee Year of Fatima and then a talk on women’s role in the church in scripture and how that applies to women today. We begin the day with Mass at nine o’clock (which could be said by Fr. Joe), and finish with lunch at 12:00.
    MaryPeltier; D of I Regent, and D of I’s Outstanding Daughter of the Year.

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