Professor-author Lilles to take a new post: but first he prays (with photo album)

Anthony Lilles is a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver where he served as academic dean and associate professor of spiritual theology. He is the author of the book “Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer.” A native of California, Lilles is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville. He completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. After 22 years in the Denver Archdiocese, this month Lilles will begin a new job as academic dean for the seminaries of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. The Denver Catholic Register spoke to him last week while he was on pilgrimage in Spain.

Q: While between your old job in Denver and your new job in Los Angeles, you are walking the pilgrimage route in Spain known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James of Compostela). Why are you on pilgrimage?

A: I wanted to thank God for all the graces, material and spiritual, that he’s lavished. It was such an honor to work in Denver during World Youth Day (1993), to be part of that “spiritual revolution”—that’s what (St. John Paul II) called it—and then to see it unfold and give birth to the seminaries (Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary and St. John Vianney Theological Seminary). The people at the seminaries in the archdiocese are extraordinary. I have a lot of pride in having played a little role in all that’s unfolded. Our priesthood has been remarkably built up by the men coming out of those two seminaries. I’m also asking God to intercede with graces for my new work in Los Angeles: it’s one of the most vital missions in the Church today, to build up the priesthood. Finally, and probably the most important reason, is to do penance for my sins. As you grow in the spiritual life you realize that the mystery of sin in our lives is great … but the mystery of mercy is greater. Walking a foot pilgrimage is one of the beautiful forms of penance we have in the Church.

Q: Is this the first time you’ve walked the Camino?

A: This is my first time on the Camino but pilgrimage has always been an important part of my life. (Years ago) I went to Rome for my studies but could not find a place to live. I was frustrated. One day I woke up after having fallen asleep at a street corner and saw a plaque. It said that St. Benedict Joseph Labre (a homeless pilgrim from the 18th century) used to sleep at the same corner. I knew then that God had called me not just to be a student but a pilgrim. Pilgrims make their journey into a pilgrimage by accepting all the hardships of the present as a beautiful part of God’s providence. The more they trust, the more their physical journey becomes a pilgrimage of faith. This is what the Lord invited me into while I lived in Rome and … it is a grace he has invited me to return to once again on the Camino.

Q: What is the experience of walking the Camino, particularly compared to other pilgrimages one might make?

A: Physically the Camino is more demanding than other pilgrimages I lead when we go by bus to different holy places. I just had the joy of leading one of these in France. Last year it was Poland. I have also led this kind of pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Those kinds of pilgrimages involve a whole community of fellow pilgrims who you get to know and learn to love. The Camino involves a lot more silence and prayer and solitude … even if you are meeting people and making friends along the way. There are many routes to Santiago de Compostela. I am on a lesser traveled one, the via primitiva traveled by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola. It has a lot less conveniences, but this makes prayer easier. It also passes through beautiful wilderness.

Q: The Camino has been walked since the Middle Ages, why do you think it has remained a popular pilgrimage route?

A: Ancient Christians were connecting with St. James who in obedience to Christ brought the Gospel to the end of the known world. The need for penance and prayer moved St. Francis and, hundreds of years after him, St. Ignatius. There are still many pilgrims who take the Camino for this same reason.  (My fellow pilgrim) Father Piotr Mozdyniewicz (pastor of Shrine of St. Anne Parish in Arvada) and I are in solidarity with them. Others feel drawn to the Camino for reasons they cannot or will not say. Whatever their reasons, God has his own.  Perhaps the witness of St. James might occasion the gift of faith for them, just as it did for the ancient people when out of obedience to Christ, St. James dared to bring the Gospel of Christ on this same road for the first time.

Q: How can people stay in touch w/you?

A: The best way is through my blog, www.beginningtopray.com. There’s an email there and I’m on Facebook and Twitter: Anthony Lilles. So friend me on Facebook or send me a tweet! I look forward to hearing from any and all my friends in Denver.

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.”