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What is your image of the priesthood? Is it based on the selfish actions of a few, those who have tarnished the Church because they failed, spectacularly and publicly, to live up to their vows? Or, should it be entrusted instead to the many, those men who devote their lives to the care of others—someone, for example, like Father Ed Kohler, winner of the 2010 Lumen Christi Award?
Father Kohler, who has devoted almost all of his long priestly years to the people of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, put it all in perspective last October as he accepted the Catholic Extension Society’s award, which, translated, pays tribute to the Light of Christ: “The past few years have had some great pain for priests, due to the actions of a few. But now, we have a great thing happening. So, this Light of Christ shall be shared with all my brother priests. We’re in this together!”
Father Kohler also shared the award with the people he serves at Little Flower parish in Browning, MT. “We have been chosen by the Lord, to be a light for Him,” he said. “We all understand what it is to be the Light of the Christ! You’ve invited us into this ministry, allowed us to do our ministry, and honored our ministry.”
The missionary heart has always beat strongly in Father Kohler. Ordained in 1977 for the Montana diocese of Helena, he has served the Blackfeet Nation since 1982—except for the five years he spent at a mission in Guatemala. Renee St. Martin Wizeman told his story in The Montana Catholic, the Helena diocesan newspaper, and quite a story it is. Bishop George Leo Thomas of Helena, who nominated Father Kohler for the honor, knows it firsthand.
“His parish quickly became his extended family,” Bishop Thomas told several hundred, mostly members of the Blackfeet community, at a dinner where Father Kohler received his award. “You have formed Father Ed’s heart to become the pastor he is: strong, loving and wise. A bishop assigns the priest to transform and lead the community, but, in fact, the community forms and fashions the priest.”
The town of Browning reflects the story of a struggling American workforce, magnified many times over. While the national unemployment rate hovers close to 10 per cent, on the reservation it stands at no less than 80 per cent—a truly staggering figure. That, of course, translates into trouble for Little Flower parish and for the De La Salle Blackfeet School that serves its children—those, that is, between grades four and eight. That is all the school can serve at the moment; Father Ed’s dream of a K–12 Catholic education for the youngsters in his parish has been deferred.
Not that there is nothing to do in the meantime, of course. In addition to Little Flower, Father Kohler serves at two nearby missions and a chapel and works (on an interim basis) at a parish in Heart Butte. And, he is the driving force behind a diocesan program that helps lay people develop leadership skills.
Clearly, though, his heart is with his Blackfeet parish in Browning, as it was when it came time to decide what to do with the $25,000 prize money that went with the Lumen Christi Award. Surprising no one, he gave it all to De La Salle Blackfeet School. Just right, I thought, for the image of the priesthood that I would like to keep going.
For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerald M. Costello