Below is Part 1 of a two-column series on St. Francis of Assisi. Part 2 will run in the June 19 issue.
Catholics the world over have statues of him holding birds in their gardens. No doubt, St. Francis paraphernalia has increased ten-fold with the election of our new pope. But who was this man? With many saint stories, myths have mixed with facts over the centuries. In the case of St. Francis’ radical witness, what often sounds like a medieval fairytale is actually true!
Francis’ dad, a successful cloth merchant, had plenty of money, and Francis knew how to spend it. He was the life of the party. He loved to sing, wear the finest clothes, and eat the best food money could buy. But he wanted more. He wanted glory! That longing drove him to become a knight—a career move he failed at miserably. In a battle between Assisi and Perugia he was taken prisoner for more than a year.
It was in that lonely prison where he began to be stripped of everything he had previously defined himself by. Notoriety, wealth, pleasure … gone. After being ransomed, he set out for another military journey but his dreams of glory were cut short again, this time by illness. Before he could regain his strength, he received a vision in a dream telling him to give up his adventure and go back home to Assisi. He rode home a defeated knight, but his journey to true glory had just begun.
Back home he tried to join in the parties he had been the center of, but something had changed in him. He began to join in the revelry less and less, and retreated into silent prayer more and more, and he began to see everything he had previously lived for in a new light.
It is said that he once turned upside down so he could look at the world as it really was. Upside down it looks like everything is fragile, hanging on a thread, about to fall into the abyss … the bigger, heavier, costlier things even more so. He wanted to be free of every precarious weight of this world. This man who had loved luxury began to fall in love with what he called “Lady Poverty.” His heart was set on a new goal: to become poor and a servant of the poor.
One day while passing by a leper, Francis overcame his repulsion and fear, jumped down from his horse, embraced him, and gave the man all the money he had. Then, on a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis dove deeper into poverty. He emptied his purse as a donation at St. Peter’s Basilica, exchanged his nice clothes with a beggar, and spent time begging with the poor.
After returning home, he was praying before a crucifix and heard the voice of Jesus speak from it, “Go, Francis, and rebuild my house, which is falling into ruin.” He thought Jesus was talking about the little chapel where he was praying. He could never have imagined that Jesus was calling him, through his spirit of poverty and love of the Gospel, to be an agent of spiritual renewal for the whole Roman Catholic Church, which, in the early 1200s, had been entangled in political power and wealth.
As impulsive as a holy man as he had been as a party animal, Francis sold his father’s cloth to get building supplies. His father became infuriated with his son. He had failed to become a knight with all the armor he bought him, failed to become a businessman, was giving away his money, and by now his seemingly crazy behavior had made Francis the laughing stock of Assisi. He had Francis beaten, bound, and thrown into a dark cell.
When his dad brought him before the bishop to be judged and to cut off his inheritance, Francis tore off his clothes and gave them to his father saying: “Pietro Bernardone is no longer my father. From now on I can say with complete freedom, ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’”
He now had complete freedom from any worldly tie. Not long afterward he was seen praying in ecstasy, simply repeating again and again, “My God and my all!”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”