Moments of Grace Punctuate never-Ending Work

By David Briggs
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
April 21, 2003

Father Frank Kosem's head nods above a bowl of soup Sunday eve ning. A 70-hour workweek extended through two Masses and baptisms that day. He spent the afternoon at a family birthday party for his 96-year-old mother.

In this moment of solitude, the fragrance of the chicken noodle soup nourishes both body and soul.

And then the rectory phone rings.

All he can think of is, God, let me finish my meal in peace. But he is on hospital call, and a woman is dying of cancer. When he arrives at Elyria's EMH Regional Medical Center less than an hour later, all eight of her adult children are sitting around the bed.

The priest winds his way through the cramped hospital room, weaving around medical equipment and family to administer the last rites. A pulled curtain dividing the small darkened room provides the only privacy.

Kosem anoints the woman with sacred oil on her forehead and hands.

The priest, the eight children and the woman, still conscious, pray together.

"It's OK. You can rest and close your eyes," Kosem reassures the woman.

Then, he goes around to each child, people in their 30s and 40s who would soon have no one standing between them and their own mortality, and touches them in turn. His words will be forgotten. But each embrace provides a sense of peace. He receives a hug so tight from a daughter that it seems to reach out for her mother one last time before giving her to God; a firm handshake from a middle-age man with tears in his eyes giving up the son's desire to protect his mother from death

She dies a few hours later.

The hospital call turns into one of the graced moments priests live for, the times that they as a representative of Christ on Earth can bring solace to the suffering in a way no one else can.

But his moment's peace at the end of a long week is gone. A new workweek starts in a few hours.

KOSEM'S JOB IS to proclaim the Gospel, celebrate the Eucharist and visit the sick and suffering. But he is also asked to be the chief executive officer of a $1.9 million-a-year institution with 83 employees and a 500-student elementary school.

For the 58-year-old priest, that means caring for an Elyria parish of 2,300 families - more than 6,000 people - with the help of only one other priest, barely out of seminary.

It is not a role Kosem and his classmates prepared for. The church they entered in 1970 was full of stories passed down of pastors who had so many associates they could spend a month or two in Florida each winter. Their generation would be the last to come forward in the days of full seminaries, golden reputations and realistic workloads.

Now, with few people coming up the clerical pipeline, the median age of diocesan priests is 59.

Kosem and the guys he went to seminary with are the ones the diocese depends on to hold the church together.

Marion Kosem, retired from business at 64, worries about the pace his younger brother must keep up.

"It's brutal, it really is. It's brutal and cruel, the demands on them because there are so few of them," Marion Kosem says. "The schedule these guys have, it's just inhumane. Can you really go 16, 18 hours a day?"

Kosem's week begins at 6:30 a.m. Monday in a large blue La-Z-Boy recliner that barely fits into his small bedroom in an upstairs corner of the rectory of St. Jude Catholic Church.

There, inches away from his bed in one of the few private places in his life, he talks to God in preparation for celebrating the 7 a.m. Mass. Each celebration of the Eucharist is special to Kosem, and the 25 regulars who come to early morning Mass will hear a specially prepared homily.

During the exchange of peace, he comes out to the congregation and shakes hands with about half of the worshippers. After Mass, he greets everyone, mostly older and retired individuals. Some merely say good morning, but many line up before him with special requests, to pray for a sick sister or to let him know someone has left the hospital or that one of their former teachers had a stroke.

The final person in line, Ken Wacker, not only tells the priest something needs to be fixed in the chapel, but hands him a broken kneeler. He also tells him that one of the doors to the church sticks.

And so Kosem, dressed in liturgical robes with a piece of broken furniture in his hand, is off and running in the race that is a week in the life of a typical pastor.

AFTER MASS, Kosem walks the few yards to the rectory for breakfast. In an old parish such as St. Jude, the rectory and offices are together so the kitchen becomes the community gathering place.

As usual, the priest is dressed casually in an open-necked blue-checked shirt as he prepares his breakfast of a toasted bagel, banana and coffee. He sits down to eat and read the newspaper, enjoying the five minutes he has to himself before meeting informally with staff members to talk about the upcoming week.

With a sigh, he tells custodian Jack Hart about the broken kneeler, and asks him to take care of it, and to look at the front door. Kosem then explores ways to reduce the complex's utility bills, down to asking the custodian to unscrew some outside lights.

And so it goes. The issues he deals with range from getting special permission for a handicapped child to receive First Communion to discussing ways to reduce the remaining $1 million debt on the recent addition to the school.

Then, Kosem makes his most controversial decision of the day, setting a 10 p.m. curfew on basketball practice. The decision is made to save energy and make sure sports do not overtake a reasonable bedtime. Going against the wishes of parent coaches is not done lightly. Every pastor knows the perils of youth sports - "When the adults act like children, it's a disaster."

