Strong saints for our doubting times

“I declare in truth and with joy in my heart — before God and his holy angels — that I have never had any motive in my work except preaching the Good News and its promises. That is the only reason I returned here to Ireland — a place I barely escaped alive.” These words from The Confession of Saint Patrick echo the strength of the Holy Spirit, which coursed through Jesus as he gave his life on the cross, animated St. Stephen the first martyr, and continue to move people around the world to give witness to Christ no matter the cost.

In the space of one week, we have observed the feast days of two strong holy men, Saints Patrick and Joseph, both of whom lived during trying times and sought to fully live the faith. The example of these two men, our forefathers in the faith, provides us with a model for a successful Lent, but also for evangelizing in a culture that doubts everything.

Saint Joseph was, according to Matthew’s Gospel, a “righteous man” (Mt. 1:19), whose desire to follow God in all he did was apparent in his actions. Under the Jewish law, Joseph was required to divorce Mary because she was found pregnant after they were betrothed but before they had lived together. And yet, Joseph saw how good and pure Mary was.

When an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that Mary was pregnant through the Holy Spirit, he did not hesitate to bring her into his home, even though his fellow believers would certainly question his and her integrity. This is a valuable lesson for people of faith today. It is far better to follow God’s plan for us than to go along with what society considers wise.

We see this, too, in St. Joseph’s willingness to flee into Egypt at the prompting of another angelic dream. Perhaps he also had to conform his heart to the Father’s plan when he heard the prophet Simeon foretell that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart and that Jesus would be a “sign of contradiction” (cf. Luke 2:22-36). Surely his heart would have been moved to protect his wife and foster son, but he also could see God was at work in his family.

At the age of about 15, St. Patrick was captured from his home in western Britain by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. He spent six years as a slave tending the flocks of his master, but during that time he also progressively grew closer to God and the faith that he had previously cast aside.

Soon after returning home from escaping slavery in Ireland, Patrick had a vision in which the people of Ireland called out for him to come back. “Holy boy!” they cried out, using the nickname that he was mocked with as a slave, “Come here and walk among us.” Interestingly, rather than being angry, St. Patrick said his heart was moved by their pleas.

Saint Patrick knew what he was facing: a land populated by 150 tribes each led by a king, a society influenced by the Druids and other pagan religions and a Christian Church that likely numbered only in the hundreds. But St. Patrick was undaunted, and faithfully, joyfully made his way to Ireland.

There were many competing ideas vying for the hearts and minds of the people in Ireland, just as there are today, and many of them are harmful. As we make our way through Lent and seek greater intimacy with God — who is the Way, the Truth and the Life — let us ask for the strong faith of St. Joseph and St. Patrick to help us in our journey. Let us listen to the voice of God, to the voice of Jesus, and not that of the world, or worse yet, of the devil.

With the gift of faith and the courage of the Holy Spirit, may we say with St. Patrick, “God heard my prayers so that I, foolish though I am, might dare to undertake such a holy and wonderful mission in these last days — that I, in my own way, might be like those God said would come to preach and be witness to the good news to all non-believers…”

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.”