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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"A good red-blooded American boy"

From The Catholic Sentinel
By Ed Langlois
Photo by Kim Nguyen

Hundreds of weathered and pained faces appealed to him from the pews of Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro Church.

It was the year 2000, on a warm afternoon in the oceanside fishing town of Chimbote, Peru. David Jaspers, an American lay missionary fresh out of college, stood next to a white coffin. The agonizingly small box held the remains of an 8-year-old boy who had been run over by a truck.

The pastor was away, so the duties of leading the funeral fell to the outgoing 23-year-old from Eugene. He nervously got through the prayers and felt as if he’d plunged into the suffering of the people.

Now, six months before he will be ordained a priest, he remembers the warm grip of the grieving mother’s hand. It was then he learned what it means to serve.

Rev. Mr. Jaspers, 31, was ordained a deacon last year and has been preaching and teaching during the weekends at Christ the King Church in Milwaukie. In June, he will become a priest with a class of eight other men, one of the largest ordination classes in years for the Archdiocese of Portland.

The future priest grew up at St. Paul Church in Eugene, attending the parish school. He was a regular kid who wanted to be a professional football player, listened to hip-hop, and pocketed candy when others weren’t looking. Alongside that standard mix of experience, family members say, young David always sensed when someone was hurting and needed help.

His mother, who worked part time as a nurse, read bible stories to the Jaspers children. David was the fourth of five siblings. The youngsters also heard recorded stories about faith. Their father, a U.S. Forest Service employee, was a lector at Masses.

“I came to know Jesus as a kid,” Rev. Mr. Jaspers says. “As long as I can remember, I knew I was part of God’s family.”

He went on to Marist, where he got top grades and became a respected offensive lineman. Girls interested him mightily. He imagined some day becoming a school principal and having a family.

During a retreat, the leader asked youths if their religion was making a real difference in their lives, guiding relationships and choices. Young David resolved then to live in a way that integrated his faith; it simply seemed like the honest thing to do. He openly talked about his faith.

He worked at a Baptist summer camp, prompted by the urge to want to spread the love of God. About that time, he heard a tape from Catholic evangelist Scott Hahn. He thought to himself, “What a terrific job.”

At 6-foot-2 with broad-shoulders, he went on to Pacific Lutheran University, where he studied Spanish and history, ran track, played football and dated.

He took part in ecumenical bible study during college. That helped him both admire scripture and embrace his Catholic identity.

During his sophomore year, he studied in Granada, Spain. In that ancient crossroads of Muslim and Christian culture, he opened himself to the possibility of priesthood.
In what is now a culturally Catholic land, he walked the paths saints had trod and learned stories of faith rooted in the very soil. When he saw an open door at one of the hundreds of churches, he entered. A prompt soul, he showed up for Masses that, in the Spanish mode, started long after they were scheduled. Consequently, he had plenty of time to kneel alone in God’s presence.

In one of those quiet moments, he read a book that mentioned the Eucharist and his heart beat with joy. Always one to share his personal treasures, he quickly wrote to friends to describe his deep consolation.

He became linked with a group of young Catholic laymen who prayed and discussed great matters of belief and morals. He tutored youths on faith. At the same time, he entered the social life, staying out talking with groups into the wee hours. He felt magnificently free.

During a spring break trip to Rome, he saw Pope John Paul with 3,000 other young adults. On a bus ride during the pilgrimage, a priest asked the gregarious young American if he’d considered going to seminary. Well, yes, Jaspers said. But he also thought it would be nice to wake up each day with a wife, a lifelong companion. The older priest said that he, too, yearned for family life, but had chosen celibacy and would choose it again if he had it to do over.

Tears welled up in the young man’s eyes. It struck him: priests can be men who are like everyone else, men who like to play soccer or football, laugh over a pint and find women attractive.

“You don’t need to be abnormal to be a priest,” he says with a chuckle.

He decided to attend Mount Angel starting in 2002, just about the time the clergy abuse scandal became national news. The reports were painful to hear, but they did not deter him. In fact, they filled him with resolve. The church continues to need good, holy men, he told himself. Since his ordination as a deacon, Rev. Mr. Jaspers has felt unburdened in the matter of celibacy. He knew before that God had given him total freedom to choose married life, so with fascinating women he met, he had to ask himself, “Is she the one?” But now that he has made his choice, he no longer has to worry about what to choose. The result, he says, is joy.

“Real freedom is living out the commitment,” he explains.

He realizes he stands on the shoulders of priests he’s known over the years. He recalls meeting his father’s cousin — Maryknoll Father Mike McKiernan — who spent 50 years as a missionary in China, including a stint in a communist prison. When Rev. Mr. Jaspers was in high school, Father David Cullings set up a visit to Mount Angel Seminary for him, sensing a vocation.

Rev. Mr. Jaspers does realize his status as a young guitarist and football player-turned priest could serve to inspire some young men to be open to a religious vocation. He’s willing. “We need more cool priests,” he explains. “That way, we can let cool guys know it’s alright to be a priest.”

“David is a fine, fine candidate for the priesthood,” says Benedictine Father Odo Recker, a monk of Mount Angel Abbey, home to the seminary.

“He is what we called in the old days ‘a good red-blooded American boy.’”

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