New Assignment to Antigo Beginning August 3rd

Fr. Joel Being Catholic

Dear Friends,

I recently presented at a virtual Zoom conference called the Parish Life Line. I told the participants that prayer should always begin and end with gratitude. So following my own advice, I want to begin this letter with gratitude. I think we have all learned recently to appreciate little things like a hug, a handshake, or a dinner out with friends. As a young pastor I often felt myself burdened by expectations rather than blessed by abundance. But I have come to realize what incredible staff, volunteers, and parishioners we are all blessed with. You have been patient, understanding, encouraging, and grateful in the midst of difficult times. You don’t know how often a prayer, a word of encouragement, or a thoughtful note came just at the right time to help me through. You are a blessing and I am grateful for you.

When I first started here, people kept asking, “How long will you be here?” I would often respond, “I think a decade would be a good run, and then we’ll see.” I never actually expected to stay 10 years. But now, almost ten years later, I can finally answer the question. Effective Monday, August 3, I will become the pastor of the three parishes that serve Antigo, WI.

But before I leave, the Diocese has begun a process of reviewing the linkage. Having Oconto, Oconto Falls, and Stiles at once is a very challenging assignment. Comparatively speaking, St. Maximilian Kolbe in Sobieski is a much less demanding assignment. They have put on the table the question of possibly rearranging how these four parishes are linked. Bishop’s intention is to keep all four parishes open but to see if there is a more equitable way to care for them. That reconfiguration will have to be decided first before the final assignments are made, which should all happen before I leave on August 2.

Bishop Ricken intends to name a priest to replace me by July. He is responsible for the care and well- being of all the parishes in his Diocese and he makes the decisions about how to tend the flock in each parish so that all the parishes thrive. I hope that you have thrived under my care. It’s time for me to let someone else tend the flock here.

This is not at all how I anticipated sharing the news with you. Nothing about this spring has been in any sense normal. So I cannot say exactly what ‘saying goodbye’ will look like. But I do know that I owe each of you a hug and a big, “Thank You.” And you’ll be getting it, one way or another. Though I may be leaving, you will not be left without a shepherd. Of course we can always count on the Good Shepherd. I am grateful for you and for the ways you have blessed me. Your next priest, or priests, doesn’t yet realize how lucky he is. And don’t ask him how long he’ll stay, just be grateful for him, as I am grateful for you.

Your brother in Christ,
Fr. Joel Sember

Bishop Ricken: Letter of Appointment Fr. Joel Sember (PDF)

Bishop Ricken: Letter to the Parishioners of Oconto, Oconto Falls, Stiles (PDF)

heart with lots of little hearts inside of it

You Have a Place Prepared for You | #1029

Fr. Joel Homilies

Easter, Fifth Sunday (A) Mothers are made to hold others in their arms and in their hearts. Every month, a woman’s body prepares a place for a potential child. Holy Mother Church also prepares a place for her children. You are chosen and precious and have a place prepared for you in Heaven. At your funeral, Mother Church will birth you into eternity and Jesus will be there to catch you.

The church is preparing to welcome people back within her walls. In the meanwhile, we need to be preparing a place for Jesus. Considering consecrating you home to Mother Mary, or learning the Pentecost Sequence (see the notes below). You are chosen and precious. You have a place prepared for you in church and in Heaven. Have you prepared a place for Jesus in your home and in your heart?

(10 May 2020)

Going Deeper: Learn more about the Consecration of the United States to the care of our Blessed Mother and download the guide for yourself in three different languages. Pray it as a family.

Learn to sing the Pentecost Sequence, Veni Sancte Spiritus, in English or Latin or both. Make your mama proud!

When Can We Get Back to Church?

Fr. Joel Church meets World

What peace we have, even in this wounded world where the battle rages on. We will not fear, for we know who heals our souls. Hallelujah is our song!

When can we get back to church? I’ve had some variation of this conversation at least a dozen times. I know two things for sure: We will be open for public Masses at some point, and Mass will look a little different when we do open up. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has published a three-page plan called the Catholic Comeback. They plan to limit attendance to 25% of the church’s capacity and will enforce social distancing by using only every other or every 3rd pew. Ushers will be wearing masks and not shaking hands. The collection will take place by large baskets at the entrances or baskets on handles. All missals or paper will be removed from the pews. The plan takes effect the weekend of May 30-31.

In the Green Bay Diocese we are awaiting guidance from Bishop Ricken and his team. Governor Evers’ Safer-at-home order is set to expire May 26. He doesn’t plan to allow gatherings of more than 10 until Phase 2 of the “Badger Bounce-back Plan.” Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have recently doubled in both Brown County and Oconto County. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on the last weekend in May.

