Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Father Charles Skok: ‘The Holy Spirit still guides the Church’
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 20, 2005 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Charles Skok was ordained a priest in 1952. He still presides at Masses at St. John Vianney Parish, Spokane Valley, where he is in residence. (IR photo)
As ordination approached in 1952, Charles Daniel Skok, a seminarian studying for the Diocese of Spokane at St. Edward Seminary, near Seattle, was excited.
Adding a note to the form sent him by the editor of the Inland Register, Father Terrence Tully (d. 11/17/02), young Skok typed:
“This has nothing to do with the news angle, but, Father, it’s great to be getting ordained. Ordination looked pretty far away back in First High and even in First Philosophy, but now when I look back on it, I wonder how the time passed so quickly.”
Born June 1, 1927, in Valley, Wash. (north of Spokane), Charles was the 12th of the 15 children of Joseph and Annie (Salokar) Skok. The future priest and theologian attended Jump Off Grade School, followed by minor seminary at St. Edward, from which he graduated in 1945. During his seminary years in college and philosophy at St. Edward, he helped out at his home parish, Holy Ghost, in Valley. Other summers found the seminarian at St. Patrick Parish, Pasco, and St. Rose of Lima Parish in Ephrata. For part of each summer, he also did carpentry and worked on his parents’ farm.
While at St. Edward, Skok’s extracurricular activities included working on the staff of the seminary’s newsletter, The Harvester – eventually, he became editor. He also greatly enjoyed sports – “almost all of them,” he declared on the pre-ordination form Father Tully sent.
He was ordained April 30, 1952, by Bishop Charles White. For the next five years Father Skok served as assistant pastor at St. Patrick Parish and, no small matter, as principal of St. Patrick High School (now DeSales High School), in Walla Walla. In 1957, he became chancellor of the Diocese of Spokane, a position he held for only one year.
In 1958, Bishop Bernard Topel named Father Skok the new Superior of Bishop White Seminary, near the campus of Spokane’s Gonzaga University. After two years at Bishop White, however, Father Skok packed his bags, made sure his passport was current, and boarded an airplane headed for Rome. From 1960-1962, he did graduate studies at the Dominican Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum) and received a doctorate in sacred theology (STD).
Upon his return to Spokane in August, 1962, Father Skok became both the Superintendent of Catholic Schools and Director of Religious Education, as well as pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Rosalia. Between 1964 and his official retirement in 1997, Father Skok served as pastor of three different parishes: St. Joseph in Trentwood (now Otis Orchards), Sacred Heart in Spokane, and St. Patrick in Pasco. Along the way, he returned to Bishop White Seminary as rector, and beginning in 1964 he taught classes at Gonzaga University.
In 1980, he became a professor of theology at Gonzaga, where he taught moral theology and Christian ethics until 1993. Today, he is a Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Gonzaga, teaches the occasional course or workshop, and serves as a consultant on ethical and ecclesial issues.
Although officially retired, for several years Father Skok has been in residence at St. John Vianney Parish, in Spokane Valley. He presides at the Tuesday and Friday morning Masses and presides every other weekend at the Saturday evening and Sunday Masses. This is particularly helpful to the parish because the pastor, Father Tyrone Schaff, is sometimes gone on weekends for duty with the Air National Guard. Father Skok also presides at quite a few weddings and funerals and does counseling.
Looking back over his years of priestly ministry, Father Skok says that he has had “many” satisfying experiences. But at the top of the list he puts “parish ministry and the people in the parishes, relating to them and relating to their families.”
Father Skok recalls that although he was not in Rome for any of the mid-1960s sessions of the Second Vatican Council, he was there “for all the preliminary stuff.” For the two years that he was in Rome, theologians and other significant persons were there from all over the world. “We would meet with them,” Father Skok said, “visit with them, go out to lunch with them and the bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who came through.
