IS "OH, BROTHER!"
A PHRASE of exasperation? A term of endearment? Maybe some
of both? Anyone who has grown up surrounded by brothers or
sisters knows no one phrase can sum up the unique relationship
between siblings. Imagine two brothers as different from each
other as the Bolshoi Ballet is from Appalachian clogging.
One would rather go to the theater while the other attends
a Redskins football game. One enjoys poetry while the other
enjoys hunting. They can't even agree on which is a better
car--a sedan or a sport utility vehicle.
What do Brian
and Rick Shoda have in common? Both are Catholic priests in
the mostly rural Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.
The brothers Father Shoda, as the clerical pair is known throughout
the state, share more than a vocation: Their robust approach
to the faith is partially responsible for a surprising trend
toward Church growth in the Mountain State. Father Brian Shoda's
parish, for example, has more than tripled in size since he
became pastor six years ago.
brothers Father Shoda aren't always personally in step with
each other, a deep loyalty to the faith combines with their
unique, dynamic personalities to call people to the Church
and keep them there. They lead their flocks closer to God
with compassion, humor and, more often than not, some good
and Pasta" tours of the Vatican and Rome have shepherded many
a soul closer to God--and the buffet table. Their bus trips
to the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., combine
a seriousness of purpose with a sense of fun that allows prayerful
pilgrims to rejoice in the Spirit every step of the way. Just
because they work together for the good of the Church, however,
doesn't mean they act like identical twins.
Men Are Always Free
Ruth Shoda raised their four boys--Bobby, Randy, Rick and
Brian--in the midst of the Pocahontas coalfields of southernmost
West Virginia, in the town of Bluefield. Like many mining
towns, Bluefield had the reputation for being a tight-knit,
hospitable community. Even today the Chamber of Commerce serves
free lemonade on summer days that top 90 degrees in the breezy
town nicknamed "nature's air-conditioned city."
But the Shodas
were always viewed as a bit "different" in their hometown.
Their home life, moving to the rhythm of mine work and farming,
was seamlessly interwoven with the liturgical seasons celebrated
at Sacred Heart Parish. "They used to call us fish-eaters,"
recalls Father Brian, "because we Catholics had to eat fish
every Friday. None of our Protestant friends understood that.
They thought that the little sacrifices we make for the faith
were something major. We always thought it was the least we
could do." Father Rick says that the Shodas found freedom
in following the precepts of the Church. They led a simple,
moral life which kept them happy and contented in their mountain
The state motto
of West Virginia is "Montani Semper Liberi" ("Mountain
Men Are Always Free"), and the Shodas exemplify that freedom
and diversity. Growing up, they were by no means a family
of choirboys. "Brian beat me up enough as a kid," recalls
Father Rick. "He once gave me two black eyes with a checkerboard
as I recall." Father Brian has always been more physical,
much more of an outdoorsman. Father Brian loves to hunt, fish,
camp out and follow all the sports; Father Rick couldn't care
"My idea of
hunting is going to Kroger's [supermarket] and finding fresh
scallops," says Father Rick. "And as far as the outdoors go,
I thought there was a rattlesnake or a black widow spider
under every rock. I would always rather go read a book than
go fishing. My idea of camping out now is going to the Sheraton."
continues to hunt and fish. He has been known to hop in the
truck with several parishioners and camp out all across the
United States for weeks at a time. He hosts Super Bowl parties
at his parish's social hall and even cuts the eight or so
acres of grass on the church grounds. "I always find some
kid to do the weed-whacking, though," quips Father Brian.
"I may like the outdoors, but I'm not crazy."
Calls to Priesthood
innate differences are apparent as well in the paths they
followed to the priesthood. Father Rick seemed to know that
he would take the royal road to the priesthood ever since
childhood. "I was going to be the pope and work my way down,"
jokes Father Rick. He loved playing priest as a kid, making
offerings to God at his homemade shrine while wearing the
vestments his mother had sewn for him. "I always liked it
when we had company because I could take up a collection,"
he says. He saved the proceeds from his childhood collection
basket, reserving them for some special occasion in the future.
path led him to Rome, where he diligently studied for the
priesthood at the Gregorian Seminary. "I loved being in Rome,
with all the history, the art--it was so exciting." A high
point of his seminary time came when Pope Paul VI gave him
Communion at a solemn Mass in St. Peter's. A framed photograph
of the event hangs on the wall of his rectory, a constant
reminder of his days at the Vatican.
was ordained in his home cathedral in Wheeling, West Virginia,
by Bishop Joseph Hodges on October 13, 1978. It was the fulfillment
of a lifelong dream when the choir chanted "You Are a Priest
Forever" to a beaming Father Richard Shoda.
road to the priesthood was a bit more atypical. "Whenever
anybody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always
told them, 'A crooked politician,'" says a laughing Father
Brian. At the time of Father Rick's ordination, Brian never
had any intention of becoming a priest. In fact, although
Brian attended the ordination of his brother, he skipped Father
Rick's first Mass to play in a rugby game. "I thought that
certain things were more important to my life than the Church
at the time."
fell away from the Church for a while. "I was pretty heavily
involved with drugs and alcohol through college. I'd wake
up in the morning, drink some beer, take some dope and goof
off for the rest of the day outside, play Frisbee or something.
