Raised Jewish; priest shares conversion story
By ROSE YBARRAThe Valley Catholic
EDINBURG — “I am a 26-year-old Catholic, but my body is older than that,” said Father Richard Lifrak, 60, of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Church in Edinburg.
Father Lifrak was born into a Conservative Jewish family in Fall River, Mass., and in college he became an adherent of Zen Buddhism for 10 years.
Father Lifrak said that the long and winding road to Catholicism was all part of the journey to fulfill God’s purpose for his life. “God had to find the way to get me through all the barriers,” he said. “It seems impossible that a Jewish person, raised as I was, could become Catholic, much less a religious. It’s stupendously impossible.”
Father Lifrak said he had a conventional Jewish upbringing that included religious training, a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and later, Confirmation, a Jewish rite of passage.
“The normal expectation was that I would always be Jewish,” he said.
But by age 12, Father Lifrak was already searching.
“I had an insight that my life was very poor,” he said. “I didn’t have wisdom and I didn’t have love. I remember that I started to say a prayer, a desperation prayer about the poverty within me. I prayed, ‘please God, help me and if you do, I will do anything.’ And I forgot it until the age of 35 when I entered the Church. I’d say that was a key moment.”
By the time he went to college, Father Lifrak had developed a strong passion for science, earning a master’s degree in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I was not that interested in religion because I didn’t find any use for it,” he said. “And second of all, I was very focused on truth, on what can be true.”
A sociology course started him down the path of Zen Buddhism.
“I started getting serious about Buddhism,” Father Lifrak said. “Buddhism questioned a deeper place than science did. It became my passion. I was a very zealous Zen Buddhist.”
He moved to Rochester, N.Y. for the purpose of realizing his goals as a Buddhist.
A relationship with a woman brought out the power of what he thought was love – and also the power of being betrayed by sin.
“I gave myself to the experience but I was discarded,” Father Lifrak said. “The experience gave me foundation to question Buddhism. How did Buddhism help you address the whole question of love?”
The experience gave way for a new spiritual path. One day, he saw a picture in a magazine of a Celtic cross.
“There was something in me that said, ‘I have to have a Celtic cross,’” Father Lifrak said.
He went to a Catholic store to purchase a Celtic cross and the clerk told him he needed to have a priest bless it. In the process of having his cross blessed, he met a religious brother and a priest, who were both from his hometown of Fall River, Mass., a city more than 400 miles away from Rochester.
For Father Lifrak, it was no coincidence.
“I think it was God’s design that I ended up at that church,” Father Lifrak said, holding back tears. “I felt invited there by God. It was the place where I had my first experience with Christianity and with my first Mass. The only Mass I had been to prior was for a wedding and that Mass made no impression whatsoever. There was a world of difference between those two Masses, a world of difference.”
Father Lifrak also recalled the moment when he knew, with complete certainty, that he was finally in the right place.
“I was at St. Peter’s Soup Kitchen in Rochester, New York, sweeping the floor, when I had this feeling: you’re home,” he said. “Logically it makes no sense but in my heart of hearts, my heart told me, ‘this is your home, what you’re doing right this minute, which is serving for the purpose of a greater purpose, which is both mystical and social, you’re home.”
Two years after entering the Church, Father Lifrak began the formation process with the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He took his first vows in 1988, his final vows in 1991 and was ordained a priest on June 16, 1995.
Father Lifrak’s parents, however, did not accept his chosen spiritual path.
“With Buddhism, they thought it was a phase,” he said. “Christianity was too threatening. There was a tenfold increase in the level of opposition from my parents. So I struggled with my parents, but I how could I say no to God?”
Father Lifrak said it was agonizing to be at odds with his parents.
“I didn’t like being disloyal to my parents, I didn’t like bringing them unhappiness, which I did,” he said. “They let me know it and I saw it. My father actually physically tried to resist my leaving him when I was going to be ordained. He stood in the doorway and said, ‘you’re not leaving.’
“I had to run out the back door. It got very messy.”
Father Lifrak’s father died the same year he was ordained a priest. Ultimately, there was some reconciliation between them, Father Lifrak said. His mother died some years later.
“I got her into a Jewish nursing home and I was her guardian until she died,” Father Lifrak said. “But she was never accepting of the course that I took. She loved me as a mother but she did not in any way approve of what I was doing.”
During his formation, Father Lifrak was sent to Cuernavaca, Mexico to study Spanish. While in Mexico, he went on a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Then things became possible,” Father Lifrak said.” I didn’t have my earthen mother’s blessing, but I had Our Lady’s blessing.”
