Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Fifty years of priesthood: 'We take all this too doggone seriously; God works
by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff
(From the June 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
Father John Rompa has been a priest for 50 years, a half century in which he did what was expected of priests: he administered sacraments, counseled hundreds of people and kept track of parish business.
But there was also the unexpected. He was a missionary in Guatemala for six years, traveling the mountainous jungle to remote villages, starting a radio station and working in a medical clinic where he even pulled teeth.
Adding an element of excitement (and fear) was the time he got shot at: “the army there thought we were rebels,” he said. The shooting nearly closed the diocese’s mission as “too dangerous,” he said.
Another time he had stones thrown at him: “That was because I was a young priest who thought he knew everything.”
His education as a priest was underway and the lessons were not long in coming. In Guatemala Father Rompa learned a greater tolerance and respect for people and their way of life. The people he served responded by developing a great love for the “Padre de Spokane.”
Jerry Monks, head of the Guatemala Commission, told about Father Rompa going down to visit his former mission territory, and how people came out of their villages calling: “Rompa! Rompa!” They were delighted to see him again.
Father Rompa was born in Holland, and entered a seminary there. “I always wanted to be a priest,” he said, “but I have no idea why.” He joined the Spokane diocese in 1947.
He came to this country unable to speak English and having no idea where Spokane was. He thought he might be going to Washington, D.C. But his destination was the other Washington, and Father Rompa continued his studies at St. Edward Seminary in Kenmore, near Seattle.
He recalled how everyone thought “I was the nicest guy because I never said a word for the first six months. I didn’t know any English. But that soon changed,” he laughed.
He was ordained for the Spokane Diocese May 19, 1951, by Bishop Charles White.
The diocese has had a number of priests from Holland, but Father Rompa said he was the first to come over. “Father (Cornelius) Verdoorn came first,” he said, “but he got sick and had to go back. So I was really the first.” The two men were ordained for the diocese at the same time. Father Verdoorn died last January.
Father Rompa was an assistant pastor for five years, starting at St. Anthony Parish in Spokane. His first pastoral assignment was in LaCrosse. In 1960 he went to Guatemala to join Father Verdoorn and Father Francis O’Neill.
Another lesson Father Rompa learned in Guatemala was that meeting the physical needs of the people took most of his time. In some ways, the physical aspect was very satisfying, he said, because, unlike spiritual work, “you could see the results of your labor.”
One result is still visible nearly 40 years later. Father Rompa started a radio station to provide education in several different areas, including health and agriculture, to the region’s far-flung villages. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I must have done a good job,” Father Rompa said. “It’s still going.”
The Second Vatican Council took place while Father Rompa was in Guatemala, and he offered some reflections on those momentous years which he called the second highlight of his 50 years as a priest.
“At first it didn’t make sense,” he said. “Many of my friends left the priesthood, and it was like being on the Titanic.”
But Bishop Bernard Topel provided various workshops to explain the council’s changes and Father Rompa said, “These were very important to me. Then it (the council’s work) made sense.”
Father Rompa explained how he found it “very powerful to have a much more open church with the involvement of the lay people. It’s a much, much better concept.”
Even though he had had some doubts in the time right after the council, he said, “I’ve never regretted becoming a priest.”
After his return from Guatemala, Father Rompa lived out parish life all over the diocese. He served in Cheney, Davenport, Walla Walla, Spokane and Medical Lake, his last assignment before retiring.
A third highlight of his life was a trip to the Holy Land, with the late Bishop Lawrence Welsh and about 20 other priests of the diocese, in 1981.
As a priest-pastor, Father Rompa counseled parishioners, which he loved doing, and out of that came his greatest blessing.
“These were the relationships with people,” he said, “in some form or another, and how we meet and interact through God’s help. In some way I was able to help them.”
He also finds it “fascinating the way connections take place. Why do I meet these people and not the others? I like to believe God sent them to me.”
In 1976, when Father Rompa noted his silver anniversary, he was quoted as saying that it was important to love God, to love neighbor and to love self.
Now that he has been a priest for 50 years, Father Rompa hasn’t changed his mind. The commandment to love “stands out for me more and more,” he said.
Father Rompa retired in 1995, and like many retired priests he continues to help out in a parish. He says Mass at St. Thomas More, Spokane, and occasionally gives marriage instruction. He said his physical health is good, and recreation time often finds him on a golf course.
Father Rompa shared another life lesson: “We take all this too doggone seriously. God works through everybody.”
A reception was held at St. Thomas More Parish May 18 to celebrate Father Rompa’s anniversary. That morning St. Thomas More students held a parade in his honor, and Father Rompa enjoyed the event from an easy chair placed outside for his comfort. That evening about 300 people came by the parish center to visit, reminisce and enjoy the photo display of his life.
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