I have a leadership team that has been discussing these issues with me. I call them the Health Emergency Response Ministry Team (or HERMiT for short). The team is Lori Scanlan, Sue Beschta, Kevin Smits, Dave Westenberg, Amy Dessart, and Bill Dolan. They are a kind of staff meeting and mini parish council combined. I am grateful for their support. I also plan to hold a combined Parish Council and Finance Council for all three parishes virtually on Thursday, May 14. We will take a look at where things stand and plan for the future.

I continue to be grateful for my amazing staff and wonderful parishioners. You have been so encouraging, supportive, patient, and grateful. I have had a great deal of peace throughout this whole experience. The peace comes, not from watching the news or from feeling in control, but rather from knowing that I am loved by God and I am being taken care of. God will provide, protect, and support me. When I start feeling to feel that peace slip away, it is a sign that I have taken my eyes of God and am looking at the battle (or the waves) raging around me. But all I have to do is say, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus is right there to take my hand. I pray that you, too, are experiencing Christ’s peace and Easter joy.

~Fr. Joel

national day of prayer USA flag

Why Should God Bless America? | #1028

Fr. Joel Homilies

National Day of Prayer for the USAAbraham Lincoln called the United States of his day to penance, prayer, and humiliation. What do we have to repent of? Our country has been guilty of exploiting human lives to ensure an abundance of cheap goods, food, and fuel. And there’s more. What part of the Lord’s Day actually belongs to God? We like to say that God is #1 in our lives but every Sunday we have a chance to prove it. Do we spend the first hour of the first day of the week on God, or on ourselves? Does it surprise us that God has deprived us of Sunday Mass? Does it surprise us to that we have been deprived of our beloved sports? God will bless America when America blesses God.

(7 May 2020)

Going Deeper: Read the proclamation and listen to a dramatization on Fox 11’s Website

[image source]
priest consecration good shepherd

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said I Am The Gate? | #1027

Fr. Joel Homilies

Easter, 4th Sunday (A) Jesus is the leader we have been looking for. He loves his sheep, cares for them, and lays down at the entrance to the sheep fold. His own body saves the sheep from the dark and nasty outside.

Jesus does not promise that our lives, or our church, will be free of thieves and robbers. But he does promise that he will always be there. If we stay close to the shepherd, we will be fine. Be careful whom you listen to.

Yesterday I had a beautiful family wedding. I started looking back and wondering what I would have told myself from 20 years ago. I could have never guessed all the hard times ahead of me. But the most difficult moments were the most profound experiences of God’s faithful presence. No matter what is going on outside, or inside, stay close to the Shepherd and you will find peace.

(3 May 2020)

Thank you Paula for your support! Congratulations on your May anniversaries and Happy Birthday to all the May babies!

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pilgrims walking

Registration is Open for the 2020 Walking Pilgrimage

Fr. Joel Church meets World

What: A five-day walking pilgrimage. Good for body and soul!

When: June 15-19th, 2020

Where: Departing from Holy Trinity in Oconto, WI and walking to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, WI

Why: A pilgrimage is an ancient form of prayer and devotion. The Early Christians were fond of traveling to Holy Places. The best places were the Holy Land to see the places Jesus walked, taught, died and rose and the tombs of great saints. In recent years places where Mary appeared have become very popular. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

Who: You


Do you walk on the highway? No. We walk on foot paths and country roads as much as possible. Before the highways existed, this is how people got from place to place.

Where do you sleep? We line up lodging in church basements and old convents. You will be warm, dry, and safe every night. People even serve us delicious, hot food.

What do I need to bring? You will need hiking clothes and a good backpack, a mat and sleeping bag, a rain poncho, water bottles, toiletries (some places will have showers) and whatever you use for prayer (Bible, journal, rosary).

What about the safer-at-home restrictions? Currently in the State of Wisconsin, restrictions expire May 26th. If restrictions are extended we will take steps to comply with the relevant laws. We always make every effort to keep pilgrims safe.

Signup Deadline is May 15

  • Experience a one, two or five day journey.
  • Pilgrims must attend the required meeting on June 3rd at 6:00 PM. (All excuses must be approved).
  • Pilgrims must be at least 18 years of age and in reasonably good physical shape. Those who are over the age of 55 must submit a physician’s release.
  • Volunteers on our On-Call Support Team will be available to help those who are sick or injured.

How can I participate if I can’t walk all that distance?

Use the sign-up sheet but sign up as a Spiritual Pilgrim. You can pray from your own home or neighborhood and join in the pilgrimage spiritually.

