It's just a half-day jaunt from the Twin Cities of Minnesota to southeastern South Dakota. But, seven years ago, Father James Mason made the trip a one-way, life-changing trek.
That day, he left behind the courtrooms of Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he'd been an assistant prosecuting attorney, to become a priest for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
After studies at the North American College in Rome, he was ordained in 2001 and soon appointed a pastor. Today, he's the diocese's vocation director and has recently taken on additional duties as head of the new Broom Tree Retreat Center and family camp.
“I love the priesthood,” says Father Mason. “I know that's who I am, and I know that Christ has called me to be a priest for him and for his people.”
It sounds so easy now, but the road was pocked with potholes.
“Around age 19, I began to sincerely pray, ‘Your will be done,’” he explains. “At that time, I was searching, like a lot of people are. As a 19-year-old, if I didn't understand or agree with the Church teaching, I thought I was right. Then I went through the process of reading the entire Bible and Catechism on my own and was amazed by the wisdom of the Church.”
Father Mason recalls how he loved the Church — and, especially, the Blessed Sacrament — but “didn't want to give up anything. I went on a journey of careers that I thought meant something. I thought that would be enough.”
First, he practiced law. Next, he moved to Sioux Falls as director of Catholic Charities and as lobbyist for the diocese. His strong pro-life efforts included work with Operation Rescue. During a retreat, a blind Jesuit told him, “You know you're called to the priesthood, but you're not finding joy. You need to enter, but you can't be ordained until you find the joy.”
Father Mason took the advice. “The joy came at one point in Eucharistic adoration,” he says. “I was just so tired of the fight. I finally said, ‘I surrender.’ I had been basically fighting with God and not willing to give up things. The joy came at that moment, and from that moment, it began to grow.”
Father Mason's first assignment was pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, a rural parish of 140 families in Garretson, S.D.
“You realize quickly that you are a spiritual father,” he says. “Even the non-Catholics (in town) have respect for you and call you ‘Father.’ Even my elders had a respect for the priesthood and would expect spiritual, fatherly advice. It was a great honor and humbling experience.”
Members of Charlie and Lori Holzaphel's family were among his first parishioners.
“The thing that struck me right away was the strength of his faith,” Lori says. “He was always very strong in teaching where the Catholic Church stood, for example, on life issues that today's society finds unpopular or unacceptable.”
Betty and Dan Irvine and their five children, 11 to 27 years old, found the same mixture of challenge and encouragement.
“His homilies were a course in apologetics,” Betty says. “He explained the Scriptures, took us back to the time of Jesus and tied it into our faith.” She appreciated the way he frequently challenged parishioners to become saints — and not to give up the fight despite setbacks and the seeming impossibility of the goal.
Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls calls Father Mason “an outstanding preacher who doesn't pull any punches. And yet it's so obvious he loves the Lord and loves his priest-hood that it gives him such a gentle way.”
Father Mason's approach to the priestly ministry is “very effective in people's lives,” adds the bishop.
Dan Irvine discovered this firsthand. “He will teach you the truth,” says Irvine. “He'll be concerned about your feelings, but pretty much lay it on the line to you what the teachings of the Church are.” Irvine is quick to add that he appreciated all the “good, solid answers on the Church's teachings” he received in Father Mason's confessional.
“He has a passion for the pro-life movement, a passion for the truth and sharing it very effectively with all ages,” says Bishop Carlson. “He can communicate the (Gospel) to a wide variety of people.”
“The kids love him,” Lori Holzaphel observes. “At religious education and at Sunday-morning Mass, he would greet all the kids by name, and he'd open the door for them. It meant a lot to them.”
No wonder he was the natural choice to head the diocese's new Broom Tree Retreat Camp, set to open in December.
“We knew we needed somebody who could attract young people and families,” explains Bishop Carlson, who, thanks to Father Mason's work in the vocations office, had much to go on.
“I'm impressed with who he attracts to the religious life,” Bishop Carlson says. The diocese of 120,000 Catholics has 25 men in priestly formation. And, since Father Mason arrived, seven women have entered religious life.
One is the Irvines’ daughter Laura. In September, she received her habit for Our Mother of Mercy & St. Joseph Carmelite Monastery in Alexandria, S.D., taking the name Sr. Mary Joseph of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus.
That's fitting, as parishioners always learned the centrality of the Eucharist from Father Mason.
“At the end of his homily, he'd always point to Jesus Christ and finding Jesus in the Eucharist,” Betty Irvine explains.
Lori Holzaphel points out that Father Mason always encouraged everyone to appreciate Eucharistic adoration. As a result, she began to spend time in adoration chapels when in Sioux Falls.
Through all the changes, Father Mason has remained a simple, humble priest.
“When I returned to Rome, I celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving with the Missionaries of Charity,” he reflects. “After Mass, the nuns would come and kiss the palms of your hands. It was very humbling. You knew they were not kissing the hand of this man, but the hands of Jesus Christ who was using this man.
“You're reminded that all is gift,” he adds. “And the greatest gift I have received is the priesthood.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.