After Fifty years of mining for souls, Father Al has struck gold!
This weekend is very, very special. Naturally, because it is the final Birthday of the Church in the Second Millennium with the last Pentecost before Jubilee 2000; but it is also significant because Friday is the feast of one of the Church's newer saints Saint Eugene de Mazenod, bishop of Marseilles, France and founder of an Order that has blossomed in the same fashion and time frame as the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits grew. In less than 200 years the order he founded - the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have grown to over 5,000 priests worldwide. One of those priests is very, very special to us. He is our spiritual director for the past nine years - Father Aloysius Svobodny, OMI, affectionately known to us as "Uncle Al." You see within the next few weeks he will reach a milestone achieved by only a very select few men these days - his Golden Jubilee as a priest.
The Seventh Sign
Fifty years at anything is remarkable today, but doing it as an obedient, loving priest totally dedicated to Jesus and His Blessed Mother Mary is something very, very special. His entire priesthood has been a carbon copy of His Holiness John Paul II's pontificate in that both can claim the motto Totus Tuus. We wrote Father a few days ago remarking that if the Church had more priests like him the Triumph of Mary's Immaculate Heart might have occurred already. But because of dedicated holy men like him, we can take solace that we are closer to the glorious triumph promised at Fatima. This editor's relationship with Fr. Al goes back to 1956 when he was in his seventh year as a priest and this editor was in seventh grade and that was indeed a "seventh sign" for it began a special bond between us that has lasted on and off for over forty years. He was the Vocation Director for the Oblates' Central Province and our parish was Assumption parish in Richfield, Minnesota, a suburb immediately south of Minneapolis and in the vicinity of the old Met Stadium and today Mall of America. Back in those days the church was run by the Oblates and from the time our family moved into the parish in 1949 and this editor started first grade at Assumption the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have always had an influence on yours truly. No three men have had more of an influence then Fr. Al, Father Francis Zachmann, OMI who was my prefect and then special Spiritual Director while in the minor seminary and who played a significant role in my development both as a man and a good Catholic; the other was Father Leo Figge, OMI who was my Novice Master at the Oblate Novitiate in Alton, Illinois high above the Mississippi River northeast of St. Louis. It was the end of April in 1964 shortly after Easter that Fr. Figge and this editor realized my vocation was to the seminary to prepare me as a lay leader, not a priest. In fact, I left the Novitiate on April 30, 1964 realizing God had another direction for me and felt eternally grateful to Fr. Al, Fr. Francis and Fr. Leo for helping guide me to this and providing an education second to none. God called Fr. Francis to his Heavenly reward on July 29, 1983 while he was pastor of my former parish - Assumption Church in Richfield. Sadly and ironically this editor just discovered that God took Fr. Figge home two weeks ago as well. The date: April 30th!
Diamonds are forever
That basically leaves Fr. Al as one of the oldest of the Oblates and the wisest. To know him, however, you would still consider him young at heart. There are two special men in my life who are still very much alive and kicking. My own father, a distinguished Fourth Degree Knight who lives in the Twin Cities and just turned 81, can still do the Russian dance where one gets down on his haunches and kicks out the legs while bent down. No easy task for a twenty-one year-old, let alone an eighty-one year-old. Fr. Al's knees won't allow him such an exercise but his mind and wit are as finely tuned as ever. He, too, hails from Minneapolis, currently working out of Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo, Minnesota on scenic Lake Buffalo 50 miles west of the Cities. He just turned 76 on January 13th exactly a week after my Dad's 81st birthday. Both are spry and full of love for life and their faith and that's what keeps them young. Though we would like to think both will live forever, we know that is not possible but we give thanks daily God has kept both men so healthy and their minds so sharp after all these years. Both Fr. Al and Dad have had medical problems but none that kept them from their appointed rounds, so to speak. In fact, this weekend there will be a Singles Catholic Retreat at the Retreat Center and before Fr. Al dons the chasuble to celebrate his 50th anniversary Mass at three p.m. on Pentecost Sunday we can imagine he will have had an influence on a number of young souls attending that retreat, just possibly planting the seeds of vocation in one or two, just has he has done for countless souls over his fifty years as a priest and over sixty as a dedicated religious. Sixty is recognized as the diamond anniversary and indeed Fr. Al is a diamond in the rough that has been polished by the Almighty to sparkle and glisten for His sake, reflecting God's love and goodness in whatever this dedicated priest does.
