As pastor during the pandemic, Mgr. Panke adapted ministries but continued to work to bring Christ to his people – Catholic Standard


Asked what its 25e birthday as a priest meant for him, Mgr. Robert Panke, pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said, “It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years old. It was so quick.

These 25 years since his ordination in 1996 have included the functions of parish vicar at St. Peter’s parish in Olney, Catholic chaplain at George Washington University, director of vocations and priest training for the archdiocese, from founding rector of Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, and then head of St. John Neumann parish.

“The simple gift of being able to serve as a priest is what I’m very grateful for,” he said. “The priesthood was not that long-standing desire in my heart, but it took hold in my heart when I was 24 years old. Once I was accepted into the training program, I never really looked back. I was sure this was where God wanted me.

Mgr. Panke, who is now 56, is from New York. After graduating in financial management from the Catholic University of America in 1988, he worked in hotel and restaurant management in Chicago. While in the world of work, he became active in parish activities and served as Eucharistic minister in the hospital. After a retreat, he began to think about becoming a priest, and he later said that this thought would not go away.

After being accepted as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington, he studied at North American College, and Father Panke was ordained a priest in June 1996 by Cardinal James Hickey, then Archbishop of Washington, who ordained the five new priests. of the Archdiocese on the day marking the 50e anniversary of his own priestly ordination in 1946. This day also had a special meaning for Father Panke because the ordination was celebrated on the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and he had a particular devotion to the Blessed Mother.

“It was a double gift,” said Mgr. Panké. “Cardinal Hickey accepted me into the training program and ordained me a priest. He had a great love for the priesthood and for formation.

He added that Mary “had been very influential in my vocation… So it was truly an extraordinary day.

Then he was assigned as the parish vicar at St. Peter’s in Olney.

“I absolutely loved my stay in St. Peter’s. It’s a great place to be a new priest because you have so many opportunities for ministry, ”he said, noting that there is a great Catholic school and religious education program, and that the priests serve there a hospital and nursing homes nearby.

Mgr. Panke said he learned from the example of the pastor of St. Peter’s, Father Thomas Kalita, who became a friend and mentor to him. While celebrating Mass and bringing the sacraments to people at all stages of the life of this large parish, Mgr. Panke said he made friendships “with lay people who have supported me throughout my priesthood.”

In 2002, then Father Panke was appointed director of vocations and the formation of priests of the archdiocese, the same year that the Catholic bishops of the country adopted the “Charter for the protection of children and young people”. after a national scandal that erupted following the Boston Globe investigations into clergy sexual abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Boston. Then-bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., Now Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, led the bishops’ conference when these reforms were passed.

“It was a difficult time,” said Mgr. Panke, who added that the Archdiocese had a good vocations office and guidelines and procedures in place, under the leadership of his two predecessors in this role: Mgr. Mark Brennan, now Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, and Msgr. Bill Parent, now pastor of St. Elizabeth Parish in Rockville.

Reflecting on his work of promoting priestly vocations from 2002 to 2011, Mgr. Panke said, “I really had a natural love for the priesthood and a desire to attract other men into the priesthood.

In 2006, Father Panke was appointed Monsignor. Five years later, in 2011, Mgr. Panke was appointed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, then Archbishop of Washington, as founding rector of the new Seminary of Blessed John Paul II for the Archdiocese of Washington. Mgr. Panke said it was a special honor to help lead the new seminary named in honor of the late pontiff.

“Saint John Paul II was one of my hero priests. It was literally down the street where I went to seminary (in Rome). I was so inspired by his example. He had so many gifts, just a brilliant philosopher and theologian who preached the truth in love and gave a simply amazing body of teaching, which we are still studying. He also had this beautiful tender side, a big merciful heart ”, declared Mgr. Panké.

This pope, he added, “had a great impact on the formation of priests”, which was the subject of the apostolic exhortation of Saint John Paul II in 1992. Pastors Dabo Vobis which started with a quote from the prophet Jeremiah (3:15), recounting God’s promise: “I will give you shepherds according to my heart.

