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”
Vatican’s Ambassador to the U.S. to Celebrate Mass today at Basilica Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, will celebrate Mass at 5:30 p.m. today at the Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan del Valle-National Shrine. The faithful are invited to attend.
Archbishop Pierre is visiting our diocese for the Texas-Mexico Border Bishops conference in San Juan, which began on Feb. 13 and ends on Feb. 15. About 20 bishops from both sides of the border are attending the conference.
A nuncio is a Vatican diplomat with the rank of ambassador. He is responsible for diplomatic relations with other national governments, but also serves as the pope’s representative to the church in a given country, which includes responsibility for coordinating the search for and vetting of candidates to become bishops.
Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Pierre to be the apostolic nuncio to the United States on April 12, 2016. He had been the papal representative in Mexico since 2007.
During his visit, the nuncio will also visit the humanitarian respite center in McAllen and the border wall.
“I think Archbishop Pierre will be pleased to see a vibrant Church here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores said.
A native of Rennes, France, Archbishop Pierre, 71, entered diplomatic service for the Vatican in 1977, with his first post in Wellington, New Zealand. He then served in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Brazil and at the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva.
In July 1995, St. John Paul II named him an archbishop and appointed him as apostolic nuncio to Haiti. He served there until 1999, and then was named nuncio to Uganda, where he stayed until 2007, when he was named nuncio to Mexico.
For years, the bishops of U.S. and Mexican dioceses along the border have met twice a year to discuss issues of mutual concern, such as immigration matters and border violence.
Training Sessions Scheduled in Preparation of V EncuentroTo prepare for the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry, one date remains this month for training parish teams and lay ecclesial movements: Tuesday, Feb. 21 at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in McAllen. The session is from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and is bilingual. For more information about the training, please call Deacon Luis Zuniga at (956) 784-5059.
The main goal of the V Encuentro is to discern ways in which the Church in the United States can better respond to the Hispanic/Latino presence, and to strengthen the ways in which Hispanics/Latinos respond to the call to the New Evangelization as missionary disciples serving the entire Church.
For additional information regarding the V Encuentro process, please follow the link: http://vencuentro.org/
The parish manual (English and Spanish) is available at this link: http://vencuentro.org/v-encuentro-documents/
Weslaco Parishes Sponsor Marian Event St. Joan of Arc Parish, St. Pius X Parish and San Martin de Porres Parish have joined forces for a Marian Event from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17 at the St. Joan of Arc Parish Hall, located on the corner of East 2nd Street and South Illinois Avenue in Weslaco. The featured speaker will be theologian and author Dr. Edward Sri, who will speak on the topic, “Mary & the Bible: What Catholics Really Believe.” The event is open to the public. The cost is $5. Register online at www.rgvcmf.org
Mobile Journalism Workshop, Challenge Feb. 18The Valley Catholic newspaper is partnering up with local media professionals and hosting a Mobile Journalism Workshop and Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 18.
Brenda Nettles Riojas, editor of The Valley Catholic and diocesan relations director for the diocese of Brownsville, said the MOJO workshop and challenge in the Rio Grande Valley was inspired by a MoJo Challenge in Budapest, which focused on using the smartphone to tell stories. “Our goal is to help build a team of citizen journalists who can share local stories,” she said.
After attending RTE MoJoCon, an international mobile journalism conference in Dublin, Ireland last year, Riojas said she is inspired to share with others what she learned.
The workshop begins at 9 a.m. in the St. Peter Classroom at the Diocese of Brownsville Pastoral Center in San Juan, 700 N. Virgen de San Juan Blvd. Participants must have a smart phone or tablet to benefit fully from the workshop.
Workshop sessions include the basics of photography, the art of storytelling, interview skills and an overview of editing apps and mobile journalism tools.
Participants will be challenged to produce a two-to-three-minute news report using only their smart phones or tablets. Registration is $25. For more information, call (956) 536-4866 or (956) 784-5055.
A Biblical Walk-Through the Mass: Understanding what we say and do in the liturgyConference Aims to Provide Deeper Understanding of the Holy MassDo you ever wish you could get more out of Mass? Discover how all the prayers, symbols, and rituals in the liturgy can come alive for us today once we understand their Biblical roots. From the Sign of the Cross and the Gloria to the Eucharistic prayers and Holy Communion, join us for a one-day Catholic conference for a Biblical tour of the Mass and learn the profound meaning of what we are really saying and doing each week as we participate in these sacred mysteries.
The conference is scheduled for 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by Mass at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, 1108 W. Hackberry Ave., in McAllen. Featured speakers include Bishop Daniel E. Flores; Father Carlos Zuniga, pastor of St. Pius X Church in Weslaco; Deacon Luis Zuniga, director of the Office for Pastoral Planning & San Juan Diego Ministry Institute for the diocese; and Dr. Edward Sri, a theologian, author and Catholic speaker who appears regularly on EWTN. The conference, which is open to men, women and teenagers, will also feature an exhibit of Eucharistic miracles from around the world.
The cost to attend is $10 and includes lunch. Online registration is required www.rgvcmf.org. Visit the event Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/1137753486339765/ for additional information.
Queen of Peace Parish to Host Mass and Healing Service Father Michael Barry of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary (ss.cc.) will celebrate a Mass and healing service at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18 at Queen of Peace Church in Harlingen. All are invited to attend.
Father Barry was born and raised in Cork, Ireland, and currently resides in San Bernadino, Calif. He is active in retreat work and teaches workshops on healing and charismatic spirituality. Father Barry has a scripture-based radio ministry and is co-founder and president of Mary’s Mercy Center, an outreach feeding program for the poor and homeless, and Veronica’s Home of Mercy, a home for unwed mothers and their children.
For more information, contact Queen of Peace Church at (956) 423-6341.
MetLife Representative Available for Consultation Feb. 22-23Mike Gonzalez, representative for MetLife/Mass Mutual, will be in the Rio Grande Valley for his quarterly visit. He will be at San Martin de Porres School in Weslaco from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22 and at St. Anthony School in Harlingen from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23. If you have any questions or concerns you would like to discuss, please stop by to visit with him.
40 Days for Life Campaign Kicks off Feb. 26The 40 Days for Life campaign is an international effort to end abortion through prayer and fasting, peaceful vigil and community outreach. Pro-life warriors in the Rio Grande Valley will be uniting with many others from coast to coast – and internationally – for a major simultaneous pro-life mobilization throughout the season of Lent. The campaign runs from Wednesday, March 1 through Sunday, April 9. Vigils will be held daily outside of the McAllen abortion facility from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
A kickoff event is set for 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, in front of the McAllen City Hall. For the first time, the 40 Days for Life national tour bus will be stopping in the Rio Grande Valley “to motivate, encourage and strengthen us,” said Edwin Rodriguez, one of the coordinators of the local 40 Days for Life campaign.
For more information, please contact Edwin and Rosita Rodriguez at (956) 279-1349 or (956) 250-1740 or visit https://40daysforlife.com/local-campaigns/mcallen/
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