By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
Ed. note – On May 24, four transitional deacons in the diocese will be ordained to the priesthood at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Over the next few pages, Catholic Key Associate Editor Kevin Kelly gives a glimpse of the men who will soon serve us as priests of the Diocese of Kansas City St. Joseph.
KANSAS CITY — Credit this one to Mom, but no, Toni Fitzpatrick didn’t push her only son into the seminary.
Lent is serious business in the Fitzpatrick household. When he was 10 years old, Deacon Jack Fitzpatrick recalled, he and his younger sister, Lucy, were having a spirited debate over who was going to give up what for those 40 days and whose sacrifice would be the greater.
Mom settled it quickly.
“You and your sister are going to daily Mass for Lent,” she ordered. And they did.
Every morning, they rose about an hour earlier than usual to attend 7 a.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier in St. Joseph before walking next door to their classes at the parish school.
But that Lent, like all Lents, ended in the glory of Easter. And young Jack Fitzpatrick was hooked. He continued going to daily Mass — throughout his remaining years at St. Francis Xavier School, throughout his high school career at Bishop LeBlond.
He didn’t know why then. He does now. He was being called.
“It’s all my mother’s fault,” said Deacon Fitzpatrick, who will be ordained to the diocesan priesthood on May 25, along with Deacons Eric Schneider, Daniel Gill and Leonard Gicheru.
“I just liked going to Mass,” he said. “Daily Mass is different. It’s very quiet, and that appealed to me. And I got to know all the people who would go. The next youngest guy was probably in his mid-40s,” he said.
Deacon Fitzpatrick said God planted the seed, no question.
“By the time I got to high school, I was sure I was going to the seminary,” he said.
But it was in the Fitzpatrick family where that seed found fertile ground. It isn’t that his parents, Robert and Toni, pushed religion on their children Jack, Lucy and Molly. It was more that Catholicism came naturally, like the air they breathed or sitting down to Sunday dinner with special guests.
“The Fitzpatrick family in St. Joseph always had a relationship with the priests of St. Francis Xavier. My grandmother and grandfather, Betty and Bob Fitzpatrick, would have them over for dinner a lot,” he said.
His was a life right out of a Norman Rockwell painting — parents and sisters that he adores, and a future assured if he wanted it.
“I am the oldest son of an oldest son of an oldest son in a family with a business — IHP Industrial — founded by my grandfather,” he said. “It would have been mine for the taking, but that kind of life doesn’t appeal to me.”
Instead, he was drawn to study the life of the patron of his parish and elementary school, the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier.
“I was drawn to what I knew at the time, the Jesuit spirit of getting out and conquering the world,” Deacon Fitzpatrick said.
But, he admitted, he didn’t know how to break the news to his mother that her only son was being called. Then one day, in his sophomore year in high school, he simply came out with it.
“I said, ‘Mom, I want to be a Jesuit,’” he recalled.
“She gave me a hug and said, ‘Jack, that would be great,’” he said. “She seemed happy.”
Deacon Fitzpatrick sent e-mails to the vocation director of the Society of Jesus, but decided that wasn’t what he was called to do. He also looked into the Dominican order as well, but that wasn’t it either.
“I decided I didn’t want to live in community. I’m Irish. I want my own stuff,” he said, quickly adding, “The seminary trains you not to need much stuff.”
His calling was to be a parish priest, he said. And it is a high calling.
“None of us is worthy to be a priest, and nothing you can do can make you worthy,” Deacon Fitzpatrick said.
“People have a lot of respect and admiration for priests,” he said. “That’s because it’s not about what is for me. If what I am actually doing is all for the service of the church, that’s why people love priests.
“The priest is a consecrated minister of the truth,” he said. “The truth is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is transmitted through the Gospel and the sacraments. He is the image of the invisible God. The only reason I am here as a priest is to get people to heaven. If you are doing a good job, you will help people along the way.”
A priest does that in many ways, Deacon Fitzpatrick said.
“The Catholic priest imitates Christ in the way he lives,” he said.
“The priest and the Holy Eucharist are intertwined. It is the real presence of Christ among us today,” he said.
“But what I am looking forward to the most is being a voice to speak to the church,” Deacon Fitzpatrick said. “The church, the people, the sacraments, the Gospel, the beauty, all these things that go into making the church, I absolutely love it.”