Leading the new seminary has been a great privilege, Mgr. Panke said, adding that he had “a great team,” which included Father Carter Griffin, vice-rector of the seminary who became its rector in 2019; Father William Gurnee, director of spiritual formation for seminarians and who is now the pastor of St. Joseph Parish on Capitol Hill; then Father Mario Dorsonville, assistant spiritual director of the seminary who was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Washington in 2015.

Originally called the Seminary of Blessed John Paul II, its name was changed to Seminary of Saint John Paul II in 2014 after the canonization of this pope. The seminary began with a pioneer class of 20 seminarians in 2011, and the community welcomed Pope Francis there when the pontiff stopped during his 2015 pastoral visit to Washington. In 2017, Cardinal Wuerl ordained three new priests for the Archdiocese of Washington who represented the first ordination class of Saint John Paul II Seminary, and every year since then, new priests ordained for the Archdiocese have included his alumni, starting their work as the next generation of priests serving the local Church.

“To see the seminar flourish was a very beautiful thing. Thank the Lord and the grace of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of Our Lady and a lot of prayer, and it is still going today ”, Mgr. Panke said.

The large crucifix behind the altar in the chapel of Mary, Mother of the Seminary Church was offered by Mgr. Panke’s parents, the late Dr. William and Marilyn Panke. Over the years, Dr Panke has helped organize the health care of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity at St. Vincent Hospital in New York.

“Both of my parents were great examples of faith for me,” said the priest.

In 2019, when Mgr. Panke became the pastor of St. John Neumann, he made the transition from preparing seminarians to leading a parish.

“Now I must put into practice what I preached”, Mgr. Panke laughed. He added that “For many years, I was eager to return to parish life… My goal in the priesthood has always been to be pastor in a parish, this is what really attracted me the most towards the diocesan priesthood, being in a parish. , serving families and people of all ages and origins.

But then the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting health and economic impacts swept across the country, and it posed challenges to life in St. John Neumann and other parishes.

As the first pastor, Mgr. Panke was particularly eager to celebrate the Triduum – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter – with his parishioners. When the lockdown took place, St. John Neumann Parish launched a YouTube channel and began broadcasting their daily Masses live. And so the priest’s first Easter was transmitted online, without any parishioner present.

“The containment was probably the most difficult, not having regular contact with your people,” he said.

Mgr. Panke said it was difficult, but they found ways to serve their parishioners and their community during this difficult time.

“We responded to the needs of people who were hungry. We started a pantry, ”he said. “We have continued to teach people the faith through religious education and the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation adult courses for people to become full members of the Catholic Church). Much of it was Hybrid or Zoom. “

The parish has also adapted to continue its Hispanic ministries and its youth group. Finally, as things began to open up, the parish was once again able to offer public Masses and the Sacrament of Confession, with safety precautions.

For many years, St. John Neumann Parish has been known to offer 24/7 Eucharistic worship. During the lockdown, the Eucharist was displayed inside the glass doors of the church, and people stopped outside the church at all times of the day and night to kneel and pray on the sidewalk or from their car.

The pastor said that the testimony of faith was “so beautiful, so moving, so inspiring… He said that they love the Lord and that they love the Eucharist. There is a thirst in their heart that is placed by God, and they are fed.

To show their appreciation for the priests of St. John Neumann during this difficult time, parishioners in May 2020 placed over 100 handmade signs in the courtyard outside the church, thanking the priests for their service. devoted.

Mgr. Panke commended the parishioners of St. John Neumann as “a wonderful community of people, very loving and very supportive”.

Pastor of St. John Neumann added: “I feel very much that the Lord has put me in the right place.

His greatest blessings as a priest, he said, are being able to celebrate Mass and bestow God’s mercy on people through confession, spiritual direction and counseling, letting them know that “God them. love, no matter what. Many people suffer in their hearts and in their lives. “

Mgr. Panke said he wanted people to experience the love of Christ and know “that a life in Christ is a life of joy, peace, and happiness. Jesus is the answer to all the world’s problems. Spending your life preaching is a gift. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

In an article before his ordination in 1996, the future priest said he wanted to help people “find their way to God”.

“It hasn’t changed. This is what a priest is called to do, ”he said.

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