Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
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Father John Rompa: ‘I pulled teeth and did work in the clinic ... we were dealing with people in poverty’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Sept. 8, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Right: Father John Rompa has been a priest of the Spokane Diocese for over 50 years. (IR photo)
Nobody is more lively and alive at age 80 than Father John Rompa. He greets a visitor to his home – in a community a couple of miles west of Spokane, off US 195 – with a big smile and a hearty handshake. His speech still echoes Holland, the land of his birth. When a few strands from his full head of steel-gray hair fall over his forehead, now and then, he casually smooths the unruly ones back into place. Father Rompa’s modern, comfortable, yet simple home is cluttered in a “lived-in” kind of way.
Ordained by Bishop Charles White for the Diocese of Spokane on May 19, 1951, the young Rompa had emigrated to the United States and attended St. Edward Seminary, near Seattle, after completing minor seminary in his homeland. “They kicked me out of the seminary [in Holland] twice,” he says with a laugh. “The first time, because I couldn’t learn languages – you had to learn five languages! – and the second time I got kicked out because of rebellion, which makes more sense to me.” More laughter.
Over the years, Father Rompa served in every part of the diocese and in the diocese’s mission in Guatemala. Although “retired” for 10 years, he continues to serve; he has been canonical pastor of St. Ann Parish, Spokane, since July 2003. As such, “I don’t have to do anything except be there for the one Mass on Saturday evening and the other Mass on Sunday morning, plus funerals and weddings,” Father Rompa said.
In reflecting on his 53 years in the Diocese of Spokane, he said he has found the most satisfaction in working with people. “I’ll be honest with you,” he says, using a favorite phrase. “Generally I have been very happy to be a priest. There have been times when I got very disgusted and was ready to quit. But generally, no, I’ve been happy to be a priest. What I have enjoyed most is the people, interaction with people, trying to understand them, help them, that kind of stuff.”
On the other hand, the part of being a priest that Father Rompa least enjoyed, “although I did a heck of a lot of it,” was being an administrator. “The older I got, the more I hated it,” he said.
Asked about the most memorable experience from all his years as a priest, Father Rompa singles out his years in Guatemala, from 1960 to 1966.
“That, to me, was a complete turning point in my life,” he said. “You have to keep in mind that the Vatican Council went on during those years. I remember saying at that time, ‘What’s the matter with this pope, starting a Vatican council? Aren’t there more important things to do?’ It was like a shipwreck, and I thought it was stupid. But later on, it turned out to be the biggest thing, the best thing.”
Father Rompa recalls that his years in Guatemala were difficult. “I was one of the pioneers. It was tough,” he says in a whisper. “I found it very tough. One of the toughest things I found was to adapt myself to that kind of a culture. I had a time, because my upbringing, and my Dutch way of thinking didn’t fit!” He laughs heartily. “I got very frustrated, and it was very hard to try to understand that.”
Fortunately, there were experienced Maryknoll missionary priests in Guatemala, too, and they could offer guidance. “They were tremendously helpful. They helped me to understand that you don’t just follow the law all the time, and eventually I learned to do without the law, to be very honest about it! It was fascinating. I did things down there that I never thought I would do. I started a radio station. It’s still working, still going. I didn’t know anything about radios.”
Father Rompa also found himself providing medical services, something for which he was completely untrained. “I pulled teeth and did work in the clinic. When we came there, there were no clinics, no doctors, nothing! And we didn’t know a thing about it! All my theology, and all the things I learned as a priest I just threw out the window. It didn’t fit! All the teachings that I heard from the church didn’t fit! We were dealing with people in poverty, that’s what we were dealing with.”
The former Dutch seminarian who was “kicked out” for not being able to learn languages learned Spanish, his third language, so he could preach in Guatemala. “Of course,” he says, “the official language is Spanish, but the people speak Quiché (pronounced kee-CHAY). So I would give half the sermon in Spanish, and the translator would translate into Quiché. Then I would give the second part, and he would translate that part.”
Father Rompa recalls one Sunday sermon, in particular. “I will never forget this,” he said. “One Sunday I talked about unmarried couples not living together – typical American thinking, you see. The Mary-knollers later woke me up to this. They said, ‘Don’t push that. Take it easy on these things.’ Anyhow, that Sunday I preached about not living together, etc. etc. So I looked at the translator and said, ‘Translate that.’ He says to me, ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ I said, ‘What I just said.’ He said, ‘I think I’ll talk about the Gospel.’
