In a photo from this spring, Fr. Bobby Krueger dons a black beanie, thick grey gloves, and a jacket with a hood over his clerics.
In his gloved hands, he carries a small gold and glass monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament - which he carried on foot to every block in St. Leonard’s parish on two occasions during the coronavirus lockdowns in Berwyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.
Anyone who has experienced spring in Chicago, or merely sees the photo of Fr. Krueger, knows that those could not have been balmy walks.
“When we couldn’t get to Mass, He brought Jesus to us - even in the snow and rain,” Kathy Rokosz, a St. Leonard’s parishioner, wrote in her nomination of Krueger as a “hero priest” of the pandemic.
Through Sept. 14, Mundelein Seminary is accepting nominations of “hero priests” throughout the United States who went above and beyond during the weeks when public Masses and other normal parish activities were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
These priests will be honored collectively as part of Mundelein’s 2020 In Service of One Another Catholic Humanitarian Award. “As COVID-19 has changed so much about the way we live in 2020, the Church has remained an essential source of hope, inspiration and support.
Heroic priests across the country have answered the chaos of the pandemic with extraordinary creativity and resolve to continue serving as a bridge between Christ and his people,” the seminary states on their website, where nominations may be submitted. Fr. John Kartje, the rector of Mundelein, told CNA that the idea for the recognition of these priests came from a desire to focus on the good that has come from these unprecedented times.
“It just came from the realization that in the midst of the pandemic and frankly also with everything that's been going on over the last several months, all the social unrest, we've certainly seen that here in Chicago... that there have been a lot of people stepping up in amazing ways,” including many priests, Kartje said.
Indeed, as public Masses and gatherings closed throughout the country for weeks on end starting in mid-March, priests started getting creative. Drive-through and walk-up confessionals, parking lot Masses, livestream retreats, and teams of priests specially trained to enter ICU wards and administer the sacraments to coronavirus patients became the norm in many dioceses throughout the U.S.
Fr. Kartje said they want to recognize the extraordinary efforts of priests during these times - no matter how flashy or not their efforts seem. “Even aside from those kinds of things that often get headlines, it's just the ways that they've been trying to minister to their people, however that's possible,” he said, “whether that's an increased number of home visits, or obviously the ways social media has made the sacraments available and accessible to people.”
Kartje said one of his favorite submissions so far has been of an elderly priest who spent time visiting people outside of their windows at nursing homes, which experienced some of the strictest measures of lockdown and isolation.
“He could not only pray for them and offer their blessing from the outside, but then he could be with their families who are right outside the window beside him,” Kartje said. “You know, these are just heartbreaking cases of grown children and grandchildren, their hearts aching to go inside and be with their loved ones. And here's an elderly priest who can provide real ministry and solace to the family, as well as providing prayer and blessing for a person who's inside the nursing home and not able to receive visitors.”
Another submission of a hero priest is Father Christopher DiTomo, who served in Elburn, Illinois during the pandemic. Besides hearing confessions outside in the elements and live-streaming Masses and prayer services, DiTomo also drove the Blessed Sacrament around his parish and held a Palm Sunday procession. “He brought Jesus to the streets of Elburn for over four hours on foot to people who were unable to attend Mass due to restrictions, and to a people who were starving for the Lord, both physically and spiritually,” Theresa Carter wrote of DiTomo in her nomination. “He brought people a glimpse of hope and peace at a very scary, uncertain time. He was all in at all times to help ensure his flock were spiritually nourished during this proverbial wandering in the desert,” she added.
Kartje said that while there have been several submissions of priests in the area of Chicago, the campaign is open to submissions of priests throughout the country. Parishioners who would like to honor their priests may fill out a questionnaire located on the seminary website through Sept. 14. On Sept. 17, a small ceremony will be held at the Rector’s Classic Golf Outing in Mundelein, with a few local priests who will accept the honor on behalf of all of the nominated priests.
“The extraordinary times we're living in obviously put a spotlight on the work these priests are doing, but as I'm sure many of your readers know, even outside of such extraordinary times, there are just thousands and thousands of good priests doing the work of the Lord,” Kartje said. “We certainly appreciate them, and it's humbling and an honor for us to be able to hold up some of these men's stories in gratitude.”