Year for Priests at 601 S. Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO 65806 US - Bishop-Emeritus John J. Leibrecht Ordained March 17, 1956
Sr. Joleen Huelsmann, one of the Sisters of Notre Dame who taught me in elementary school, told me one day, “John, maybe God will call you to be a priest someday. Keep that in mind.” In a recent note to her on her 98th birthday, I thanked Sister for being one of the people who reminded me to look closely at what God wanted me to be and do in life.
Years later, when I entered the seminary in St. Louis, my mother and father said they would pray for me. If it turned out that I was not called to the priesthood, they said, I would be welcomed back home with no questions asked. Full support from them with no pressure – the perfect combination. My brothers and sister took the same approach.
Twice have I lain prostrate on a church floor for the sacrament of holy orders: once as a priest and the other as bishop. That ritual of prostration, while the choir and congregation chant the Litany of the Saints, symbolizes humility and the need for God’s grace in light of one’s personal weaknesses and limitations. In 1956, there were 32 of us prostrate on the floor of the St. Louis Cathedral. After the litany, we went, one-by-one, to have Card. Joseph Ritter lay hands on our heads in ordination. Following that, priests of the Archdiocese [of St. Louis] laid their hands on us, and as they did so, I realized I was being joined to others in a sacred venture much larger than myself.
In 1984, I lay prostrate on the floor of Immaculate Conception Church in Springfield, MO, this time alone for ordination as fifth bishop of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Abp. John May of St. Louis imposed hands on me, as did all the other bishops present. Again, I knew I was becoming part of a ministry in the Church larger than myself.
Seminary formation taught me to live priestly ministry as a servant of those to whom I would be sent. Jesus said of himself that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mt 20:28). The great majority of priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis with whom I labored lived by that motto, as did the priests of Springfield-Cape Girardeau whom I came to know, respect, and admire. Trying to imitate the servant Christ brings much happiness and inner satisfaction to us priests.
Whether as an associate pastor or pastor, Catholic high school teacher or principal, associate superintendent or superintendent of schools in the archdiocese, my life was enriched by the people I met and with whom I worked. Fond memories of those years are abundant.
As bishop here in southern Missouri for 23 years, I experienced blessings beyond number in my associations with the priests, deacons, religious women and men, and faithful laity of the diocese. I had trusted that the phone call from Pope John Paul II’s representative in Washington, DC, on Oct. 17, 1984, would be another way of accepting God’s will in my life. That trust was well-placed.
I thank God every day for the vocation of priesthood, making present in different opportunities among different people the priestly presence of the Lord himself. What other calling God might have given me, I do not know. Any other calling, I feel, probably would not have proven as happy or filled with as much purpose and meaning. God’s blessings and those of so many others, anchored in my daily celebration of the Eucharist, are beyond my imagining.
Jesus said, “There is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and the sake of the gospel who will not receive a 100 times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-30).
Those words of Jesus are true. Really true!
Bp.-Emeritus John J. Leibrecht retired in 2008 and resides in Springfield.