I grew up in Goodland. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My dad was in the Federal Aviation Administration and my mom was a piano teacher. We were a musical family; mom played the piano and organ. She taught all of us. I played piano all through college. Growing up, I would say I was a good student. I always got good grades at least. Athletic-wise, my sport was tennis. I loved tennis. I haven’t played in a long time. I still would if anyone would want to play!
We were your average, good Catholic family. We went to Mass every Sunday. We went to Confession probably once every three months. Faith was always a part of the household. I guess I never knew how rare that was until later in college. It was just normal for us. I was a public-school kid, but I went to parish religious education classes. Even so, I give credit to my faith being formed at home. Every week, we would sit down at the table and read our weekly religion lesson, and my parents would go over that with us. If we had questions, we asked our parents.
After high school, I decided to go to Fort Hays State University to study instrumental piano. I wanted to be a band teacher. At this point, I hadn’t really thought too much about the priesthood. I had to go to college a week early. On my very first day, this girl runs up to me and says, “Hi! I’m Jen! Are you Catholic?” I was taken aback. It was a Holy Day of Obligation. She invited me to go with her to a birthday party right after Mass. That’s how they got me. From that point on, this group of Catholics always invited me. I was fortunate to fall into a good group of friends right away.
I become very involved in the Comeau Catholic Campus Center. My faith exploded there. I had a lot of great friends. We went to Mass and Adoration. We prayed the Rosary and chaplets. But we also had a lot of the good fun that college kids have – football, movies, beach volleyball, frisbee. We had a lot of fun together. It was cool being around people my age who were into their faith. After freshman year, I knew I wanted to enter the seminary. But since it was so late in the school year, I decided to continue with my education. I found out that, if I worked really hard, I could get my Bachelor of Arts in music after only three years. Once I got that, I would go to the seminary.
My mom was ecstatic that I was going to seminary. For the most part, most of my friends and family were supportive that I had made the decision. In 2003, I entered Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. Also there at the time were Father Jarett Konrade, Father Joshua Werth and Father Joseph Kieffer. I was a small-town kid in Chicago. It was massive culture shock. Back home, I used to love driving around and walking up and down the streets, waving and saying hello to everyone. No one ever questioned it. It was so different being in a place that was so crowded. But you get so many opportunities in the seminary. I traveled to Kentucky, Montana and Tennessee for different events and ordinations. I got to see how varied the states are. But then, I also got to go to Mexico for immersion. I even went to the Holy Land for two and a half months, with a stopover in Geneva, Switzerland. But of all the places I traveled too, the seminary was by far the most diverse place I have ever been in my entire life. You have people from everywhere – people from Peru, Venezuela, Poland, Uganda, Vietnam, Korea. You have people from different cultures within the States.
You have people from all over, and we’re put together in tight quarters. And we have to learn about their history and experiences of the Church within their home cultures. And you’re trying to make friends but messing up sometimes. It was the most diverse place. Seminary was hard, but it was also kind of fun! When I began, I was the youngest person at the seminary, so I called everyone “kid” to combat it. I enjoyed the academics.
I was in seminary for five years. That was my first experience in a Catholic school! At Mundelein, I received my Master of Divinity (M.Div.) and Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B.). The S.T.B. started me on the path of one day pursuing further education. I didn’t know if I ever would pursue further education due to the priest shortage in our diocese. During all this time, I never really doubted that I was called to the priesthood. Despite things going on around me, it wasn’t about whether I liked it or how I was feeling, it was simply what I was called to do. So, I was going to do it. Challenges are not an indication that you are not called to be a priest.
On May 24, 2008, I was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Coakley. Ordination day was great. I had asked Bishop Coakley for advice beforehand. He said that normally ordination day is crazy, so he suggested I set time to escape before ordination. So, I did. I set time to be alone. Then, I went in and was ready to enjoy it. Other than the promises themselves, my favorite part of the ordination liturgy was lying prostrate during the Litany of the Saints. It was incredibly humbling, and my sister sang the litany. It was a very powerful part.
After the seminary, I had my first assignment at St. Mary Queen of the Universe in Salina as an associate. I was with Father Kerry Ninemire during that time. He was great. Being a priest was overwhelming in a good way. The seminary teaches you how to handle pastoral situations, how to hear Confessions, how to celebrate Mass and say the homily. But it can never prepare you for the experience of the real thing – actually celebrating the Sacraments and having that real interaction with people. Moving to being on my own was also terrifying. The first time I was on my own was in Atwood, Beardsley and Herndon. But the people were fantastic and welcoming and encouraging. I was only 28 when I became a pastor, but it didn’t take me long to love it.
But I sort of shot myself in the foot. While I was still in the seminary, I was enjoying the academics, so I mentioned that I would be interested in further education. Also, getting my S.T.B. made further education for feasible. Bishop Weisenburger eventually decided that he wanted me to go back to school for further education. However, after falling in love with parish life, I didn’t want to go back, but I went. I received both my Licentiate of Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) in Spiritual Theology and my doctorate in Sacramental Theology.
It was difficult getting back into studies, but I loved the classes. I took great classes. In fact, sometimes I’d sit in on extra classes simply because they were so good. The advance studies are even better than the regular classes you get. I really, really liked it. My favorite class was on Eastern Catholic Spirituality. We studied everything from the Desert Fathers to more contemporary teachers, but it was all from the perspective of the Eastern Catholic Church.
I also learned that when people study theology, sometimes they just memorize the facts. But theology is more than that. It’s entering into the conversation of who God is. It’s sitting at the table and listening to all the thoughts from the great minds of the past, and then contributing your own thoughts to that conversation. My dissertation was on marriage and is called “The Mystery of Sacrificial Love: A study of Deitrich von Hildebrand’s understanding of sacrifice in matrimony.”
My favorite part of being a priest would be the Sacraments – the Eucharist first, and Reconciliation second. Sometimes, people are so afraid of Confession. But sharing that they are forgiven and helping to give that hope is so good. And I also enjoy teaching.
I also like the people. People are so complementary to one another. I have one friend in Atwood, and he likes to tease me how I’ve spent most of my life looking at books and studying. However, one time we were putting a bookshelf together, and he asked me to pass him a Phillips screwdriver. I had to ask him if it was the flat one or the cross! Obviously, you can never know everything about everything. For those who are discerning the priesthood, I think the primary question to ask yourself is, “Is this God’s call?” If you can say yes, then step two is to not look back. It never ended well for the people who looked back in the Bible!
Father Nick Parker is pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Hays.
From the May 28, 2021 issue of The Register