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The duty of delight

Mon, Jul 15, 2013

Twenty Something

Father Dave Korth’s dad had been declining for five years. That was the slow, haunting grip of dementia. The stories Leonard loved to tell had started to unravel. Something was missing from the hardy Nebraska farmer, so his wife and seven children began to wrap him in a patchwork of goodbyes.

His early-morning death one year ago was no surprise.

What did catch Father Dave off guard is how much it stung. “You have all these milestones and you think you’re preparing yourself, but when it happens and his physical presence is no longer there,” the 47-year-old priest told me, “it’s still a shock.”

His dad had been his biggest supporter, blaming his high-school basketball errors on extenuating circumstances. The World War II vet had always loomed large: a big man with a big personality, impossible to miss. Suddenly he was gone.

Father Dave had just marked 20 years of priesthood. He serves as director of the St. Augustine Indian Mission and lives on the Ho-Chunk tribe’s Winnebago, Neb. reservation. The work requires pastoral sensitivity and fundraising prowess: $1.5 million a year is needed to support the four parishes linked to the mission and their Catholic school, so Father Dave regularly hits the road to drum up donations. He works hard to get the message right, trying to convey the bluntness of the need and the brightness of the hope in his windswept corner of Nebraska.

Now Father Dave was facing a new challenge on that first Friday of July, back in his hometown and preparing to preside at his father’s funeral. Ten minutes before Mass, he was reminded of his next-day commitment to mission preaching, to fill in for a vacationing pastor at a suburban parish near St. Paul, Minn.

After the burial, Father Dave tried to give himself a break and requested a substitute. “Every able body is already taken,” he was told.

Early the next morning Father Dave loaded his fundraising materials and a small duffle bag into his blue Toyota Prius and began to cut across Highway 60, a six-and-a-half hour drive running on empty. As the miles passed, he sorted through the sea of faces that had flashed before him hours before – hugs and condolences, locals and travelers – and mentally edited the homily he had delivered for his dad.

And then, ready or not, he was vested up again, greeting the 5 p.m. Mass goers at St. Patrick in Inver Grove Heights, Minn. He had made it to the consecration when an incredible sensation swept over him: Though the congregation remained in their pews, it felt as though they were huddled around him at the altar, arms on each other’s backs, eyes on the host.

“I felt completely supported and lifted up,” Father Dave said. “Everyone coming together to hold me up.”

After Mass the parish deacon who had stood at his side sheepishly asked, “Did you sense anything different going on?”

When Father Dave explained the peculiar phenomenon, the deacon’s eyes lit up. He had felt the very same thing.

One year later Father Dave is still struck by the experience. “Someone suggested to me that my dad got the choir of angels to surround me,” he said, crying softly.

Today he is more open to unwanted assignments and the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit. He doubts he could’ve made it through Mass at his own parish that sorrowful week, yet far from home, he saw strangers become supporters, far-flung members of the same body of Christ.

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