Father Brian Konopa’s Journey of Faith
“We have to be really close to Christ. I would say that has been the key to my priesthood,” said Father Brian Konopa, pastor of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in La Crosse.
Father Konopa tells each of his new parishes, “Jesus Christ is the pastor of this parish, and I am His associate pastor.” Continuing, with emotion, he shares, “I don’t know how many years I will be here, but my hope is that when I leave, you can say, ‘I am closer to Jesus Christ because of you.’”
Ever since he could remember, Father Konopa felt called to the priesthood. “I remember talking with my friends in kindergarten about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Kevin wanted to play football for the Minnesota Vikings (even though we lived in Packerland). My other friend was caught up in semi-trucks and he was going to drive the [Minnesota Vikings] from place to place. I was going to be the team chaplain.”
Father Konopa’s family, school and parish provided a wealth of encouragement from the very beginning. Four of his great aunts were religious sisters, and his uncle, the late Father Bob Konopa, OFM, was a Franciscan priest. He remembers how supportive his parents were, seeing his excitement in his first tenuous steps as an altar server under the direction of Father Andrew Karoblis. Father Konopa’s joy in serving was evident, and his parents took notice.
Father Karoblis guided him in these early stages, and Father Konopa fondly remembers his pastor’s fervor. Father Konopa’s parents respected the pastor and, in that appreciation and admiration, shined a light that illuminated the priesthood as an honorable vocation.
Father Konopa’s dad routinely took two weeks off every summer, and one providential day, he asked young Brian, “Would you like to go to daily Mass so you can serve at the altar?” He did. Shortly thereafter and during one of those daily Masses with his dad, Brian asked Father Karoblis, “Father, do you need a server?” Father Konopa remembers that moment, “I did not realize then that I might be displacing a senior citizen altar server. But, I was, and he graciously stepped aside so I could serve.”
Brian’s dad, in his burnt orange Gran Torino, began taking him to daily Mass during those two weeks of his summer vacation. The mode of transportation was steeply downgraded the following summer from his dad’s Gran Torino to Brian’s bike. But the altar serving continued, and his Faith and sense of service grew. Getting to and from Mass on his bike wasn’t a simple task. Father Konopa reflects on those bike rides and his parents, saying, “The route required me to cross Highway 54, twice. I think that for them to send me, their firstborn, over that road, was an act of trust.”
“Lord Jesus, you are the only one I have – and that is enough.”
The Road Towards Priesthood
One of Father Konopa’s early formative moments happened as a second grader at Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Wisconsin Rapids. “Sister Loretta, one of the ‘strict’ ones, was preparing us for first confession. She always taught from behind her desk, but one day she invited us to approach and sit, crossed-legged on a carpet, next to her at that desk in the front of the classroom.” Father Konopa continues, “She gave each of us a little plastic beige crucifix that probably cost no more than 5 or 10 cents. I still have mine. She asked us to look at the crucifix and to consider what Jesus has done for you and for me.” He pauses and reflects with emotion. “Recalling this moment even now causes me to still choke up. Because when I looked at that cross, I thought in my 8-year-old brain—If you did this for me then I will do this for you. And what I meant was that I will be a priest.”
Brian continued to follow his calling. The path across Highway 54 to Mass became a road he traveled towards priesthood. Father Joseph Hirsch, his parish pastor during his years at Assumption High School in Wisconsin Rapids, encouraged this growth. Brian graduated from Assumption High School and then studied at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Of all the places he lived, Franciscan University was the easiest place to live a Christian life. His professors radiated with the light of Jesus, and he learned from amazing instructors of the Faith, one of them being Dr. Scott Hahn. He then attended the Pontifical College of Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. Upon graduation, Bishop Burke ordained Father Konopa on June 27, 1998, at St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral in La Crosse. This year he celebrated his silver jubilee.
The diocesan bishop, guided by the Holy Spirit and parish needs, assigns new priests to either school systems or parishes. Knowing that a school assignment required teaching, Father Konopa desired a parish assignment because he had not taken education classes during his time at the Pontifical College. Further strengthening his desire, Father Konopa knew that he had never led a youth group or even been a member of one. He remained open to either assignment but, like all of us, preferred a position that he felt played to his strengths. He remembers meeting with Bishop Burke before the assignments. “Bishop Burke wrote something on a piece of paper and set his pen down. I thought—Oh, no. I’m going into a high school.”
He recalls Bishop Burke saying at dinner the night before ordination, “Those of you who are sent in parishes will need to learn as quickly as you can because I will likely need you as a pastor in two years. We need more continuity in the high schools, so those of you assigned there should expect more time there. We received our assignments immediately following the ordination Mass, and I was going to Columbus High School.”
Father Konopa’s initial preference to be assigned to a parish rather than a high school changed after talking to seminarians who had taught in high schools. “My heart reached a point where I thought I am going to be disappointed if I am not sent.” So, he was heartened and ready for the assignment.
His first years as chaplain and teacher at Columbus High School were both fun and fulfilling. “I gained a lot of respect for the teaching profession,” Father Konopa said. In fact, he had a gift for teaching. The Spanish teacher across the hall remarked that Father Konopa had, “taken to teaching like a duck takes to water.” Father Konopa’s single goal those first years was for his students to be interested in his interest—Jesus. Continuing to recall formative pastors in his life, Father Konopa remembers living at St. John the Baptist Parish in Marshfield and Monsignor Stoetzel’s inspiring presence.
The move Bishop Burke foretold during the dinner before ordination became a reality and was difficult for Father Konopa. He said farewell to the high school faculty and students at Columbus and the parishioners at St. John the Baptist Parish. “This was with tears on my part. A month later, a weekend before I was going to be in the country parish of Spencer, I told my mentor at my home parish, Father Karoblis, ‘I think I have gotten the worst pass.’ He said, ‘Wait until you go to your new assignment and you are in the rectory alone. The first night ask yourself, “What am I doing here?”’ So, the evening of the first day I had that feeling come over me, “Why do I feel alone?” It’s not very often I have that feeling. I treasure my quiet time, my private time. It was helpful to hear the wisdom of Father Karoblis’ words of waiting until you are there. Then I understood that it is natural to feel this way and embraced the great gift of being moved. You can’t take your friends with you and all that you knew. Then I was reminded—Lord Jesus, you are the only one I have—and that is enough. What a blessing it was to be a first-time pastor in three beautiful parishes in God’s country. I followed Father James McNamee’s attention to detail, frugality and confidence.”
The journey continues
Father Konopa’s next assignment was as pastor of St. Olaf Parish in Eau Claire for eight years. While there, he reflected on how he learned to listen and to listen to the Holy Spirit in order to bring his gifts to the parish. Now, he is pastor of Mary, Mother of the Church Parish in La Crosse. He finds the amount of administrative work that accompanies pastoral ministry challenging at times. At first, he found prayer time shortened because of this. But he now spends 45 to 90 minutes in prayer before morning Mass. “I call this ‘first fruits,’ and it created a lasting change in my life.”
As much as his busy schedule allows, Father Konopa enjoys going for long walks, grilling out on the patio and visiting with priest friends.
Know that on our journey of Faith we do not travel alone. “I think a lot of us wish we had a more personal relationship with Jesus. Well, when it comes to the awkwardness of developing a deeper relationship with Jesus, it’s good to know this truth: He first loved us. The cross proves this! And this information should give us extra courage to approach Him. Is He a person you can talk to? Yes, and the conversation will be an encounter with a person who gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. We can feel like life is new again.
Story by Robert Rogers
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the July/August 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine