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”
Valley Awakening Retreat for Young Adults Ages 21-35 Set for July 1-3Valley Awakening, a diocesan young adult retreat, will be held on July 1-3 at Holy Spirit Parish in McAllen.
Awakening is a Catholic retreat held at many colleges and universities across the country, as well as in a number of dioceses. It is a weekend retreat where young adults grow closer to God, make new friends, and experience spiritual renewal.
The retreat, though focused on Catholic teachings, is open to people of different denominations who wish to experience the Christian message of hope and love. Awakening invites young adults to experience God’s unconditional love through a variety of talks, prayers, songs, fellowship, and group discussion.
The Campus and Young Adult Office of the Diocese of Brownsville offers a retreat for young adults who aren't in college (whether you never attended or already graduated).
Early registration fee for Valley Awakening is $60 before June 17 and $80 after. Register online at www.cyam.net
Join Bishop Flores for Theology on Tap June 29Join Campus and Young Adult Ministry for Theology on Tap with the Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores on Thursday, June 29, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Schneider’s German Gasthaus & Beergarden, 5507 N Ware Rd., McAllen.
Who are young adults? People between the ages 18-39. That includes single or married, with children or no children, student or non-student.
For more information on Theology on Tap or the Campus and Young Adult Ministry, call (956) 784-5045.
San Martin de Porres School Planning Pre-4th of July Festival Please support Catholic education in the mid-Valley by attending the Pre-4th of July Festival to benefit San Martin de Porres School in Weslaco. The event, which will feature food, games, rides, chalupa bingo and more, will be held from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, July 2 on the grounds of San Martin de Porres Parish and School. For additional information, contact the school at (956) 973-8642.
Sacred Heart Parish in Hidalgo to Break Ground on New SanctuaryBishop Daniel E. Flores and the Fathers of the Pharr Oratory invite the faithful to a Mass and groundbreaking ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 2 at Sacred Heart Parish, 208 E. Camelia St. in Hidalgo. For more information, contact the parish at (956) 843-2463.
Teenage Girl Retreat Scheduled for July 9The Stewardship and Development Office is pleased to introduce Stacy the Caterpillar, our stewardship mascot, at an upcoming event for girls. In partnership with Simple & Natural®, a retreat for teenage girls aged 13-16 and their mothers or other female guardians is planned for Saturday, July 9 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Bishop Marx Conference Center on the San Juan Pastoral Center grounds. Join Stacy at this fun and fact filled event on a journey to discover “Who Am I?”
At this gathering, we will celebrate the wonderful grace of having been created a girl and the gift of womanhood! Please announce the event at your parish/religious groups. This event is free of charge, breakfast, lunch and a registration packet will be provided. Registration is on a first come, first served basis. For additional information please call (956) 784-5095.
Summer Food Program Volunteers NeededCatholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is in need of volunteers for the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) 2016. The SFSP was established to ensure that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session. Free meals are provided to all children at approved sites in areas of the Rio Grande Valley.
We are in search of responsible and committed volunteers for the months of June through August to help maintain the program running smoothly. Volunteers will work out of our San Juan or Brownsville offices. Hours are flexible. All volunteers will receive training detailing their responsibilities. Volunteers should have an available form of transportation as well as a driver’s license and automobile insurance.
For questions or referrals of interested individuals please contact Tracey Perez, Food Program Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (956)702-4088.
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