To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
Father Anthony Stephens was only ordained last summer — but already parishioners at St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville, Ky., are seeing Christ in him. Maybe that’s because he sees Christ in them. By Joseph Pronechen.
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
Mercy Father Anthony Stephens was only ordained last summer — but already
parishioners at St. Luke Catholic Church in Nicholasville, Ky.,
are seeing Christ in him. Maybe that’s because he sees Christ in them.
Choir director Terry Leitch can’t help but notice the little 3-year-old boy from
a family of six children who wants to be a priest and likes to “play Mass” with
his brother, saying, “I want to be Father Tony.”
Andy Johns, youth director for
this 330-family parish not far from Lexington,
has a mental portfolio of many similar moments, like the time he ran out to his
car to retrieve some papers during the youth group’s meeting. A mother parked
outside with her young children asked him if Father Stephens was with the youth
group that day. She and the children were out running errands and, she told
Johns, “My son wanted to stop and say hi to Father Tony.”
Memorable examples of the way Father
Stephens has encouraged Catholics of all ages roll out in rapid succession —
familiar images of him gathering teens for the March for Life, playing football
with the kids as his black cassock flaps in the wind, spending hours in prayer
before the Blessed Sacrament.
In addition to his own daily
devotions to Jesus in this parish that has perpetual adoration, Leitch says, “You’ll find him even at 3 a.m., covering for
people who can’t make it. He loves to be in the presence of the Lord.”
That quality is apparent to
everyone. Johns can’t help but see Father Stephens’ great reverence celebrating
Mass, down to the way he purifies the chalice after Communion.
“There was something in that
simple action that resonated with me about his love for the Eucharist,” says
These are all among the ways
Father Stephens brings the New Evangelization to people. For his order, the
Fathers of Mercy, he calls it re-evangelization through the sacraments,
Eucharistic adoration and reverent offering of Mass.
“It’s really a nuts-and-bolts
approach we take,” says Father Stephens. “We really try to encourage people if
they’ve been away for awhile or less fervent in the practice of their faith. We
try to help them take their faith more seriously through a love for Christ in
the Eucharist and through the sacrament of confession. There is a lot of
healing to be found in this sacrament in particular.”
The youth group gets the picture
when Father Stephens, who helps by co-directing it, leads activities like the
new Holy Half-Hours and the Dead Theologians’ Society discussions. One session
looked at the Cure of Ars with a special focus on the
sacrament of reconciliation. The teens learned the saint spent up to 18 hours a
day hearing confessions.
“It was like the scales fell from
their eyes,” says Father Stephens. “The questions came and you could tell the
Holy Spirit was working.”
This year, he’s looking to have
some guided meditations with the Holy Half-Hours before the Blessed Sacrament
with the teens so they gain a love for the Eucharist and for Catholic
tradition, he explains.
“‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name’ is
a song all Catholics should know by heart, all three verses,” he says. “They
should know what a monstrance is. And the smell of incense. It’s not to trigger
a coughing fit but trigger our hearts to prayer.”
This great love for the Church and
traditional Catholic devotions was already clear to Father Anthony Manuppella, pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in Merchantville, N.J.,
where Father Stephens worked during his diaconate summer. It wasn’t the only
quality that impressed the pastor.
“The first was his humility; he
was willing to listen with docility to me as a pastor giving him little hints
and helps,” recalls Father Manuppella. Pointing to
his preaching, for one example, Father Manuppella
adds: “He was so good and wanted to better himself. He wanted me to critique
his homilies. It’s not an easy thing to have the pastor critique your
found his young charge’s obedience to the teachings of the Church, compassion,
approachability and prayerfulness stood out with the same strength. Same for
the way he maintained the teachings of the Church in a kind and loving way.
“He had this equilibrium,” says
the pastor. He still sees it as Father Stephens remains in contact by phone and
e-mail to discuss pastoral and spiritual matters and seek his mentor pastor’s
Citing Father Stephens’ words in
the confessional, Leitch notes a depth of wisdom in
the young priest uncommon to his age group. “One of the things amazing to me,”
she says, “is how on-target his advice has been.”
The Road Ahead
For his part, Father Stephens
projects an obvious joy in the way he talks about his mission to help people
appreciate the faith more. He certainly appreciated the example of the Fathers
of Mercy he encountered at Christendom
College while he was a
student there, first with thoughts of being a veterinarian.
The oldest of six children, he
grew up on his family’s Kansas
cattle farm. He’s grateful to his father and mother for encouraging him to
discern a possible priestly vocation.
Once he and the Church felt sure
his call was authentic, Father Stephens says, the Fathers of Mercy order seemed
ideal because their primary charism of traveling and
preaching parish missions clicked with him.
He well remembers his first visit
to the order in Kentucky.
“It was like a hand in glove; it just fit,” he says. Then it was off for
studies at Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.
Before Father Stephens eventually
joins the mission band to spread the knowledge of God’s mercy far and wide, at
St. Luke’s he’s part of the order’s secondary apostolate, staffing smaller
When he is eventually called to
travel the country preaching parish missions as a Father of Mercy, others will
surely learn the same lessons of love for the sacraments and for the Church
that parishioners at St. Luke’s have.
“Any pastor,” says Father Manuppela, “would love to have him.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes
from Trumbull, Connecticut.