Explosive business in North Dakota

The “Official Portal for the North Dakota State Government” lists that commonwealth’s nicknames as the Peace Garden State, the Flickertail State (something to do with squirrels, evidently), and the Roughrider State. Most Americans know today’s North Dakota as the Fracking State, where fortunes are being made in the energy industry. Catholics in the United States may soon know North Dakota as the cutting edge of Catholic higher education reform.

That’s because Msgr. Jim Shea and the people of the University of Mary, founded in Bismarck in 1959 by the Benedictine Sisters of the Annunciation, are dreaming no small dreams, there in the upper Midwest. Those dreams were on full display recently, when the University of Mary (home to 3,300 students from 42 states and 23 countries) hosted a conference celebrating the work of the first holder of the university’s newly created John Henry Newman Chair in the Liberal Arts: Dr. Don J. Briel, who has relocated his work in Catholic university reform from the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, where he built the gold standard of Catholic Studies programs over a quarter-century, to the University of Mary.

In his address to the conference, Dr. Briel briskly analyzed the fragmentation and incoherence of 21st-century higher education and then described how Catholic Studies programs can address that confusion and thus serve the entire university.

Catholic Studies programs, Briel began, must be both intellectual and apostolic; they form both habits of the mind and habits of the soul, offering spiritual formation in concert with intellectual formation.

Catholic Studies programs must be interdisciplinary, offering students an encounter with “the imaginative tradition of the faith, its approach to beauty, the great-souled works of literature [and] deep artistic traditions of Catholicism, its understanding of the human person and of the range and limits of politics.” Such a broad-gauged curriculum is good in itself; it also gives theology and philosophy their proper “fit” within the broad project of intellectual and spiritual formation.

Catholic Studies programs should be built around an “incarnational principle” embodied in a committed community of faculty, who form a communion of persons (one of John Paul II’s favorite philosophical phrases) in service to the intellectual and spiritual formation of their students. Thus a true Catholic Studies program, Briel suggested, offers students an encounter, “not merely with a set of texts but with living Catholic minds who share in that gaudium de veritate, that joy in the truth at the heart of the life of a university, properly understood.”

And Catholic Studies programs must be thoroughly ecclesial: programs that think with the mind of the Church and give students an experience of the communion of the Church, through a distinctive residential experience on their home campuses and on the Rome campuses that many Catholic Studies programs have now established. Such residential experiences of what Briel called a “truly Catholic community of conviction” lend themselves well to serious vocational discernment, and to the formation of true leaders for the future. (Having had the privilege of teaching many of Don Briel’s students in Cracow in recent summers, I can testify from personal experience that that is precisely what Catholic Studies programs on the Briel model produce: well-formed, competent, young Catholic leaders, smart and fun to be with, who are going to make important Catholic contributions to Church and society.)

I will risk the charge of special pleading by saying that my friend Don Briel is one of the true heroes of Catholic higher education in my lifetime. That Msgr. Shea and his colleagues in Bismarck have welcomed him to the University of Mary, giving him a platform from which to extend his work into the Latino worlds of U.S. Catholicism while continuing to be the go-to consultant for Catholic Studies programs across the country, testifies to that young school’s bright future as one of the leaders of Catholic higher education reform. There is more going on than fracking in North Dakota, and that “more” includes another explosive: the Briel formula for the reform of Catholic higher learning.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”