From Shepherd to Shepherd

This article was posted on: February 14, 2024

Father Joseph Redfern leads his flock

Three minutes into the conversation, Father Damian Joseph Redfern pauses and laughs, asking, “Are we recording yet?” His characteristic smile follows, and with a nod, he returns to speaking about his love for Catholic schools. 

It isn’t accidental that Father Redfern’s first thought is Catholic schools—it is where his heart rests. He began his ministry at Columbus Catholic Schools and has always felt passionate about educating children in the Faith. “They are the children of God, and, as a priest, you represent God the Father in that manner. A part of my personality that I would say, at least children find appealing, is my sense of play and joy. My role is fatherly, but at the same time, it’s playful. We certainly shift to disciplinary roles when called for, but most of the time, I have lunch, play and spend time with [the children].”

Indeed, studies and saints always play a prominent role in Catholic education, but Father Redfern reflects and finds that his playfulness with the children is crucial in developing trust and bonds with them. The sense of joy in his teaching is found in classrooms and daily interactions, but also on the playground during recess. Once, while walking through the playground, a child approached Father Redfern and asked him to play on the swings together. Seeing an opportunity to teach, Father Redfern asked the child to show him how to swing so he could join. The child was placed in a position to teach and gained a buddy on the swings next to him. The playground camaraderie didn’t end there, and Father Redfern found himself traversing monkey bars with children, who navigated the steel bars with a bit more grace and ease than he did.

First come the swings, then the monkey bars, and finally the slides. The kids love it, and so does he. He added with a smile, “The only thing I haven’t succeeded with yet is the tunnel. I crawled in and about halfway through, realized that I could get stuck. So, I backed out and haven’t beat the tunnel yet.”

The Gift of Affirmation

Father Redfern strongly believes that affirmation is as crucial as play when it comes to interacting with the children of his parish family. He defines “affirmation” as loving children where they are, regardless of how broken or troubled they may be and then lifting and supporting them instead of simply pushing them. However, the gift of affirmation is not always easy to bestow. We tend to criticize and push children to do better in athletics, academics and other areas, without first accepting them as they are. Affirming children is the work that allows them to be confident where they are at a particular age, and it can make a significant difference in their lives.

He believes that affirmation can help build confidence and serve as a foundation, whereas the constant expectation to do more can prevent children from feeling confident where they are. Failure is a natural occurrence, and it’s something we can learn from. Father Redfern helps people to reframe failure within a larger context and to embrace those around us when they fail. He believes that God heals us in our brokenness, and growth often occurs when we struggle. Even a plant must struggle to break through the soil to grow, and this idea is reflected in the biblical meaning of the word “Israel,” which translates to “he who struggles with God.” We are all struggling in our own ways.

Understanding that we all struggle is central to Father Redfern’s philosophy, and he adds, “I think showing weakness as a priest is also helpful because if children understand that I have weaknesses too, that helps them to know that we are all flawed together.” Father Redfern’s family provided the foundation for this approach of joy, playfulness, affirmation and the domestic church.

The Domestic Church

Pope Saint Paul VI taught, “The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it, parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children….” (Lumen Gentium II:11) Father Redfern believes that the domestic church is crucial yet under threat from a culture that doesn’t support the Catholic family. In a post-Christian society, he judges that families must passionately nurture their faith at home. Parents must provide good catechesis to their children and take responsibility for this task instead of relying solely on parish religious education programs. Father Redfern also stresses the importance of evangelization, which is necessary for a mature relationship with the Lord, as emphasized by Pope Saint John Paul II.

Upon returning from a mission trip to Papua New Guinea and, seeking to gauge the cleverness of a potential suitor, Father Redfern’s mother asked, “Do you believe in pre-marital interdigitation?”  The man, who became his father, paused and smiled, “Sure, I’ll hold your hand.”

Soon married, their farm spanned 1,500 acres where the family raised sheep. Father Redfern was the fourth of 10 children—a birth order that shaped him as a natural peacemaker and a person who sees a distinction between detaching with love versus amputation. “We tend to say, ‘If you’re not like me, if you don’t agree with all that I might want or stand for, then I will amputate.’ One of the gifts I bring is to foster a sense of reconciliation to help us realize that while we may not agree with everything the other says, we can touch with love. We don’t have to amputate. We have differences, but we are called to be in union with Christ, not to oppose each other, and St. Paul writes about exactly this in his letter to the Corinthians. We know the expression that the devil is at work wherever there’s division, so when needed, I help to detach with love.”

Loving and Leaving

This sense of being with the flock and “smelling like the sheep” is central to Father Redfern’s pastoral leadership style. His background as a farmer imbued in him a work ethic expressed in being immersed in the work rather than above it. Whether the need is landscaping the parish’s grounds or cleaning a recycling bin full of cans after a Knights of Columbus event, Father Redfern is among rather than apart. In the latter example, Father Redfern recalls, “A parishioner said, ‘Father, this means getting in the bin and scraping the cans out of the bottom.’ My style is to be with the people and not aloof.” While not everyone may appreciate this leadership style, Father Redfern believes that most people appreciate a priest who is present with his flock.

But there is pain in having this close relationship. “It can be so hard when you value the family and affirmation aspects of the relationship so highly. Leaving a parish inflicts a wound every time. The danger of that, though, is that sometimes you don’t let the wound occur.”

“I have difficulty finding the balance and tend to get deeply invested. But I relate it to married life. A lukewarm husband is not much of a husband or father. The sense of being wounded and realizing that I will be wounded when I leave is a tough part of the cross that a priest has to bear. But that’s a good thing. I’d rather that than not be involved. The parish family would believe they didn’t have a father.”

From raising sheep in Australia to serving as a shepherd in his parish, Father Redfern shares with a smile, “You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

Story by Erik Archer
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the March/April 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

The Catholic Diocese of La Crosse
3710 East Ave. South
La Crosse, WI 54601

Subscriptions & Advertising 
Pam Willer

Story ideas, submission inquiries
Erik Archer

Individual Subscriptions

Find us on Facebook

Your Faith


Copyright © 2023 Diocese of La Crosse. All Rights Reserved.

To Top