Me and my buddies would be so wasted by the end of the day
that we would pass out on somebody's lawn for the night, wake
up the next morning and start the whole thing over.
one time in particular when I was doing LSD [a powerful hallucinogenic
drug]. I could feel myself slipping away from reality, this
time forever. I felt like I was standing on the edge of an
unimaginably deep and black abyss. I was fascinated by what
was down there, and I kept looking, looking, trying to lean
over into that chasm. And in the back of my mind, the one
part that was still rooted in reality, I knew that if I fell
into that hole, it would be all over.
"Still, I wanted
to go into that abyss, and part of me didn't care if I ever
came back. But then I felt a hand on my shoulder holding me
back. That presence got me to focus on an alarm clock in the
room. Concentrating on that ticking clock was my peg to reality--it
rooted me here and kept me from slipping away forever."
succumb to the siren song of substance abuse. He cleaned up
his life, but still found himself searching. He worked a variety
of jobs--siding houses, installing dropped ceilings, landscaping,
driving an ice-cream truck. He even considered starting a
ranch in Colorado. But something was still missing. Brian
knew that he had to turn back to the Lord to find the answers.
He knew that he was running away from making the right--though
difficult--decisions in life.
to answer the calling that he'd been trying to ignore for
years. "All right, Lord," he prayed, "I'm sick of fighting
with you. I'll give it a try. But we've got to work together
on this; I can't do it alone."
The first person
Brian told about wanting to become a priest was his brother,
Father Rick. "I was really surprised," recalls Father Rick.
"At that point in Brian's life, the family didn't even know
if he was Catholic anymore, much less wanting to become a
response to Brian was to quote St. Augustine: "Our hearts
are restless until they rest in you, O Lord." Father Rick
took some money that he had saved--perhaps the money that
he had collected when playing priest as a child--and sent
his brother Brian on an eight-day retreat. Brian, he felt,
needed to spend some serious time in prayer to see if the
priesthood was what the Lord was asking of him.
went before the bishop asking to become a priest for the diocese,
he gave the bishop the details of his unsettled life. It took
hours. When Brian was done, the bishop looked up from his
desk and said, "Well, Brian, only God can make a silk purse
out of a sow's ear, so I guess I'll give you a shot."
gamble paid off. On June 6, 1987, Brian Shoda's restless heart
found contentment when he was ordained a priest.
Guides Through the Lord's Vineyard
the Fathers Shoda don't share the same perspective on everything,
they are committed to serving the Church. Sixty-five percent
of the people in West Virginia do not regularly attend any
formal church, according to Bishop Bernard Schmitt of Wheeling-Charleston.
One way the
brothers bring people to church and maintain their presence
is by introducing them to fun at church. "All the benefits
from being in church don't need to be spiritual," says Father
Rick. "There is definitely a social side. People should be
able to do things together. We try to have a lively faith,
but one that is consistent with what the Church asks us to
Brian and Father Rick, part of introducing people to the depth
and richness of the faith involves taking them on tours. Their
"Prayer and Pasta" tours of Italy and the "Prayer, Pubs and
Potatoes" tour of Ireland proved popular with pilgrims. Mass
would be celebrated every day at a different site while abroad,
allowing people to experience the enormous diversity of the
Catholic heritage, as well as the essential unity of faith
throughout the world.
a regular on such outings, says, "I always come back with
my faith enriched. They are the best guys to travel with."
The participants nourish their souls by visiting churches,
shrines and other holy places. They nourish their minds by
visiting art galleries and attending the theater. And they
nourish their bodies by finding some of the best restaurants
in the world. "They always seem to find great places to eat.
It's like an instinct," says Martin Tormoehlen, one of the
many young people who take an active role in both priests'
Make Church 'a Good Place to Be'
hum of activity surrounds the Shoda parishes. People seem
very willing to give of their time, treasure and talent in
a good place to be," says Ellen Mangino. "It's not like a
lot of parishes where you just show up for Mass and that's
it. There's such a family-friendly atmosphere that you'd rather
come and spend time at church than go somewhere else."
It would be
wrong to say that the brothers Father Shoda peddle nothing
but fun and games since the fun-loving priests also maintain
a serious side that attracts people to the Church. They preach
the gospel message with a vigor and constancy that many believe
is lacking in the world today. Prayer is a constant aspect
of their lives. They are always seeking out new ways to discover
God, learn more and challenge the secular world with a message
that is undeniably Christian.
continue to shepherd their flocks through many changes while
keeping them rooted in the faith. Father Rick recently guided
the community of Blessed Trinity Parish in Wheeling through
the difficult time of the church's closing. And when serving
as judicial vicar for the diocese, Father Rick also guided
people through the annulment process with a sensitivity that
comforted these often alienated individuals. Currently Father
Rick, resident pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in
Ronceverte, West Virginia, is pastor of missions in Lewisburg
and Union as well.
is guiding his parish to a new home. The St. Leo parish family
quickly outgrew its small facility in Inwood, West Virginia,
and a planned addition to the worship space was outgrown before
construction ever began. Now the parish is faced with the
challenge of building an entirely new facility on a much larger
piece of land. Both the brothers Father Shoda, then, are seeing
Catholics in West Virginia through a series of new beginnings
that are a hallmark of a living and vital Church.
It is almost
certain that Father Brian and Father Rick will continue to
differ in their perspectives on sports, music, books and a
whole host of other things. But it is just as certain they
will continue to work together for the common good of the
Church. And to all who inhabit the peaks and valleys of the
Mountain State, the term "brother priest" will never be the
Papeika, who regularly contributes to The Catholic Spirit,
newspaper of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, travels throughout
his home state of West Virginia as a photojournalist. His
first priority is being a good father to his three children.