Reconciliation, forgiveness, hope – and Lent

It was Mardi Gras night, 1995, and I found myself sipping bourbon at 40,000 feet over the Atlantic, en route to Rome where I’d been asked to address an international symposium on the recent Cairo World Conference on Population and Development; there, you may recall, adroit Holy See diplomacy prevented the Clinton Administration from getting abortion-on-demand declared a fundamental human right, equivalent to religious freedom or free speech. On Ash Wednesday morning, I set off in search of an English-language Mass and soon found myself at Santa Susanna, Rome’s American “parish” near the Piazza della Repubblica. The noon Mass was packed with local Anglophones, with whom I queued up after the homily to receive ashes. What followed was one of the shocks of my life.

“Be reconciled to yourself this Lent,” the priest intoned, imposing the ashes. To which I could only blurt out in response, “What did you say?”

Whatever Father X’s intentions, his admonition was a piece of psychobabble that badly misconceived the spiritual wisdom of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The kernel of that wisdom is contained in the liturgy’s second reading, from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. There, Paul gives his apostolic mission a remarkable definition: undertaken in this “acceptable time,” it is a mission of reconciliation, and through it the good news is proclaimed that God has reconciled the world to himself, restoring man’s lost communion with his Creator through the gift of the Son.

The Greek verb used to describe this reconciliation has a particular edge to it: for what is being “reconciled” is not a bank statement and a check book, but a relationship—a relationship of love, broken by betrayal. Through that verb, Paul hammers home to gentile Corinthians a theme dear to the Old Testament Hebrew prophets: The relationship between God and humanity is not like that of a dictator and his subjects, or a master and his slaves; rather, God’s relationship with us is best understood by analogy to love. And the reconciliation that God wishes to achieve in Christ is the kind of reconciliation that follows infidelity in love.

This, and not some psychobabble about self-regard, is the reconciliation to which the journey of Lent calls us. Lent is the “acceptable time” in which we should seize every opportunity to confront our infidelities: not to wallow in guilt, but because recognizing the truth of our fallenness is the first, essential step toward reconciliation with those we have wounded and with God. The great Charlton Heston was once asked the secret of his long, happy marriage to Lydia; the man who had played prophets, kings, and presidents said, in so many words, “It’s not very difficult; you just have to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong.’” The inability to say that—or, more properly, the lack of a Someone to whom that can be said, a Someone with real authority to forgive – has cultural, not only personal, consequences.

In his 2003 apostolic letter, Ecclesia in Europa, the Servant of God John Paul II noted the sense of cultural malaise that permeated 21st century Europe—and then linked it to the basic human need for forgiveness: “One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is … their inability to see themselves as sinners and to allow themselves to be forgiven, an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness” [emphasis added]. And what is true of Europe is also true of America, which is Europe transplanted: if there is no one to whom we can turn for forgiveness, we will turn in on ourselves—and we will find there no satisfying agent of absolution. Self-reconciliation is self-delusion.

Thus one good way to live this “acceptable time” of Lent is to discover anew the graces of the sacrament of reconciliation. Through those graces, we, like Paul’s Corinthians, can become in Christ the “righteousness of God.” Doing that is what keeps hope alive.

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

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.”