St. Sharbel visits Denver as Year of Mercy begins

The priest-monk lived a life of prayer and silence

As Pope Francis opened the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy this week, which he hopes will be “a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective,” St. Rafka’s Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood brought to Denver one such example.

The bone relics of Lebanon’s St. Sharbel Makhlouf, a Maronite Catholic priest, monk, and hermit, are on display at St. Rafka’s from Dec. 8 through Dec. 10, the first few days of the Year of Mercy.

If you don’t know who St. Sharbel is, you are not alone. The monk lived in complete obscurity, spending the last 23 years of his life as a hermit.

If you do know who he is, it’s probably because you heard about the bright light that emanated from his grave for 45 consecutive nights after his death in 1898. His body was found to be in an incorrupt state, and a sweet smelling liquid, which appeared to be a mix of blood and sweat, exuded from his body.

However, Father Sharbel became a saint through a long life of dedicated prayer, manual work, rigorous asceticism, contemplative silence, and a great devotion to the Eucharist. It is said that he spent two hours preparing for the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern-rite term for Mass), and another two hours post-Divine Liturgy were spent in giving thanks.

Born in 1828 in the mountains of northern Lebanon, Yussef Antoun Makhlouf began to pray as a young child while he cared for the family cow in the fields and pastures near his village.

At 23, Yussef left home to become “Brother Sharbel,” taking the name of a second-century martyr at Antioch. After two years, he took his monastic vows, and was eventually ordained a priest. Some 19 years later, the priest-monk was granted permission to live in solitude in a nearby hermitage dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul.

On Dec. 16, 1898, at the age of 70, Father Sharbel suffered a stroke while celebrating the Divine Liturgy of the Maronite Catholic Church, an Eastern-rite Church in union with Rome. He spent the Christmas novena in agony, until his death on Christmas Eve.

Pope Paul VI presided at the beatification of Father Sharbel just prior to the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, on Dec. 5, 1965, and he expressed the hope that the example of the “hermit of Mount Lebanon” would help the Christian people “understand, in a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the paramount value of poverty, penance and asceticism, to liberate the soul in its ascent to God.”

What greater example could there be at this time of year—characterized more and more by frenzied shopping and endless “to do” lists—than this saint of prayer, silence and devotion to the Eucharist?

But there is even more to this story, as the visit of the relics of St. Sharbel to Denver also serves as a grim reminder of the dire situation currently facing the monk’s native Lebanon.

Living in the midst of relative peace and exceptional comfort, it’s easy to forget the needs of those living half a world away.

According to Father Andre Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka’s, there are currently over two million refugees in Lebanon who have escaped the violence of ISIS, and they are “seriously taxing all systems in this small country.”

In October, Father Mahanna launched St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy as a response to some very basic and urgent needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ, such as blankets, food, and clean clothes.

The mission has a team on the ground in Lebanon serving the needs of refugees, and they are contacted almost on a daily basis for assistance.

In addition to the basics, there are medical costs.

According to Father Andre, the mission owes $35,000 in hospital bills since May. That money, however, has paid for cancer surgeries, and treatment for serious chronic diseases. A little goes a long way.

Speaking of which, while the above examples of Christian witness in prayer and works of mercy are extraordinary, sometimes the most effective witness is the little one we give in ordinary circumstances.

In any case, no matter who you are or what your situation, let us all attempt during this Year of Mercy to find a way to make our witness of faith “stronger and more effective.” And I bet a quick prayer to St. Sharbel for some help wouldn’t go unanswered.

St. Rafka Mission of Hope and Mercy will hold a Christmas Dinner and Concert on Dec. 18 at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Centennial. Proceeds will fund the needs of refugees this Christmas.

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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.”