"Feed My Sheep"

When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs. He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep.
— John 21:15-17
* * * * *
The Thorp gang is in western South Dakota this week, where it has been a tremendous honor and blessing to see a dear friend of ours, Tyler Dennis, be ordained a Catholic priest last Friday, June 26, 2009. It is tradition that newly ordained priests give out prayer cards marking their ordination. The front of Father Tyler’s features the image above. The back bears this prayer and explanation:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

— St. Ignatius of Loyola
The pelican is an ancient symbol of Christ. It is said that when no other food is available, the pelican will feed its young with the flesh of its own breast, just as Christ feeds his people with his body and blood in the Eucharist.

The significance of the pelican is not unlike the Gospel reading above, which was the Gospel reading from the Ordination. The theme was repeated numerous times: Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.

It’s been an incredibly moving last few days. I thought I’d share a little of the experience, from our perspective.

* * * * *
Many of you know that Jodi and I met while working summer jobs at the world-famous Wall Drug Store, she in hats and western wear; I in boots and moccasins. Jodi worked with Cindy Dennis, whose husband, Robert, works his family’s ranch near Red Owl, more than an hour north and west of Wall. Cindy had a little place in town and as I recall, their oldest son, Tyler, was a cerebral and musical teenager working in the dish room at the Wall Drug Cafe. His younger brothers, Tate and Chance, stayed on the ranch with Robert that first summer, I believe (Tate worked at the drug store as a high-schooler) — and somehow they all stayed close.

Robert would come into town now and again, dressed every bit the cowboy of my boyhood visions: colorful boots pulled up over his jeans, western shirts and vests and silk scarves, big mustache and bigger hat. Sometimes he’d come by the house I lived in, guitar in hand, to share cowboy songs and country humor — but the night he played “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and allowed me to help with the lyrics, a friendship was sealed.

* * * * *
We’ve had more than a few adventures with “Cowboy Bob” (as Robert became known in my newspaper columns), Cindy, and the boys. We’ve been snowed in at their place with no power. We discussed all manners of philosophy, swapped jokes, drank beer and tequila and whiskey, traveled together and fished, shared poetry, you name it. It’s been a great friendship over the years, and since Jodi and I sit just about perfectly in age between Robert and Cindy on one hand, and their boys on the other, we’ve enjoyed being friends with the whole gang.

I’ve written about ol’ Jinglebob any number of times over the years, but probably the best picture of the Dennis family I can offer is this essay I wrote after accompanying my dad and our oldest son, Brendan, to the ranch for a branding.

At that time, Father Tyler was completing his undergraduate work at St. Mary’s in Winona, and I offered this assessment:

Bob’s oldest boy, Tyler, is leaning against Sorley, a stripped down Suzuki Samurai with a homemade plywood roof and four-wheel drive—the name comes from the little rig’s sorrel color. He’s only recently back from Winona, where he’s studying for the priesthood; he’s dressed in a plain t-shirt and sweats, untied duck boots and an old fedora. His little brother’s riding with the men below.

Tyler stands in front of the little 4×4, watching the cowboys work. He’s not like these others—he’s a big kid and prone to discussing philosophy, praying aloud in Latin or singing in Spanish—but he looks at home here and I snap a picture of him, God’s country in his eyes.

* * * * *
The little church in Red Owl, St. Anthony Catholic Church, is unlike any other I’ve ever been to. It’s tiny by Twin Cities standards (though not the tiniest West River Catholic church in South Dakota, I’m told): several short pews and a humble sanctuary, with no place to hide or “go through the motions” during the Mass.

During the ordination, Bishop Cupich remarked that a man raised in one of the smallest parishes in the Rapid City Diocese would now being serving in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, underscoring the unity of the church across all peoples and communities. Small town boy makes good, some may say, but I would suggest Fr. Tyler was good all along, and perhaps better for his rural ranch upbringing. Indeed, Monsignor O’Connell, the homilist during Father Tyler’s First Thanksgiving Mass on Saturday morning, suggested the diocese’s newest priest thank his father for teaching him how to work hard, his mother for showing him how to care about others (a virtue that seems pervasive in ranch country), and his brothers … for teaching him patience.