Photo by The Valley Catholic
“VERBUM MITTITUR SPIRANS AMOREM”
Migrant Welcoming Festival Set for Oct. 15The Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine is hosting its annual Migrant Welcoming Festival from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 15 near the mosaic.
The event will feature a car and bike show, live music and entertainment, vendors, kiddie rides, games and food. Guests are welcome to bring chairs and blankets.
The Migrant Welcoming Festival is celebrated to honor all migrant families who have for years been faithful devotees to Our Lady of San Juan del Valle. The basilica celebrates a special Mass every year in mid-April to bless all the families who travel up north to work in the fields. On their safe return, they come to the basilica to pay tribute to Our Lady of San Juan del Valle.
Each year at the festival, a migrant family is honored. The Serna-Galvan Family was selected for 2016 and will share their testimony after the 5:30 p.m. Mass.
For more information on the Migrant Welcoming Festival, visit www.olsjbasilica.org or call (956) 787-0033.
Respect Life Walk to be Held Oct. 15 in San Benito St. Theresa Church, located at 3100 Combes St. in San Benito, invites the faithful to join in praying the Rosary while walking the parish grounds at 8:30 a.m. followed by fellowship and a pro-life presentation.
For additional information, contact coordinator Celina P. Garza at (956) 792-5515 or Valerie Sanchez (956) 521-9947.
Bishop to Lead Midpoint Rally for 40 Days for Life Campaign in McAllenBishop Daniel E. Flores will be the keynote speaker at a midpoint rally for the 40 Days for Life Campaign at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 16. The event will be held in the enclosed parking lot on the corner of S. 15th St. and Houston. Ave. in downtown McAllen.
The 40 Days for Life is a peaceful and prayerful campaign to end abortion. Through prayer, fasting, constant vigil and community outreach, the goal is to create awareness about the realities and consequences of abortion.
A 40-day prayer vigil outside the abortion facility in downtown McAllen began on Sept. 28 and will end on Nov. 6. Volunteers are needed to come and pray on the sidewalk.
The local campaign has already saved 12 babies, according to Rosita and Edwin Rodriguez, who are organizing the campaign. For more information, call (956) 279-1349.
Red Mass Celebrates Those Who Seek JusticeBishop Daniel E. Flores will celebrate the annual Red Mass at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 27, at St. Anthony Church in Harlingen.
The Red Mass is celebrated to invoke God's blessing upon all protectors and administrators of the law, including lawyers, judges, government officials and law enforcement agents, as well as their families and support staffs. The celebrant, concelebrants, deacons and honored guests enter the church in procession wearing red vestments or red clothing, symbolizing the Holy Spirit's role in guiding those who seek and pursue justice in their daily lives. In the Rio Grande Valley, the Red Mass is held annually in the fall, alternating between Hidalgo and Cameron counties. For more information, call Mari Salinas at (956) 550-1479.
Faith Victorious: Annual Middle School Retreat Set for Oct. 29All sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders from the diocese are invited to attend the Fourth Annual YouthJAM “Faith Victorious” from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 29 at Weslaco East High School, 810 S. Pleasantview Dr.
Jeremy Rodriguez will serve as the keynote speaker of YouthJAM. Rodriguez has been leading worship since 2000 in his home parish in Lockhart, Texas. He formed an alternative/pop/rock band called Soundwave in 2007. The band has lead worship all over Texas for various youth conferences and church events.
Bishop Daniel E. Flores will celebrate Mass to close the event. Joe Garcia, campus minister of the Newman Center in Edinburg, will serve as the master of ceremonies and Sounds of a Revolution will lead praise and worship.
Please contact your parish youth coordinator or your parish DRE / CRE to register. The cost to attend is $15.
For more information, visit http://www.cdobym.org/youth-jam-2016 or call (956) 784-5037.
Diocese to Host Regional Cursillo EncuentroThe Region VIII Fall Encounter of the Catholic Cursillo Movement will be held Oct. 14-15 at the Mazenod Renewal Center in San Juan. The theme of the event is “Peace, Mercy and Joy in the Year of Mercy.”The English-language Encounter is open to anyone who has lived their Cursillo.
Speakers will include Father Alex Waraksa, the National Spiritual Advisor for the Cursillo Movement in the United States and Father Carlos Zuniga, Diocesan Spiritual Director for the Cursillo Movement in our diocese. Bishop Daniel E. Flores will celebrate Mass on Saturday evening.
Region VIII encompasses Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Cursillistas from all over the region are expected to gather at the event.
For more information, contact Father Zuniga firstname.lastname@example.org
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