Good shepherds from out-of-the-way places

by Melissa Musick Nussbaum

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My husband entered the University of Notre Dame in the fall of 1970 as a business major. Most of the adults he knew were in business, so it seemed like the logical next step. Random selection for the required first-year theology credits placed him in an "Introduction to Bible" class, taught by Holy Cross Fr. James Burtchaell. That class changed his major and his life. He would go on to receive his undergraduate degree in theology.

Notre Dame is the Congregation of Holy Cross "brand." So durable is that brand that NBC keeps broadcasting Notre Dame home football games, even though it's been almost 30 years since the team won a national championship.

Notre Dame is the most visible of the six* Holy Cross colleges and universities in the country. Thousands of students, like my husband and my children, have studied there, and thousands have had their lives changed by Holy Cross professors and campus priests.

But there is another group of Holy Cross fathers who live and work far from the shadow of the $400 million additions to the Notre Dame football stadium. They will never show up on television. They are the pastors who serve in parishes and missions around the world. They, too, are changing, and, in some cases, saving lives. One of these pastors, Fr. Robert Epping, was elected superior general of the order July 16.

We heard the news sitting in the pews of our daughters' parish, Sacred Heart Church, here in Colorado Springs, Colo. Sacred Heart is located on the west side of the city. It is a poor parish. The floors have a suspicious softness in places. The boiler has not been replaced in 50 years. The roof leaks. The rectory is uninhabitable.

Yet it supports more than 40 ministries, many of them founded to help the poor in the parish and surrounding neighborhood. They host the Lord's Supper for the hungry every Sunday at 6 p.m. They offer a food pantry for families and individuals in need every Monday and Thursday 1-3 p.m. They sponsor a Faith and Light group for people with developmental disabilities and their families and caregivers.

Sacred Heart is one of the parishes -- in Colorado Springs, in South Bend, Ind., and in Watertown, Wis. -- that Epping has served in a life devoted primarily to parish ministry.

For several years, Fr. Bob, as he is fondly known, was pastor at Sacred Heart. One of my daughters called him Friar Tuck, for his "chapped rosy cheeks and jelly belly." She could imagine him as a member of some merry band, as, indeed, he was. For he came to love Sacred Heart and its people.

She remembers how he wept when he announced that his order had called him to leave Sacred Heart and go to St. Stanislaus Parish in South Bend. He had no higher ambitions than to remain with and in a community that he hoped to serve until his retirement.

"This is very affirming for me as a pastor," said Holy Cross Fr. Ron Raab, who knows Epping. "We are a religious community whose charism is education and the focus seems to be on our four colleges. But we are priests first and then educators, and I fear for a priesthood that is not grounded in the reality of people's lives."

Raab was not at the general chapter when the votes for superior general were cast. He was in his church, doing the daily work of a parish priest, which he describes as "33 years spent mostly working with people on the margins of society."

"It's good for the order's health to be led by a man who has an intellectual life and who has sat with the sick and the dying," he said, adding that Epping "understands poverty in all its forms as a pastor and not solely as an intellectual."

Raab reminds me that there is a Holy Cross world beyond the Notre Dame campus and beyond the borders of this country into Africa and Asia. He thinks it is good experience for the leader of the order to know what life is like in the out-of-the-way places Holy Cross serves.

We all know the pattern in which priests rise to the top, whether in a diocesan or archdiocesan chancery or an order's general chapter. There is a premium placed on educational credentials and administrative experience. But the faithful are looking for a shepherd, not an MBA or a CEO.

Raab speaks of the emergency phone that the priests at Sacred Heart take turns carrying. When the phone rings at 3 a.m., a priest will answer and set out to help. It's never someone with an urgent question about the doctrine of subsidiarity or ad orientem, pro or con.

It's a woman, beaten and out on the street with her children. They need a safe place to stay. It's a man, drunk again and hoping for help to get and stay sober. One more time. It's the person threatening suicide. It's the official voice asking for Father to come to scene of the accident. It's the family wanting anointing and viaticum for their child or parent. It's a member of the flock, looking for the way home, to shelter and to peace, to living water and to the bread of life.

A good shepherd is harder to find than a good administrator. But it may be worth remembering Jesus' words to Peter as recorded in the Gospel of John. Jesus didn't say, "Feed the parish building fund." He said, "Feed my sheep."

*An earlier version of this column listed an incorrect number of Holy Cross colleges and universities in the country.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's column for NCR is at Her latest book, with co-author Anna Keating, is The Catholic Catalogue: A Field Guide to the Daily Acts That Make Up a Catholic Life.]

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 26-Sept 8, 2016 print issue under the headline: Good shepherds from out-of-the-way places.

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