By Mary Costello
For The Catholic Messenger
“When you think about the priesthood, you think you are giving up your life for the Church. But I can tell you I have received back two-fold since I became a priest,” said Father Ross Epping, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Grinnell. “People think you have to shut many doors, but for me new doors have opened.”
Fr. Epping talked about his travels with Catholic Relief Services to Burkina Faso in Africa. He’s been to Haiti twice with parishioners of St. John Vianney (Bettendorf), where he previously served. He’s attended conferences around the U.S. and given retreats. He said he gives of himself and feels great love in return.
This 30-year-old priest, who was ordained in 2016, says his journey to the priesthood began when he was 9. He was living in Minnesota and a priest named Father Mark Ostendorf became a family friend. “He was kind, compassionate and fun. I wanted to be just like him. I told my whole family that I wanted to be a priest.”
But Fr. Epping believes that answering God’s call is not so much an “aha” moment as a long journey of getting to know God more fully. He remembers that in high school he wasn’t interested in the priesthood at all. Then he attended St. Ambrose University (Davenport), where he met several influential people. “Father Chuck Adam and Sheila Deluhery were campus ministers. Fr. Chuck was deeply interested in us and wanted the best for each and every student. Even his personality reminded me of Fr. Mark. Sheila and Sister Rita Cameron, who was the head of the music program, also shared their love for God and all of us.”
One day in his senior year of college, Fr. Epping told his three mentors that he was thinking about the priesthood. “They said they already knew. They were just waiting for me to discover it.” He had nagging doubts, but his mentors told him to give the seminary a try.
His first couple of years at Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., were a challenge. “It was very disciplined and I was just out of college feeling carefree. But it was good because it taught me how to pray and to discover my best self.”
Through his studies and prayer, Fr. Epping came to see that a relationship with God comes first and that allows him to give love to the whole body of Christ. “I thought I’d be lonely as a priest but everyone feels lonely at times, even in marriage. The question is — how do you fill that void? The Eucharist is a great gift.”
In his second year in the seminary, Fr. Epping discovered the late Dorothy Day and fell in love with her. As the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Day was busy with a newspaper, feeding the hungry and advocating for the poor. Yet she began every day with Mass and prayer. “I became a Catholic Worker in my spare time in Chicago and in Colorado where I served as hospital chaplain for a summer. That is when I knew for certain that I was where I was supposed to be. That same year Pope Francis was elected (2013) and everything fell into place.”
Fr. Epping knows that discerning a vocation is not easy. But, he says, sometimes you have to test out whatever seems to be in your heart. The Holy Spirit plants seeds that unfold over time, he says.
Christ the King chapel at St. Ambrose University became a source of comfort while Fr. Epping was in college. He thought at one point that he would like to teach theology and philosophy. “But my younger brother Cole is pursuing that field and I teach from a different position.”
Fr. Epping is one of five brothers. Two are married. One is still in school. When Fr. Epping was 11, his family moved from Minnesota to Atkins, Iowa, and he lost touch with Fr. Mark, his childhood hero. “When I decided to go to seminary, I tracked him down and we visited. He was so happy for me.” Fr. Mark died before Fr. Epping was ordained. “But he died on Good Friday. He was always giving witness to faith.”
Asked if he was happy, Fr. Epping responded, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into! Every day is so different. Getting to know the people of God creates a life-giving, full life.”
(Mary Costello is a member of the Sacred Heart Vocation Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport.)