‘It’s a wonderful adventure’


Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (Credit: Courtesy Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish)

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SAN DIEGO — Jesuit Father Neal “Pepe” Wilkinson, 68, is an associate pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Barrio Logan.

Born in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, he made his first profession of vows on Aug. 17, 1991. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 9, 2000, and professed final vows on Jan. 20, 2018.

Father Wilkinson will be among the honorees at the Ignatian Volunteer Corps’ Evening of Gratitude on Sunday, April 7, at St. Catherine Laboure Parish. He will receive the Sheila O’Malley Vision & Dedication Award in recognition of his work as a “spiritual reflector” for IVC members and for his support of Casa de los Pobres in Tijuana.

Question: What role did the Catholic faith play in your early life?
My parents were both practicing Catholics. Our family was at Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week, too.

I was an altar server, from around age 9 to 14, when the Mass was still celebrated in Latin, and I attended a Catholic grade school and high school.

I can remember praying a lot in the car with my family, including when we were on our way to school. Every time my parents, siblings and I made the drive into Milwaukee, which was about 45 minutes from where we lived, we’d pray the rosary at least one way. Prayer was part of the rhythm of life.

When did you first perceive a call to the priesthood?
I think the first time was when I made my First Communion.

Several priests were friends of our family and regular visitors to our house. They were good men, and they were smart, and they didn’t try to be cool; they were just who they were. I think their authenticity was what was most important. I looked up to them as role models and felt a desire to make a contribution like they were.

How long did it take for that call to develop?
I was 17 years old, attending Marquette University in Milwaukee, when I decided that I wanted to be a Jesuit priest. But I didn’t feel ready and didn’t want to rush into anything. God is very patient, so it took another 17 years before I entered priestly formation.

In the interim, I went to college and graduated from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, a Jesuit school. I worked in Chicago for about eight years, first as an insurance claims adjuster and then as a runner and a clerk in a commodities exchange.

During that time, I was able to attend daily Mass frequently. Because I was a single guy at daily Mass, people would ask me if I’d ever thought about being a priest.

Priesthood had always been in the back of my mind, but at the time, I had a girlfriend. When she broke up with me, I was pretty devastated. I remember looking up at the clouds one day and saying, “Okay, God, I’ll be a priest.”

What attracted you to the Jesuits?
I had always wanted to be a Jesuit, going back to when I decided at 17 that I would be a priest. But by the time I decided to pursue it, after my girlfriend and I broke up, I was 31 years old. I thought, “Well, I’m too old to be a Jesuit now,” because of the years of formation that that would require. So, I entered the seminary for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee with plans to become an archdiocesan priest.

My spiritual directors in Milwaukee were Jesuits and, after two years in the seminary, I left and entered the Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The day I professed my first vows as a Jesuit was — and still is — the happiest day of my life. At the time, I felt as if I were jumping off a cliff, and I was holding onto a thread, and Jesus caught me. It’s been quite a ride since then, with lots of adventures along the way.

Can you share a few examples of your varied experiences?
Among other things, I’ve ministered on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. At first, I felt as if I had been planted on the far side of the moon because the culture there was so different from anything I had ever been around, but it became home, and I came to love these people. I’ve never in my life been in a place where God seemed closer, and that was because God is close to suffering people.

I’ve been a hospital and prison chaplain, a high school teacher at my own alma mater, and ministered to women seeking healing from a past abortion.

Right now, I serve at a Mexican-American parish close to the border, so immigration is a huge issue. It’s been heartbreaking to see family members deported. These are not criminals, but godly people doing the best they could for their families.

You have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. How does it impact your ministry, and how do you view this challenge through the lens of your faith?
About five and a half years ago, at Sunday Mass, when I was holding up the Body and Blood of Christ, I noticed that my hand was moving. I knew immediately what it was.

My dad had lived with Parkinson’s for the last 23 years of his life. I knew what it looked like, so I was confident that’s what I had. It took a few months to get an appointment, but when I did, the neurologist confirmed that I had Parkinson’s.

Because this is not something I can hide, I often announce that my hand dances because that sounds better than having Parkinson’s.

At Mass, I tell people that, at the offertory, we’re putting everything on the altar. The bread and wine are at the end of the procession, but we put our whole lives on the altar, and we believe that God can transform them as God can transform the bread and the wine.

God can transform our lives, if we turn things over to Him. So, I have to turn over this dancing hand and ask God to work with it, to make the most of it. That’s just part of my life now.

What message do you have for men discerning a priestly vocation?
It’s a wonderful adventure. Choose companions who lift you up; it’ll bring out the best in you and, if you’re doing that, you’ll be a good priest. None of us are going to save the Church or save anybody. It’s God who saves us. It’s a privilege and it’s a joy to be a priest.

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