Priest conveys 'God's presence of mercy'

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By Corinne Westeman

The sanctuary at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Idaho Springs has a few seasonal additions — a cloth depicting the town of Bethlehem under the altar, purple banners on either side of the tabernacle, and a wreath with four candles.

The whole scene calls to mind the word the ancient Romans used: “adventus,” or arrival.

In the weeks preceding Christmas, Catholics around the world — along with other Christian denominations — celebrate the season of Advent, a time of spiritual preparation before Jesus “arrives.”

Over the weekend, local Catholics lit a purple candle on their Advent wreath, the last one to be lit before Christmas.

The Rev. Tadeusz Kopczynski explains that, for Catholics, Advent is a time of spiritual reflection and increased prayer and opportunities for service. As such, local Catholic parishes have scheduled additional times of prayer and confession during the season.

Kopczynski, which is pronounced “cup-chin-ski,” serves as pastor for Our Lady of Lourdes in Georgetown, St. Paul in Idaho Springs and St. Mary of the Assumption in Central City.

The Advent season, he said, is characterized by “expectation” and by acknowledging one’s “helplessness.”

He attended a retreat recently where a fellow priest talked about expectation during Advent by comparing people’s expectations after taking an aspirin with expectations when they pray.

“When we take an aspirin, we expect it to work,” he said. “When we pray, we have different expectations. Sometimes we pray just to do it, but we don’t mean it. We have to learn how to have the expectation that Christ is coming.”

Kopczynski said he also has preached about helplessness during Advent; his mother, who is 84, has been experiencing increased helplessness, but “it’s a grace for her,” he explained.

“When we are helpless, we can expect help from God,” Kopczynski continued. “Everybody wants to be independent, and it’s hard to build community. But instead of helplessness being paralyzing, it should be inspiring. And you don’t have to be 84 years old to experience helplessness.”

Kopczynski gave an example from his own life. Earlier in his priesthood, when he heard confessions, he became tired and stressed because he had just a few minutes to help guide each person, he said.

“But once I realized my own helplessness, it was an opportunity for grace and inspiration,” Kopczynski said. “It was a chance to rest in God and rely on him to help me (hear confessions).”

From Poland to Colorado

Putting on a jacket, Kopczynski walks from St. Paul’s to one of Idaho Springs’ coffee shops. After getting a cappuccino, he sits at a table bedecked with a yellow-leafed poinsettia and rests in the morning sun shining through a nearby window.

In a Polish accent, he says that he grew up in central Poland during the Communist regime. He came to the United States in 2003, but his family still lives in Poland, including his two brothers, who also are priests.

When he was 18 or 19, Kopczynski started thinking about “what could make my life meaningful.” This was when John Paul II, a fellow Pole, was pope. Kopczynski was inspired by the pope’s life and message, and ultimately he decided to become a priest. He uses a Gospel passage to explain.

“When Jesus called the apostles, he said that they would no longer be fishermen but fishers of men,” Kopczynski said. “It made their lives more meaningful.”

Kopczynski clarified that there are many ways to live a meaningful life, but for him the priesthood was the best choice. He went to seminary at 19 and was ordained in 1989, when he was 25 years old.

In 2000 he traveled to Rome, where he first met people from Colorado. His father was living in Chicago at the time, and Kopczynski asked for permission to move to the United States so that he could take care of him.

Since joining the Archdiocese of Denver, Kopczynski has been assigned to parishes in Greeley, Fort Collins and Breckenridge.

He was assigned to his current trio of parishes in June 2014. Kopczynski said he ministers to about 200 families in the three parishes.

When asked about the growing trend of people falling away from whatever faith they were raised in, Kopczynski said he has seen many people leave the Catholic faith because they are in crisis.

“When we hit bottom, we blame God,” he said.

He said the topic has come up when he ministers to inmates at the local jails. He said that when an inmate blamed God for his hardship, Kopczynski quoted another inmate who told the first one, “Don’t blame God for what people did to you.”

“When I talk to anyone in crisis, I tell them not to ask ‘Why?’ but instead ask ‘What for?” Kopczynski said, explaining that people should not look at the cause of a hardship but rather at its effect.

“When you ask ‘Why?’ you are looking more for understanding, instead of faith. But when I am in a crisis, I don’t need to understand; I need to believe.”

Kopczynski elaborated by citing another Gospel passage: the story of the prodigal son.

“When the son hit rock bottom, the father didn’t send him money,” Kopczynski said. “He was merciful when he was silent. He was waiting for his son to come back to him willingly. It is important to see God’s presence of mercy, even in difficult situations.”