Name: Father James Vrba
Years ordained: 32
Current assignment: St. Mary Parish, Wilton (pastor) and Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish, Muscatine (sacramental priest).
How did you know you were being called to priesthood?
My family was always very involved in the life of St. Joseph Parish, DeWitt, as I was growing up. I attended our parochial school for 11 years, until the high school department had to close at the end of my junior year. During those formative years I was in the midst of many faith-filled people.
In addition to my parents were the Sisters of Mercy, the parish priests and other teachers. I think God was calling me very early. I remember “playing Mass” around the time of my first holy Communion. I learned how to serve Mass while in elementary school. In those days we all would serve daily Mass before school in addition to Sundays. I had some musical skills so I learned how to play the piano and then the pipe organ in church. During junior and senior high school I regularly played for Sunday Mass. I was also involved in vocal music in high school and even led our high school choir that would be released from class to sing at parish funerals.
The most significant event was when Father Frank Kelley, our pastor, asked me to help him figure out all of the liturgical changes of Vatican II for Holy Week. I really felt honored to realize that a priest (who should know all of these things) would ask a high school sophomore to help him, especially preparing the new liturgical music. All of these experiences and many more helped me realize that God was calling me to priesthood.
The bottom line hit me while in college. As I contemplated my future, it occurred to me to look back at my life and figure out when I felt the most complete. I realized that all of the significant experiences had something to do with the church and service. I figured that if that was where I felt the most fulfilled in the past, it made sense that the church would also be the place where I would feel the most fulfilled in the future. I think that realization was the work of the Holy Spirit calling me to be a priest.
Aside from your ordination Mass, what was your most memorable Mass?
Honestly, every time I preside at Eucharist I feel very fulfilled. And usually pretty exhausted, too!
The most memorable and personal has been the recent funeral Mass for my mother, Dorothy. It’s difficult to put into words the entire experience. The best I can say is that I felt an overwhelming presence of Jesus through Eucharist, expressions of love and sympathy from so many people, and the outpouring of support, especially from Bishop Martin Amos and my brother priests. I’m especially consoled by our ancient appreciation of the communion of saints.
Celebrating 25 years of priesthood with my classmates, Father Ken Kuntz and Father Ed O’Melia, was also very memorable. I was touched by the many people who celebrated with us in Iowa City.
Another significant celebration was in 1984 when I traveled with a group of parishioners to Europe on a whirlwind tour including the passion play at Omeramergau. While on that tour I had the privilege of presiding at Mass with the group in the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We could hear many different languages upstairs during that intimate celebration. It helped me appreciate how “catholic” we really are. The most recent memorable celebration was the dedication of the new St. Mary’s Church in Wilton. It is a privilege to have been instrumental with so many other parishioners in the construction of a worship space that had been prayerfully hoped for over 20 years.
What is most rewarding about being a priest?
The single-most rewarding aspect of being a priest for me is entering into other people’s lives in a very intimate way. That happens especially celebrating the sacraments and being part of significant events in the lives of parishioners and others. By intimacy I mean allowing people to share the inner-most parts of their lives with me. In turn I can help them recognize the depth of how God is lovingly touching their lives.
What is most challenging about being a priest?
Personal intimacy is the most challenging for me. It has taken me time to realize the great gift that celibacy is. When I was younger I thought it was just a discipline I had to endure as part of the “package” of being a priest. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that even though I was not called to marriage, I was still called to a life of intimacy. I appreciate so much the priests who are members of our Emmaus support/prayer group that meets monthly. It’s an opportunity to be open and honest about our personal and professional lives. There is a caring and respect from my brothers that is vital to my spiritual and personal life.
What is your favorite Scripture passage? John 8:31-32: “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
What is your hobby? I enjoy playing piano and organ. Also model railroading (Lionel 027 gauge).