Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Ministry to married couples has been a long-time joy for Father John Birk
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the March 16, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father John Birk retired last year, but continues to minister to married couples through his work with such programs as Worldwide Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille. (IR photo)
The future Father John Birk grew up in Chicago with two sisters and two brothers. His father died when John was a senior in high school. Later, when the teenager told his mother that he had decided to join the Christian Brothers, she asked him why he didn’t want to become a priest. Unable to come up with a good response, he decided on the priesthood, and he never turned aside from that goal through all the years of seminary studies and his more than 40 years as a priest in the Diocese of Spokane.
“I did come home the first time I went away,” Father Birk recalls with a smile, “because I had never been away from home before, and I got homesick. I worked as a draftsman for a while. But we lived in a very Jewish neighborhood; we had three synagogues within walking distance. I happened to hear my mother one time tell one of our Jewish neighbors, ‘Someday he’s going to be a priest.’ So that was kind of prophetic that she would say that.”
Young Birk attended Quigley Seminary in Chicago, St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore, and Regina Cleri Seminary, in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He was ordained for the Diocese of Spokane by Bishop Bernard Topel on June 8, 1963.
His first assignment was in St. Augustine Parish, Spokane, and over the years he served in various parishes all over the diocese. Father Birk has for many years also been a chaplain in the Spokane Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.
Back in the 1960s, Father Birk became diocesan director for the Christian Family Movement (CFM), which was very big among Catholics in some parts of the country but never really caught on in the Pacific Northwest.
Much of his time has been devoted particularly to ministry with married couples, both through Worldwide Marriage Encounter and through Retrouvaille – the latter, a weekend-format retreat movement to help hurting marriages.
In 1973, Worldwide Marriage Encounter approached Father Birk about helping to give Marriage Encounter weekends, and he has been involved ever since. These days, he sometimes flies to distant places to help out with Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, and Retrouvaille – destinations that have included Hawaii and, earlier this year, the Philippines. He is also chaplain for the Serra Club of Spokane.
Father Birk says that becoming active with Worldwide Marriage Encounter had a positive impact on his priesthood. “I kept hearing people say that my homilies were more practical, because I share from my own personal experiences. And I was a pretty shy person, so Marriage Encounter kind of got me out of my shell, so to speak.”
His last assignment was ministry at Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco, while helping out at St. Patrick Parish there.
Father Birk retired from full-time ministry in 2005, but as with most retired priests, he remains active on several fronts. Currently, he resides at St. Patrick Parish, in Pasco, and travels widely, helping to give Worldwide Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, and Retrouvaille weekends. In 1976, he became diocesan coordinator for the diocese’s Guatemala mission, and he remains active in support of that mission today. He sponsors a Guatemalan seminarian who will be ordained next year. When in town, Father Birk also helps out at Pasco’s Lourdes Medical Center.
Several of his trips to other countries have been particularly memorable, he said. These include the “several pilgrimages I led to Medjugorje, some during the war in divided Yugoslavia. Twice I led pilgrimages to make retreats with Father Sudac, the stigmatist in Croatia. I visited the Holy Land for 13 days in 1979, which helped make the Scriptures come alive for me, and this was followed by 10 days in Rome. I have traveled to Brazil to visit the mission where my cousin, Sister Johanna, serves, and Kenya, Africa, where my cousin Brother Nicholas serves.”
The “scariest” trip Father Birk remembers making was “to Panama to learn about liberation theology, when Noriega took over power there and the president of the U.S. was threatening not to let any flights out of Panama to the U.S. He didn’t follow through with it, so I did get home without any problems.
“The military presence was felt,” he said. “We were stopped at a road block as one of the priests had taken a picture and they thought we were CIA agents. They were going to take us to a general in a town about 60 miles away. The nephew of the general was leading us, so they let us go. It was a relief to be back in the good ol’ U.S.A.”
Yet more international travel occurred when the priest was chosen by the Civil Air Patrol to take five cadets on a tour of Australia.
Father Birk is another priest who remembers saying the old Latin Mass, although in his case, it was for only a few years. He remembers attending a liturgical conference while he was still in the seminary. “They showed us what the Mass was going to be like after Vatican II, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen.’ I couldn’t believe it. Of course, a few years later....”
Once the transition from the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass took place, Father Birk says that he found it much more meaningful. “Even with all the Latin I had studied, I still had trouble understanding everything I was saying. I was happy to see the changes in the Mass happen. I thought facing the congregation was very natural, too. To me it was unnatural the other way, talking to the wall.”
After 42 years as a priest, Father Birk feels that he has “accomplished a lot.” Obviously, he remains very active. In addition to all his other involvements and ministries, many weekends he helps out in various parishes, filling in for priests who must be away or who simply need some extra help.
“Being a priest has had its challenges, but I love being a priest and being of service to God’s people,” he says. “I wouldn’t want anything else.”