Fr. Al's journey began when he first entered St. Henry's Preparatory Seminary in Belleville, Illinois in the Fall of 1937 a young fourteen year-old out of Minneapolis. After graduating from high school at St. Henry's and two years of Junior College there where he received his Associate of Arts Degree, he took his first vows in Mission, Texas after a year of the Novitiate in 1944 and then De Mazenod Scholasticate and St. John's Seminary, both in San Antonio before being ordained in the magnificent, magestic Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota by Bishop James Byrne on June 4, 1949. His first assignement brought him to Carthage, Missouri and the Oblates' new minor seminary which had just opened - Our Lady of the Ozarks in the foothills of the Ozarks where he taught History and English and became Assistant Vocation Director for the Province. In 1951 he was appointed Moderator of Oblate Parent Groups, an organization he founded to promote vocations and prayer support in the nine upper-midwest states of Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. It was here when he first came in contact with a young man named Francis E. George and began working closely with Francis' parents in working the fertile fields of greater Chicagoland as fishers of men to serve Our Lord. Francis, of course, would go on to become Cardinal George, OMI and current Archbishop of Chicago.
The Pilgrim Father: Have card, will travel
In August 1942 Fr. Al was named fulltime Vocational Director and his traveling days had begun where over the next thirty some years would take him on an average of 40,000 miles a year. Six years later he was promoted to Provincial Director of Vocations and everyone became familiar with his calling card, one that stumped most people the first time they read it in which one was to read a short paragraph and then tell how many "f's" they remembered in the paragraph. Naturally most missed the "f's" in three "of's" which pointed out how it may not always be obvious if one has a vocation or not but that through prayer, God has a way of nourishing the seeds of such a calling. It was a great ice-breaker that Fr. Al still uses to this day.
In September 1963 he was transfered to the burgeoning Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows to promote pilgrimages there and a year later appointed Pilgrimage Director at the Shrine in Belleville, Illinois. In this post he put on an average of 50,000 miles a year presenting illustrated lectures and scheduling and appearing on the grueling radio and TV interview circuit necessary to promote the Shrine programs. In May 1968 he was assigned to the Provincial House in St. Paul, Minnesota as Mission Procurator and Oblate Information Officer dealing with the Media and public relations, something he has always excelled in, attending the General Conference of Social Communications in Rome as one of two members from the U.S. Region that year. He would return to Rome on December 3, 1995 for the canonization of Bishop De Mazenod. After fourteen years in his post as Procurator, eleven of which he served as Executive Secretary for the American Social Communications Conference, he was appointed an Associate Director at Christ the King House of Retreats in Buffalo in 1982 where he remained until becoming an associate pastor at the West End Catholic Parish in Duluth in 1985. This pastoral work comprised three Catholic ethnic churches - one Irish, one French and one Polish church - all within several blocks of each other. Here Father Al first heard of Medjugorje and thus began another chapter in his life - as he was kidded by fellow Oblates over the years that after the Blessed Mother, no one appeared in Medjugorje more often than Fr. Al!
The Living Link
It was in Duluth that we were reunited with Fr. Al in the winter of 1989 when we made plans to accompany him to Medjugorje in May 1990 which we did and, as they say, the rest is history. His bishop in Duluth and friend at that time was Bishop Robert Brom who a year later would be transferred to San Diego and play an influential role in the start of our ministry MIR-A-CALL Center. Bishop Brom was replaced in Duluth by Bishop Roger Schweitz, who was a colleague of this editor's at Our Lady of the Ozarks seminary and graduated when yours truly was just a Sophomore, the same year I received my Junior Oblate Cross on Founder's Day which was then February 17th.
It is truly amazing, when one looks back on events over one's life, how God places special people in our path to make us better and more pleasing to Him and how so many times it is not coincidence but truly a "Godincidence." We have been so blessed to have been touched by Fr. Al as have thousands of others whom he has influenced in a way few can. He is the "living link" to a vast number of Oblate priests and lay leaders who owe their vocations to his persistence and encouragement. They say that, throughout a lifetime, most people are lucky if they can count their real true friends on one or two hands. That may be true, but while we give him a great big hand, we don't count Fr. Al on our hand, rather on our heart. After all, that is much more meaningful for he is truly family. To our two sons, to Cyndi and to this editor he will always be our "Uncle Al!" If it weren't for Fr. Al, we wouldn't be where we are today. We are saddened that we cannot share in person his celebration in Buffalo this Sunday, but we are with him there in spirit and prayer. We owe so much to this very, very special priest. We only pray that everyone could have an 'uncle' like Father Al! If you've ever been touched by Father Al's gentle soul, you can be assured you've been touched by the Holy Spirit for he has dispensed countless nuggets of knowledge and love, sifting through the patient pan of empathy and caring and now, looking back on all the prospects he has influenced as he reaches his Golden Jubilee we can proudly say that, after Fifty years of mining for souls, Father Al has struck gold!