May 2023 Making a gift of myself: From the introspection of formation to offering the…
A Priest who lives it.
April 1, 2023
A Priest who lives it.
By Fr. Steven Durkee, Director of Priestly Vocations
Jesus’ demand to us is simple, we must take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him.
We hear these words, and we think it’s a nice demand. But when we have to live it? Well, that’s when the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? When we are asked to live it, we definitely do not want it. At least I don’t.
Father Tony Russo is a priest who lives it. When I arrived at Our Lady of Consolation Parish in Rockford in the summer of 2017, I was excited to begin priestly ministry with Father Tony. I knew him as a joyful priest. As a seminarian, I remembered hearing him speak and it was evident to me that he was also a man of prayer.
During those first few months working with Father Tony, I discovered more about his vocational call to the priesthood. My excitement to work with this man grew into awe and appreciation. He gave me his permission to share the part of his story that follows.
Father Tony did not always want to be a priest. A fact true for many of us priests. That’s why the call is so profoundly important. It starts with an invitation from Christ, and it takes us some time to figure out that what we really want is indeed what Christ is offering. Father Tony met a beautiful young woman named Julie. They both attended Franciscan University of Steubenville, dated, and were engaged in their senior year. During the fall semester, however, Julie became ill; she passed away shortly after Christmas. As you might imagine, this was a very difficult time for Father Tony. He recalls going to her grave and praying, “Lord, I don’t know what you want from me. I thought I was supposed to marry this girl. What do I do now?” Through prayer, discernment and the providential encouragement from others, Father Tony went to the seminary and was ordained a priest on June 3, 2000.
It wouldn’t be long before grief would strike again. Father Tony’s father, Sam, passed away in July, only a month after his ordination. His father’s funeral was his first as a priest.
These experiences have shaped Father Tony tremendously. If you have ever heard him preach, you will eventually see him point to the crucifix and say, “Alright, Christians, what do we do? We run to the cross.” His point is that whenever life is tough, whenever we experience difficulties, or whenever we experience suffering, grief and pain, the only answer is the cross. The cross is the place of healing.
I shared a profoundly beautiful moment with Father Tony at the altar of Our Lady of Consolation Parish on Good Friday. A man in attendance had suffered tremendously. He was a quadriplegic. As this man’s pastor, Father Tony met with him monthly. Father Tony would bring him Communion, pray with him, and encourage him. During this Good Friday liturgy, the man was able to attend – but there was just one problem. He wasn’t able to reverence the cross on his own. Father Tony looked at me and said, we need to make sure he has this chance like everyone else. So, I followed Father Tony, picking up the cross together and lifting it up so this man had a chance to unite his sufferings to Christ. It was powerful.
Just as the Israelite people instructed by Moses looked at the wooden serpent in the desert to be healed, we need to go to the cross for our own healing. When Father Tony says to the people of God, “Go to the cross,” or when he echoes the Lord’s words that we must “take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Jesus,” it’s believable, because he lives it. Father Tony has experienced the healing grace that only comes from grace won for us by the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. And just as Christ was resurrected, we too, might come to life again from all our sufferings and little deaths we experience by uniting them to the suffering of Jesus Christ. Father Tony Russo is a heroic priest who shows us how to follow Jesus by taking up our cross, denying ourselves and following him.