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Brother Priests Minister in West Virginia

[ Feature 1 Photo]
Father Rick Shoda (left) and Father Brian Shoda, who share the same vocation, strive to strengthen the faith lives of those they meet.

Photo by Thomas R. Papeika

Two brothers who are priests share their love for the Church as they minister to their West Virginia parishioners.

By Thomas R. Papeika

 Mountain Men Are Always Free

Different Calls to Priesthood

Tour Guides Through the Lord's Vineyard

 They Make Church 'a Good Place to Be'

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.

Although the 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 old-fashioned fun.

Their "Prayer 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.

Mountain Men Are Always Free

Robert and 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 home.

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 less.

"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."

Father Brian 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."

Different Calls to Priesthood

The brothers' 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.

Father Rick's 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.

Father Rick 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.

Father Brian's 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."

Father Brian 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.

"I remember 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."

Brian didn't 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.

Brian decided 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 priest."

Father Rick's 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.

When Brian 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."

The bishop's gamble paid off. On June 6, 1987, Brian Shoda's restless heart found contentment when he was ordained a priest.

Tour Guides Through the Lord's Vineyard

Even though 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 do."

For Father 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.

Mel Walter, 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' parishes.

They Make Church 'a Good Place to Be'

A constant hum of activity surrounds the Shoda parishes. People seem very willing to give of their time, treasure and talent in unprecedented ways.

"Church is 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.

The Shodas 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.

Father Brian 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 same.


Thomas R. 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.



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