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Denver priests show solidarity with ALS-afflicted brother

With a quick prayer and sign of the cross, three priests of the Denver Archdiocese were “baptized with cold water” when participating in the social media phenomenon, the ice bucket challenge, Aug. 29 outside the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Msgr. Bernie Schmitz, vicar for clergy; Father Jason Wallace, vice rector of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary; and Father Scott Bailey, Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s personal secretary, dedicated their ice bucket challenge—which involved having 15 gallons of freezing cold water loaded with 26 pounds of ice dumped on their heads—to Father Benjamin Reese.

Father Reese, 55, who grew up in Aspen, served as a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., in both Illinois and Wisconsin, for 23 years before being diagnosed with bulbar onset ALS in July 2013. He recently returned to northern Colorado to be close to family as the rapidly progressing variation of ALS has robbed him of the ability to speak and breathe freely.

Following a tracheotomy last week, Father Reese moved to an acute care facility near Loveland where he is cared for by family—his parents, brother, sister, and nephews and nieces who live in Boulder, plus a sister moving back from New Mexico—as well as clergy of the Denver Archdiocese and the Divine Mercy Supportive Care apostolate that assists with end-of-life issues.

“I sure appreciate all the good support of Denver priests and bishops,” Father Reese wrote in an email to the Denver Catholic Register. Since losing his voice, he communicates using an iPad.

He expressed gratitude for a visit from former Archbishop of Denver Cardinal J. Francis Stafford and the many notes of support and Mass cards he’s received.

Msgr. Schmitz, was moved to do the ice bucket challenge in Father Reese’s honor after watching a TV program about an athlete struggling with ALS.

Father Benjamin Reese cues up a verbal message on his iPad Feb. 11, 2014.
Father Benjamin Reese cues up a verbal message on his iPad Feb. 11, 2014.

“It struck me while I watched,” he said, “that this priest who came into ministry with all kinds of dreams and hopes and excitement is just slowly getting weaker and weaker and weaker.”

If that were him, he said, he would feel very isolated.

“My hope was, in a symbolic way, to reach out to him,” he continued. “To let him know there are a lot of fellow brother priests who care for him.”

A second reason for participating in the challenge, according to Msgr. Schmitz, was to raise awareness and donations for ethical ALS research. When the ice bucket challenge exploded on social media, along with it came concerns from pro-lifers about donating to the ALS Association, which uses embryonic stem cells in their research.

Soon an ethical alternative was proposed: the pro-life nonprofit John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City. The JP2MRI works only with adult stem cells in their research efforts toward neurological diseases including ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease; as well as cancer and rare diseases.

Father Reese was clear about his stance against using embryos for research.

“As far as the ice bucket challenge, it is a great idea with mostly good research being done.” he wrote. “There is an issue of some embryonic research … I would suggest sending the other research centers an IOU, payable upon the termination of all embryo ALS research.”

According to the JP2MRI vice president, Dr. Alan Moy, the institute has seen results from the ice bucket challenge.

“Last year we received $170,000 (in donations) all year,” Moy said Aug. 28. “We’ve received two times that over the last two weeks from all 50 states and 30 countries.”

That without ever actively seeking funds specific to ALS.

“The ice bucket challenge created an awareness among pro-life individuals about ALS and the supportive position of ALSA toward embryonic stem cell research,” he said. “In all of the attention given to this media phenomena, pro-life individuals … decided to give to us.”

With the additional funding they will scale up their ALS operation, he said, by recruiting more patients, collecting more clinical data, creating personalized stem cells from ALS patients, screen drugs on ALS stem cells, and manufacture adult stem cells that could be approved for ALS clinical trials.

“Clearly they’re making a difference,” said Msgr. Schmitz. “(Our ice bucket challenge) could make a difference for the John Paul II Institute and raise awareness for priests. A lot of times when our priests get sick they live pretty isolated lives.”

Father Doug Grandon, parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial, has known Father Reese for 10 years since serving together in the Diocese of Peoria. He went to visit him last week.

“I found him to be in good spirits,” Father Grandon said, noting that Father Reese’s deep spirituality was evident even in a sparse hospital room. “On his bedside table he had two crucifixes and his breviary. He also had holy cards to give visitors.”

Despite the challenges, Father Reese has not given up on earning a doctorate degree and continues to work on his dissertation that compares the sacrificial priesthood to the common priesthood of all who are baptized.

“I have only one chapter to write,” Father Reese indicated.

Msgr. Schmitz encouraged the faithful to pray for him and his family.

“This is hard on his parents,” he said, drawing on the image of the Blessed Mother feeling helpless at the foot of the cross. “They can’t fix it, they can’t take it away, they can’t solve it. All they can do is be there with him.”

“So just to be with Father Ben,” Msgr. Schmitz said. “And others who are suffering from this disease.”

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