“I knew from the people I talked to that the council could have some dramatic effects,” he said. “I remember that the cardinal archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Doepfner, was there. He was a big, strapping German – about 6 feet 4, with a steel-gray crewcut. He said in the talks he gave that when Peter and John came to the tomb at the time of the Resurrection, John got there first and waited outside, and Peter went in, and then he said – with all these cardinals present – ‘That’s the way it should always be.’ The implication was that the bishops of the world should be in the front lines doing what has to be done, and the role of the Holy Father is to simply come and tidy up. That’s a true story.”
Asked about his most memorable experience from all his years as a priest, Father Skok identifies meeting and visiting with Blessed Pope John XXIII – “and that was kind of accidental,” he said.
The English translator for the pope was from Ireland, and Father Ed McGrath, now from the Yakima diocese, had come to visit me, and the translator was a friend of his from seminary days, so when we went to a papal audience we were right up in the front row,” said Father Skok. “After the audience, the pope invited us over. It was just small talk. I knew enough Italian for a little small talk.”
Father Skok served in priestly ministry for 10 years prior to the Second Vatican Council, and he recalls that before the council, “with liturgy we just did what we were supposed to do. Many people look upon the old liturgy as having a sense of awe or a sense of mystery. But they have the same sense of awe or mystery if they go to a current Spanish Mass. It seems that there is something about a language that you can’t understand that seems to be different, but that’s not what the mystery is about.
“I think that what people miss probably are the bells, although the bells were just a signal to ring the big bells in the bell tower,” he said. “They probably miss the incense, except we do use it, although we don’t use it as much as we used to. They probably miss the silence, although it always struck me as strange for a priest to be presiding at the altar and saying things silently so people can’t hear him.
“The post-Vatican II Mass was a kind of step forward,” said Father Skok. “The Mass since Vatican II requires a lot more of a priest than what the Latin Mass required. To prepare for the old Latin Mass all you had to do was change to the next page in the missal for the Proper of the Mass. Now, to prepare for weekday Mass takes at least an hour, because you have to think about what your Introductory Rite is going to be, what your homily is going to be, and we had none of that with the old Latin Mass.”
Father Skok believes that the liturgical renewal since Vatican II has, overall, been “a very positive experience.” At the same time, “it has to develop, because you don’t just change from a language, and change a liturgy, and have it happen overnight. It’s still in the first stages of development as far as I’m concerned.”
The only time a priest can impose his personal piety, spirituality, or theological opinions on the entire congregation, Father Skok observes with a smile, is “during the homily…. You don’t want to make the celebration of the Eucharist a battleground.”
What advice would Father Skok offer to newly ordained priests? “Well,” he quips, “none of them ever come [to me for advice]. But I think there would be a number of areas.”
Of greatest importance in the parish, he said, “is the people; relating to the people, being pastorally present to the people, and serving the people, because really the ministerial priesthood is the servant priesthood to the common priesthood. That’s what has to be kept in mind as a kind of guiding light or principle.
“And then, be very slow about making any changes, because it takes a long time for changes to take effect,” he said. “I used to do some of the workshops for the new pastors. I remember doing one down in Portland (Oregon) for priests who were just made pastors for the first time, and I gave one key piece of advice: Don’t move the furniture for two years. Then, if you think it should be changed, talk about that with the people until some of the people come up and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be good to do this,’ not realizing where it came from.
“Another thing would be not to be authoritarian, not to be judgmental, and I’d say not to be so certain. There are so many things that we simply don’t know. We have to work our way through those, so don’t be too dogmatic about things like that.
“From the point of view of spirituality, I think the major source of spirituality has to be the Gospels. Whenever something comes out from the diocese or from Rome, always read it in the light of the Gospels.”
Looking to the future of the church, Father Skok says, “I have a great faith in Christ, and in the church, and like the late Father Tony Flour said one time, ‘If the Holy Spirit were a golfer he wouldn’t play a course without sand traps and water hazards.’ I think that’s the kind of course we’re on.
In conclusion, Father Skok expresses both realism and hope.
“These have been tough days in the church, very, very tough for the priests, and a lot of bitter antagonism against the church. I still have the hope that one effect of this would be a reviewing of qualifications for the sacrament of Orders.
“The Holy Spirit still guides the church, and I still trust the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit has difficulties, but I’m hopeful and optimistic.”