Prayers answered

Supremes rule in favor of religious freedom

Colorado’s three Catholic bishops are unanimously praising the “historic religious liberty decision” of the U.S. Supreme Court that allows for-profit businesses to exercise their religious beliefs and not comply with the Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate.

Businesses all across the United States express and act on moral views and the court acknowledged in its majority decision that there is no reason to deny that same freedom to companies whose moral convictions are based on religion,” the bishops said in a statement released June 30 by the Colorado Catholic Conference.

Read the entire statement here

The conference speaks on behalf of Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo.

“The Church has an obligation to serve, and therefore, it needs the freedom to serve without government coercion of conscience and intrusion into religious beliefs,” the statement continued. “We encourage all people of good will to continue to pray for the protection of religious freedom in every sector of our society as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

The 5-4 ruling was issued June 30, the last day of the court’s session for the year. The federal mandate had required that businesses with more than 50 employees provide birth control coverage in all their health insurance policies. The government mandated that the plans must include the morning-after pill and Plan B, which can terminate pregnancies, along with IUDs and diaphragms that prevent pregnancies.

The craft store Hobby Lobby, a nationwide chain owned by a Christian family, and the Mennonite-owned Conestoga Wood Specialties business argued that the mandate violated their religious liberties.

The court agreed, but the ruling is limited to for-profit companies that are “closely held,” meaning that there is essentially no difference between the owners and the business’ leadership.

Before the ruling, the exemption only applied to religious and non-profit institutions with religious affiliations. The for-profit religious businesses had faced hefty fines of $365 per day, per employee for not providing the birth control coverage.

The Catholic Church supported the for-profit lawsuits and is among the plaintiffs in another group of 50 non-profit lawsuits challenging the law, including one filed by the Denver-based Little Sisters of the Poor.

“We are hopeful that today’s decision will cast a favorable light on the ongoing non-profit cases still making their way through the legal process,” the Colorado bishops said.

Fortnight for Freedom

At a special Mass June 27 to mark the national campaign Fortnight for Freedom, Archbishop Aquila said Catholics need to pray for President Obama and other elected officials who support any laws that threaten religious liberty.

“It is ironic that religious freedom is now challenged by our own government,” the archbishop said, adding that he hoped prayer would “change the hearts of those who have become so hardened.”

Catholics—including those who are elected officials—should not take religious freedom for granted, the archbishop continued.

“Catholic politicians, on both sides,” are more often “dedicated to the political parties than they are to Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Christ should always come first.”

About 200 people attended the evening Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Denver, which took place in the middle of the 14-day campaign for religious freedom initiated in 2012 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. From June 21 to July 4 the bishops ask Catholics to pray, learn about and take action in favor of promoting religious freedom worldwide.

Archbishop Aquila warned that certain laws are imposing beliefs that conflict with the Church’s teachings and are “requiring that we violate our conscience.” He urged all Catholics to respond by being vocal and voting.

“This is not unique to our time,” Archbishop Aquila said, referring to a series of martyrs that the Church celebrates at this time of year, including St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome. He said they “all remained faithful in the face of persecution.”

Archbishop Aquila noted, however, that one of the most important forms of religious freedom is helping the poor and less fortunate in our community, a sentiment that reflected the theme of this year’s Fortnight: “Freedom to Serve.”

During the Mass, the archbishop gave a special blessing to four members of the Little Sisters of the Poor and 26 members of the Christ in the City missionary program.

“Bless and strengthen these humble servants who are close to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus,” he prayed.

For love of Christ

Among those receiving the blessing was Teri Tolpa who has ministered to the homeless and poor in Denver since last August. Tolpa, 29, is from Virginia and plans to enter the Sisters of Life program in New York City this fall. (Read a story about her on Page 9 of this week’s DCR.)

She dedicated a year to the Christ in the City missionary program, which includes visiting the homeless and helping unwed mothers.

“We just talk with the homeless and other people who have fallen through the cracks and help them find the resources they need,” Tolpa said after the Mass. “It is powerful to realize the dignity of the poor and that they are people just like you and me, but perhaps they do not have supportive families and friends.”

The missionaries do not proselytize, but often the homeless—sometimes shocked at the kindness of strangers—ask the young adults why they care, Tolpa said. Religious freedom allows the missionaries to do their work without fear, she said.

“Mother Teresa has taught us to love until it hurts. As Archbishop Aquila said, ‘it all starts with the Eucharist and that is the source that allows us to go to the people,’” she said. “People ask why we do it and we tell them, ‘for the love of Christ.’”

Buffer zones and marriage

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a Massachusetts law that allowed 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics to keep demonstrators away violates First Amendment rights. It remains unclear if that ruling would impact a similar buffer law in Colorado that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

The Colorado law, passed in the 1990s, imposes an 8-foot buffer around patients and medical workers who step within 100 feet of entries to abortion clinics.

A lawsuit also is pending in Colorado challenging the state’s constitutional amendment that defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Courts in other states have ruled similar measures unconstitutional.

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.”