Our priest, Father Jacek

Originally Appeared in : 9820-9/27/18

Our beloved pastor, Father Jacek Szuster, died last week. After a year-long battle with colon cancer, Father Jacek went to his eternal reward.


It’s tempting to feel like those words are hollow — eternal reward and all the other beautiful euphemisms we use for “eternity in heaven with Jesus.” 


But with Father Jacek, I really mean it. 


I want to tell you what it meant to be a part of a parish with a dying pastor. We got the news last year (exactly a year ago), that Father Jacek had the worst version of a terrible form of cancer. It was like winning the lottery — the odds of such a young, healthy man getting such a deadly disease. 


We got the news, and we were stunned. As a family, as a church community. And I won’t lie, it was difficult. In part because the news was so bad, in part because Father Jacek never talked about it. The news we actually heard was often from parishioners at other parishes whose priests asked their flocks to pray.


We all prayed for Father Jacek, but in the meantime he continued to show up for Mass. He celebrated Mass week after week after week. After a while I started to wonder if maybe the news was all wrong. For months, Father Jacek celebrated the Mass and looked every bit as robust as he always did. He was young and handsome and athletic and very, very sick.
The only detail that changed for most of the year is that Father Jacek would go behind the altar at the end of Mass, instead of recessing out with the servers and deacon. He couldn’t be exposed to the germs we all carry, and he did a good job of still being our priest while working to keep himself healthy.


And then, a few months ago, something changed. In just one week, our dear pastor looked and sounded completely different. He had lost weight and looked frail, and we could see, for the first time, the burden of his illness.


But what amazed me, throughout this entire journey, was the absolute, unwavering, unmistakable faith Father Jacek had in God. Father Jacek lived, to the core of his being, what we all say we believe. We believe in God and his saving grace and the promise of heaven and life eternal. Father Jacek had a boldness in his life, even in his illness, that was fueled by God’s eternal promises.


I told Paul, as we left Father Jacek’s vigil, that it should have been more sad. We should have been distraught — such a young, vibrant man gone too soon. And yet, because of Father Jacek’s deep and abiding confidence in God’s perfect plan, there was no fear. We were sad because we would miss our priest. But we could feel the peace.


If we live, truly to our core, what we say we believe, then each one of us has the freedom to live like Father Jacek. We are indeed pilgrims on this journey of life. We are travelers headed home. And while none of us wants to leave too soon, we have to trust in God’s great love and perfect plan.


“Enjoy your life as much as you can in the Lord,” Father Jacek said at the end of every homily, “and let us practice the love of God through the actions of our daily life.”


Full disclosure: I got a little annoyed with Father Jacek when he first came to our parish. As the mother of five sons, I was excited to have our new priest plugged into our family life. Imagine my disappointment when Father Jacek made it clear that he didn’t really “do” dinners with parishioners or socialize too much.


But week after week, my boys served on the altar for Father Jacek and when he died, one of my sons told me Father Jacek was his favorite. He had a mischievous smile and firm, crippling secret handshake with my boys, and they loved it. 


Jesus sent us the priest we needed, and then he took him home. I’m sad for us, but oh so happy for Father Jacek. He came, he served and now he really is celebrating his eternal reward.


Rachel Swenson Balducci is a freelance writer and member of Most Holy Trinity Church, Augusta. She can be reached at

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