He returns to his office for more meetings with staff. As he talks, scenes from nature alternate across the screen saver on his computer. Most show flowing rivers, snow-covered mountains or a cat and a dog playing together.

But every so often the screen is filled with a bear raised up and growling at the world.

Sometimes, as he muses about how siblings and friends his age are retired, Kosem feels like growling. But his religion has always given him the strength to go on.

His faith was forged from infancy in the horrors accompanying the final days of World War II. The Catholic church in his family's small village in Slovenia was blown up by Communist partisans, and his father was put in a Nazi prison. When his father was released, his parents decided to flee both the Nazis and the Communists, carrying the infant Frank in a wagon and then on their backs in a daring escape over the Alps into Austria.

The family lived in a Catholic refugee camp for two years - husband, wife, brother and sisters in one room in a long barracks. His family eventually traveled to America with the help of the church in both countries.

Kosem grew up in Collinwood at a time when each ethnic group - Slovenians, Germans, Irish, Italians - had its own church, and nothing could make an ethnic mother prouder than to have a son enter the priesthood.

Ordained in 1970, he was plucked out of the ranks in 1974 to serve as an assistant to Bishop James A. Hickey. Kosem was made chancellor of the diocese in 1978, and Hickey, who later became cardinal in Washington, constantly kept after him to get an advanced degree in canon law in Rome, a precursor to entering the hierarchy.

But Kosem did what few priests could at the time and turned Hickey down. What he wanted most of all was to be a pastor.

In 1984, he got his wish and was assigned to St. Jude.

ON THIS MONDAY evening, Ko sem goes from dinner back to his office to prepare for his first meeting with a young couple wanting to get married next June. This means giving up the 45 minutes of free time Kosem usually allows himself each day to relax and watch television in the upstairs living room of the rectory.

The woman is a member of the congregation. He is surprised to see her fiance is black.

But he greets the couple with a warm smile, assuring them of his support. "We're not trying to make life difficult for people. All we're trying to do is ask the right questions, and be of some help."

The young man, wearing a blue shirt and tie, hesitantly tells Kosem his background is Baptist. Kosem focuses on the young man's pride in going back to school in his 20s to get a degree and become a teacher. He relaxes and smiles as Kosem keeps repeating the church is there to help them: "It's your wedding."

By the end of the meeting, the three are chatting like friends.

Kosem, who at St. Jude welcomed altar girls before an official pronouncement approved the practice, has always had an affirming pastoral style.

"I don't want the collar to be intimidating. I just feel I want to relate to people," he says. "You take people where they are. You listen, and you're compassionate."

At 7:30, he goes from the counseling session to a parish meeting. This meeting, dealing with a special fund for the school, will be run by laypeople. When a committee member proposes scrapping the traditional steak dinner for cocktail parties, Kosem enthusiastically supports trying something new.

The meeting breaks up early. But instead of calling it a night, Kosem stops in on another parish meeting for a golf fund-raiser.

Tuesday is another whirlwind of meetings and counseling sessions. That night, at a school finance meeting, Kosem offers his voice of experience. After a committee member recommends charging other parishes a per-student fee for kids they send to St. Jude School, Kosem tells the committee the practical effect of that decision often ends up with the pastor of the other church taking the family off his rolls.

When it's time to vote, Kosem doesn't tell church members what to do. He just asks them to make a decision so plans can go forward. After the school finance meeting, he goes over to the gym to show support for the Boy Scouts. Then it is back to his office to prepare a sermon for the 7 a.m. Mass the next day. Most nights end with him falling asleep before the weather comes on during the 10 p.m. news.

What men like Kosem don't know, say his friends and religious superiors, is when to turn it off, to forgo being present at every meeting or scouting event and take the time for themselves that every human being needs.

Auxiliary Bishop Martin Amos says when they go on vacation for a week, Kosem spends the first three days talking about his parishioners at St. Jude. He may relax for a day, but then resumes talking about his plans for when he gets back.

Even what was once sacrosanct - his day off on Thursday - is slowly being squeezed by the pressures of parish life.

The Rev. Robert Sanson and Kosem share a cottage in Vermilion where other priests have an open invitation to gather on Thursdays. But Sanson says Thursday morning is now devoted to sermon preparation. And Kosem increasingly makes business calls from the Vermilion home.

Lately, Kosem leaves early on Thursday evening to go back to the parish and read the mail and catch up on his work.

"He's just a tireless worker for his people to the point where he's almost driven," Sanson says.

ON FRIDAY MORNING at the Elyria hospital, Kosem walks right up to the side of the bed, and leans down within 18 inches of Eileen Cebula's face to ask her how she is doing.