Cost is $50 (or $10 each for Monday and Friday if only walking 1 or 2 days). Fees are fully refundable in the event of a cancellation.

Though the Road be Long

Fr. Joel Church meets World

What hope we have, even in the longest night, for the light will overcome. We will not fear, for we know the sun will rise. Hallelujah is our song!

The journey continues. While there has been a little light in terms of the opening of some ‘non-essential’ businesses, we continue our exile from Mass, with no end in sight. I am frequently reminded of a line from the Psalms, “We have no one to tell us how long it will last.” (Psalm 74:9).

I am grateful for the ways the live-streamed Mass is reaching out and keeping people connected. For safety reasons, we need to include as few volunteers as possible. And that means you’ll see the same faces all the time. And mostly the same church. St. Patrick has no internet, and St. Anthony’s internet has been flaky. These kinds of extra details have consumed a lot of my time. I feel like one of those retired people who says, “I’m so busy now, I don’t know how I had time to work.” You would think with Masses and meetings and the office closed up, I’d have a lot of time. But I’m still just as busy as ever.

First Communion was supposed to be the weekend of April 25-26. Confirmation was supposed to have been May 31st. Both of those events are now on hold. Our plan is to wait until we can have at least 50 in attendance and then begin to pick dates. You’ll get at least four weeks notice. Bishop will be delegating to pastors the faculty to celebrate Confirmation, so it will happen here in your parish. The walking pilgrimage is still on for June 15-19 and registration is due May 15. Any fees are fully refundable if we have to cancel.

The walking pilgrimage has always provided me with a great way of seeing our life. Though the road be long and hard, if you just keep walking in the right direction, you are bound to get there. I know the Spirit is moving us in the right direction. Our parish and school staff have been awesome. I have heard words of encouragement from so many. We are even getting thank-you notes and some donations from non-parishioners who are tuning in each week. I am very blessed to be walking with all of you. While we certainly hope that our leaders and the experts can figure out the right answer, and soon, ultimately our hope lies in Jesus Christ. We know that he walks with us, and that God’s grace is always up for any challenge. The bigger the hills and challenges, the bigger the blessings that are waiting for us on the other side. So keep walking, and let’s keep walking together!

Peace and Easter joy,
Fr. Joel

coffee mug with broken handle

God Promised to Handle All My Problems then This Happened | #1026

Fr. Joel Homilies

Easter, 3rd Sunday (A)

Our leaders don’t seem to have a handle on our public health crisis. We’ve lost our grip and we’re flying off the handle. The Good News is that you don’t need to have a handle on your problems — God’s got this!

God has always walked with us, from the Garden of Eden to the end of the age. God is walking with you right now. The struggles and sufferings you experience are not a sign that God doesn’t love you or doesn’t care. Rather, they are your participation in the Paschal Mystery.

Remember how we walked with Jesus from Holy Thursday through Good Friday and into Easter Sunday? That journey is called the Paschal Mystery. Now Jesus walks with you through your struggles and brokenness into the Resurrection and new life. In the words of Desireé: If we trust in the Lord, whether it’s COVID-19 or cancer, God’s going to hold all of it in his hands, and he wants to keep you safe and he loves you very much.

(26 Apr 2020)

Going Deeper: Last week I told you to look for signs of New Life. Now tell me where have you seen God recently?

Listen to Desireé’s Witness Wednesday talk from Spiritus Ministries.

Thank you to our latest Mission Partner Barb!

The preaching podcast soon be renamed Pilgrim Priest. Stay tuned!

Hallelujah Is Our Song

Fr. Joel Church meets World

What hope we have, even in the longest night, for the light will overcome. We will not fear, for we know the sun will rise. Hallelujah is our song. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! He is risen over all. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah is our song.

This past week my family was engaged in a thoughtful, scholarly debate on the next steps out of safer-at-home. There were some significant differences of opinion on the effectiveness of the current restrictions, the role of personal freedoms, the balance between opening businesses vs. preventing infection, how to protect medical personnel, and whether our leadership in Wisconsin has been doing the right thing. Since the discussion happened over text message, it provided a good forum for us to carefully listen to each other, clarify the various positions, and find some common ground together.

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fridays with father interview with spiritus ministries

I Wrote a Book! Oriens: A Pilgrimage Through Advent and Christmas Available This Summer

Fr. Joel God & Faith

I was featured on the second episode of Fridays with Father from Spiritus Ministries. I talk about my Advent meditation book coming out this summer. And I never actually mentioned it’s name! Rookie mistake. It’s called Oriens: A Pilgrimage Through Advent and Christmas and it will be available through OSV. Watch the video to learn more about the inspiration behind this book.