* * * * *
The weekend before we left for South Dakota, I told a fellow parishioner from our St. Michael Catholic Church that we were attending Fr. Tyler’s ordination, and he insisted there is no more beautiful liturgy in the Church’s traditions. We arrived at Our Lady of Perpetual Help with great anticipation. Deacon Tyler was greeting family, friends and future parishioners at the foot of the front steps to the cathedral, a broad smile on his face. Such joy, I thought. Robert hailed us from the top of the steps, wearing a dark suit, red tie, and his best boots, a grandson on his arm. Cindy descended the steps quickly to greet us, and she seemed joyful and nervous and warm, like a mother at a wedding — and so she was.

We sat midway back on the right. At the opening hymn, the priests processed in pairs, old and young, black and white, tall and short, stout and wiry, dozens of them from across the diocese and from the seminary, with deacons and the bishop, and Tyler, of course, singing with and above the others, the same broad smile in his cheeks as he sang. I grinned the first of several goofy grins that would crease my face all weekend.

The proceedings open with great formality, with Tyler called forth and the bishop asking for verification from his soon-to-be brother priests whether he is known to be worthy. I had been told to expect countless moving moments: the vow of obedience to the bishop and the Church; the laying on of hands upon Tyler’s by each prayerful priest in turn; the kiss of peace, in which each priest in turn greets their new brother with a welcoming embrace. The moment I was most anticipating I was unable to see from the middle of the pew: as those assembled prayer the Litany of the Saints, Tyler lay prostrate on the cold stone floor at the base of the steps before the altar, in the ultimate gesture of humility and submission. Gabe, Emma and Brendan* stretched into the aisle and stared at Tyler’s motionless form; I imagined how he must look lying there, and marveled. (Later I asked the three kids to demonstrate how Tyler was lying, with three very different interpretations. I asked Father Tyler at the Dennis ranch on Sunday, and he explained that he lay flat on his chest with his hands overlapping, palms down, beneath his forehead.)

But the most moving moment in the entire liturgy came at the end, and was entirely unexpected. As the Mass ended, Bishop Cupich announced he would ask Fr. Tyler’s blessing before the bishop himself offered his closing blessing for the congregation. We watched transfixed as the bishop knelt before our friend and humbly bowed his head. My breath caught as Fr. Tyler placed his hands on the bishop’s head and red cap and prayed over him. Incredible.

During the reception that followed, the five of us waited in line to receive our own blessing from Fr. Tyler. We knelt as a family, with Trevor close at heart, and our friend called upon the intercession of the Holy Family and blessing in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

* * * * *
On Saturday morning, all six of us made our way to St. Paul Catholic Church in Belle Fourche for Fr. Tyler’s First Mass of Thanksgiving, a Votive Mass for the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Robert and Cindy invited us to the front pew (“You’re family, y’know …”), and I again spent the hour with a goofy grin and a tear at the ready.

Tyler was no longer the dishwashing teen or the seminarian or the deacon. He had walked nearly a decade on the path to priesthood, from Red Owl to Rome to Rapid City, and he looked at home in the sanctuary. When he spoke the Words of Consecration in particular, our friend and our world changed. We believed, and said “Amen.”

* * * * *
Of course, I’m not the only one blogging about Father Tyler these days:
* * * * *
Finally, this weekend has me thinking about the nature of marriage and other lifelong commitments. Priests undertake years of education, preparation, formation, discernment. The call to the priestly vocation is often compared to the call to marriage as way of understanding the complete, lifelong commitment of the less common vocation.

Two observations come to mind: not for the first time, but with great clarity today. The first is that, while few people would agree to several years of preparation and discernment prior to marriage, perhaps this would drive home the magnitude of the commitment couples undertake when they say, “I do.”

The second is that the “marriage” a priest undertakes is far from loveless. I’ve posted before on my middle son’s own priestly aspirations, and these postings have generated lots of conversation, both online and offline. One friend, in particular, voiced the opinion that a marriage to God would be particularly hard and one-sided work, since your spouse has largely been silent for centuries.

The better metaphor is that a priest (like Jesus, the Bridegroom) doesn’t marry God, but the Church (the Bride) — and as we witnessed all this weekend, the Church consists of real people, is full of love for her priests, and is quite expressive. In addition, Fr. Tyler pointed out the sacramentality of his commitment. I took his comments to mean (in much simplified layman’s terms) the real belief in a real commitment between a real person and a real God doing real good in a real world. From this perspective, his relationship with God is hardly one-sided. (Or if it is, the effort is all on the Other Side …)

God bless you, Father Tyler — and all our priests.

*Trevor stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Venjohn for the ordination; it was scheduled for the evening, and his lungs don’t always agree with incense.

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