The older woman takes Kosem's hand and kisses it.

In other rooms, equally grateful parishioners grasp his hand and inquire after his own health. In December, Kosem needed 19 stitches on the right side of his face after a branch he was trimming snapped back and hit him.

"Not knocking down any trees? You learned your lesson," Doris Miller scolds him. "You're never too old to learn."

She then takes his hand and closes her eyes as they pray the Our Father together. She will die four weeks later.

"It's not what you say, it's more the presence that speaks so loudly," Kosem says in the hospital hallway. "I try to be as calm as possible. I try to reinforce the presence of God, the power of God, the healing of God."

Some priests are already cutting back on pastoral visits, giving laypeople the sole responsibility for visiting the sick and distributing communion to the homebound. But the one-on-one contact with those in need is one of the last things Kosem wants to give up.

Later Friday, he leaves the hospital to go to Lorain to visit Sam, not his real name, a heroin addict who has family in the parish. He called Kosem four weeks ago when he was still on smack. He subsequently checked himself into a recovery program.

Compass House is choked with smoke. Alcohol and drugs are not allowed, so cigarettes are the addiction of choice. The two men sit across from each other in plastic chairs in a nearly empty room. The gray walls are broken up by an old-fashioned wall heater and two large posters listing the 12 steps to recovery.

"I thought I hit bottom, and then I tried heroin - and it was like falling through a trapdoor," says Sam, his hands constantly moving in an effort to keep up with his thoughts. He talks of needing heroin so bad he was unable to breathe without it.

Why did he check into a recovery house, Kosem asks. His eyes focus on Sam, but his posture is relaxed with hands clasped on top of one leg crossed over the other.

"God kind of hit me over the head with a hammer and let a glimmer of light through," says Sam, his words spilling out with the eloquence of the confessional of a man who has nothing more to lose.

The young man seeks reassurance and hope that he can put his life together. Kosem alternately praises him for his courage and reminds him of the hard work of recovery ahead. Before he leaves, the young man asks Kosem if he can take the fifth of the 12 steps - a full confession of his addiction - with the priest.

As the conversation ends, Sam hugs the priest. On the way out, he introduces Kosem to each of his counselors. He wants everyone to know his priest took the time to visit him.

Sam follows Kosem almost halfway out the front door before letting go of his hand.

ON SUNDAY MORNING, Kosem gets up at 6:30 to pray his office, prayers for the entire church that each priest promises at ordination to say every day.

These moments of reflection with the beauty and wisdom of the Psalms provide a spiritual base for a demanding day.

Once he leaves the rectory, Kosem is everywhere, greeting parishioners, back in the sacristy giving last-minute instruction to the altar servers and organist and finally huddled in prayer with lay ministers outside the sanctuary just before Mass.

Sunday Mass is the time they can reach the great majority of parishioners, and nothing is held back.

Fourteen people, mostly women including three female altar servers, participate in the opening procession. In the exchange of peace, Kosem comes down from the altar to embrace the congregation.

After Mass, he stands outside until the last person is gone. He shares an easy familiarity with church members.

As Kosem fusses over a child at his first Mass, the baby's grandfather, Bill Rice, jokes, "We were going to pinch the baby if the homily took any longer."

Many people inquire about the pastor's health, and how his eye is recovering from "the tree attack." Several hug him, and get a big hug back.

Now comes one of the hardest parts of his week. Each celebration of Mass takes something out of a priest, Kosem says, and he never wants the Sunday Mass to seem like a routine.

Before the noon Mass, he takes off his liturgical robes and leaves the church building. Back in the rectory, he puts on a fresh shirt and splashes water on his face.

The noon Mass is a little less crowded. In typical Catholic fashion, the seating is the reverse of a sporting event, the sides and back are crowded; there are plenty of seats up front.

The sermon is the same, but it seems the delivery is a little quicker. Few people will see him up close, but those who do notice the priest's shoulders are more relaxed; a tired look crosses his face in those moments when he is sitting down.

But his day is not over. There are still three baptisms to perform, each one a major event in the lives of extended families who come forward to watch babies dressed in white linen be received into the Catholic community.

Inside the church, Kosem, dressed in a white robe and stole, invites everyone around the baptistery. As water falls into the baptismal pool, Kosem greets the families in a soothing, pastoral voice, explaining the ceremony. When one of the babies cries, he turns and smiles in response, "That's OK, you've got a good voice."

One more time, he rallies to make an ancient ceremony special.

"Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them. It is to just such as these that the kingdom of God belongs," Kosem reads from the Gospel of Mark.

With the generations gathered before him, the priest gives the infants' families this solemn vow, "I as your pastor promise to do all I can to help you bring them up as good Christians."

For one of the few times this week, he is at peace.

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.