If God's word is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path, then Christ's teaching in Mark 3:35 must be a white-hot halogen for Father David Hoefler: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
“Even as a kid I always wanted a family,” Father Hoefler says, looking back at what led him to accept his vocation. “I remember praying, from when I was very young, ‘God, I'll do what you want me to do; only tell me what it is.’ I was hoping all the while it would be a family.”
Of course, God also saw his heart as he heard his words. And today Father Hoefler is the consummate “family man,” albeit in the family that is the Church. He's assistant pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Springfield, Ill., and he couldn't be more grateful to God for answering his prayers so generously.
Nor did God's magnanimity really surprise him. Prior to answering the call, he had only to look around his home and at the lives of his relatives to see that the family that prays together grows in grace together.
Father Hoefler grew up in a joyful Catholic family with three sisters. Their father, Ben, is a deacon at St. Aloysius Church in Springfield. Their mother, Leona, is a Third Order Carmelite. Three of Deacon Ben's uncles and a first cousin are priests. So are two of Leona's first cousins. Father Hoefler's sisters Janet and Linda are married, with seven and three children respectively, while Kathy is single.
For a while, in spite of the family's pipeline to the priesthood, it did not look like that call was in the cards for David Hoefler. He loved farming with his uncle, was a programmer with a computer science degree and had started his own successful carpentry business. But by his early 30s, dissatisfied with the dating scene, he began asking God to take away the desire for a family and replace it with an aspiration for the priesthood — if that was indeed God's will.
“At age 35, I still remember being really struck on my birthday,” Father Hoefler says. It was 1996. “I had the American dream of having my own business. Suddenly I realized all that was only temporary; I knew there was something else. I felt like I led a full life already. A feeling of gratitude came over me. I wanted to give it all back. I recognized celibacy as a gift and I felt I had it.”
While reading Pope John Paul II's Gift and Mystery and St. Thérèse's Story of a Soul, he visited Rome with his parish priest. They went to Mass at St. Peter's on New Year's Day 1997. One chance look from the Holy Father and the deal was sealed.
“Our eyes met as he was leaving,” Father Hoefler recalls. “I thought, there's my answer. I knew right then that I was supposed to be a priest. Since then I have never looked back.”
Gradually Father Hoefler came to believe that his early and strong desire for a family had been prompted by God as a way to prepare him for the familial aspects of priesthood.
“This is a different way [of having a family], but it is still the same thing,” he says. “As a husband as a father, a man makes a complete and total dedication and commitment to others. That's what a priest does, too.”
He also recognizes how God used his upbringing to teach him lessons beyond the obvious. “Dad often offered up his struggles for his family, and Mom did the same,” he says. “They were giving themselves up for us even before we were born. If I could be half the ‘parent’ my parents are, I'd be a great success.”
Father Hoefler was ordained on May 25, 2002. His father vested him when he received the deaconate; Deacon Ben also read the Gospel at his son's first Mass, bowing to receive the new priest's blessing before approaching the ambo. The deacon says the great joy of this moment was soon surpassed by an even more memorable moment.
“I was standing beside my son at the consecration, knowing that Jesus was present through his words and actions at the altar,” Deacon Ben says. “The whole idea of in persona Christi at that moment was almost an unbelievable thing. Being beside him as a priest is a gift very few fathers have an opportunity to enjoy.” (Then again, how many deacons get to baptize 10 of their own grandchildren?)
Today Father Hoefler helps tend to many families at Blessed Sacrament. Nearly 400 children attend its grammar school, where he teaches religion. And he started a parish vocations committee.
“We bought a chalice, and every week a family brings it home after Mass and prays for vocations,” Father Hoefler explains. “They take fifth-graders on trips — the girls to a Carmelite convent, the Cathedral Basilica of St Louis and then shopping; the boys to Kend-rick Seminary, the cathedral and a ballgame.”
He also launched the parish's Gospel of Life committee. Weekly, one family takes home an icon of the Annunciation to aid in prayers for an end to abortion and an increase in respect for life.
Father John Titus, vocations director for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., and former pastor of St. Aloysius Church, where Father Hoefler was a parishioner, recognized him as “a good listener able to relate to the young kids.” What's more, he said, “the older people in the parish all loved him. He's very patient, very able to relate to folks of all ages.”
This quality showed in such simple deeds as joining daily Mass-goers every morning at a fast-food restaurant for coffee. “He didn't scurry off to work, but he took the time to visit with them, to listen to the same stories every day,” Father Titus says. “I always admired him, particularly for his patience with folks and his kindness.”
Parishioner Deena Bell concurs. “He calls a new person in the parish one-on-one to see how they are,” she says. “He's willing to take on the little issues. It's a very Carmelite touch because he does the little things with great love.”
Father Hoefler's sister Janet always looked up to her brother for his virtue. “I remember purity really standing out in my mind,” she says. “If anything wasn't pure, he wouldn't look at it or have anything to do with it. He set a great example.” She also remembers how, one time, he stood up for her against some bullies at school. What impressed her most was that even this “he did in a Christian way.”
It turns out the admiration was mutual among the Hoefler siblings. “I saw the way my sisters were all striving to be good Catholic Christians in the thick of this culture,” the priest says. It was largely from their example, he says, that he “came to realize what a special family we have. And we didn't earn it. It's all God's gift.”
And what a special gift the Church has in the faithful families that pray together, grow in grace together — and give us priests like Father David Hoefler.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.