“I was so frustrated. I was completely dependent on this guy. So I talked to my priest friend about this, I said, ‘What are we gonna do about this?’ Well, he didn’t know, either. I said that the only way we can get through to these people is possibly by the radio. But who is going to start a radio station, in their language, which I don’t know?”
Here, Father Rompa continues, “is where God comes in. The bishop of Sololá sent me a telegram saying that he’s coming over with somebody else, will I please stay home? So the bishop comes, and he brought a guy with him who wanted to build a big concrete cross by Lake Atitlan. So the bishop says to me that since I know the territory, the three of us will go up there where this guy wants to put this cross. I smoked like a fiend in those days, so climbing up those hills, I didn’t like that at all.
“So we went up there, and half-way up there I was tired, and I said that I needed a cigarette. So while we stopped, the bishop asked me what I was doing, and I told him of my frustration of not being able to get through to these people because of language. And he asked if I had ever thought of starting a radio station. I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t know anything about it, and there’s the money needed.’ So we went up the mountain, and the next day there was a telegram to me from the guy who wanted to put up a cross, and he said, ‘An airplane ticket is waiting for you to Bogotá, Columbia.’ They had a radio station there. That’s how God works. So I went to Bogotá and was there two or three weeks, studying how that radio station worked.”
After nearly six years in Guatemala Father Rompa was glad to return to the Diocese of Spokane. “I’ll tell you very honestly, I was glad to get out of there. I had promised the bishop five years, and circumstances came along, and Vatican II came along, and priests were leaving and getting married. Practically all the priests that were down there from this diocese got married. What was the matter with me, I have no idea.” More laughter.
In 1969, Father Rompa received the papal medal “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (For the Church and the Pontiff”), in honor of his missionary activity, from the bishop of Sololá, Guatemala.
Father Rompa is one of the diminishing number of priests who were ordained and active in ministry prior to Vatican II. These priests had to make all the changes and adapt to being in ministry after the council. One of the biggest changes was the shift from the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass to the post-Vatican II Mass. Father Rompa chuckles deeply about this one.
“Before Vatican II, I faced the wall, and we said it all in Latin, which I didn’t understand at all, but that’s the way it was supposed to be. People said they understood the Latin, but they didn’t! They couldn’t understand a word of it, I think. And I said Mass! I would read that stuff, and I would think, ‘God knows what that was.’ But I wasn’t aware of it at that time, because you do a certain thing because you learn to do a certain thing in a certain way. So I would do all these nice things.”
Then came Vatican II and the “new” Mass. “All of a sudden,” Father Rompa continues, “they said that we had to turn around and face the people. That was traumatic. That was awful! I had to face these people. I had to watch my face and the way I did things, all of that. Eventually, of course, you get used to it.
“If they would say to me, ‘Go back to the Latin,’ I would say, ‘You’re nuts, I won’t now.’ That’s the way it goes.” Now, with the post-Vatican II liturgy, Father Rompa says, “the priest has a connection, whereas before there was no connection.”
When Father Rompa compares the church before and after Vatican II, for him there was an evolution in his ideas and attitudes. “At the time, I might have said that this is crazy. There was an evolution for me, but it took a while.”
He said, “First, I thought that the whole church had gone the wrong way altogether, especially – and this was very traumatic for us priests – to see your friends, priests you respected, falling in love and leaving to get married. You try to talk them out of it, but it doesn’t work.” Here Father Rompa laughs heartily. “I tried everything in the book. That was traumatic.
“Later on, I became friends with these priests who had left. I buried one of my best friends who got married. I changed my thinking. I had to do a lot of that, on married priests, on women priests, on the whole concept of sex.”
“Retired” for 10 years now, Father Rompa says with a smile, “I enjoy doing what I’m doing. I would have a hard time just sitting here, not doing anything. I enjoy being in contact with people, doing certain things, helping out, not having administration to do. Of course, when you get older you need more rest, you need more naps [more laughter], you do your own cooking. I try to play golf twice a week. I enjoy that. But the less you talk about the church, the better it is for me. I don’t understand it. I think we’re going the wrong way, but that’s neither here nor there. They’re getting too legalistic.”
Father Rompa has some advice for newly ordained priests. “All these things are good – prayer, meditation, keep in contact with your fellow priests – these are very important,” he said. But also, “Use your common sense.”