In the middle of a board of directors meeting for St. Joseph Academy last year, Fr. Benjamin Reese had so much to say, but couldn’t seem to get the words out.
The 55-year old team member of the in solidum team at of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and St. Therese the Little Flower parishes in Kenosha salivated excessively and began slurring his speech that night — the same night that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was installed as Pope Francis.
That day also marked the Vigil of the Feast of St. Joseph and, according to Fr. Reese, it was no coincidence his eventual diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease began that day.
“It seems that my illness is somehow linked to the papacy and to Catholic education through the intercession of St. Joseph. I had offered a public holy hour earlier that month for the pope and I have offered my suffering for him, our two wonderful bishops, St. Joseph Academy and, of course, my parishes of St. Therese and Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” he said in an email interview with the Catholic Herald. “St. Joseph is really helping me with this disease. I pray to him daily and use the blessed oil from his shrine in Montreal every night.”
Fr. Reese and Fr. Dwight Campbell, who also serves both parishes, are members of the Apostles of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim. While both are diocesan priests, their society includes the sharing of a common life, praying together and sharing a meal each day.
The Apostles of Jesus Christ, Priest and Victim, is a new society of diocesan priests located at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, Kenosha, with the permission of Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. Their charism is to sanctify its members through conformity to Christ crucified in a mission of shared charity.
“We share a common life in a way that is amenable to living a diocesan priestly life,” said Fr. Campbell. “It is our our mission to save souls, and we carry that desire out in communion with the pope and the bishops. We offer our lives and sufferings daily in union with Jesus, High Priest and Victim, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and with Mary, our Mother in the Order of Grace.”
Priest at ‘80 percent of what he was’
type is called bulbar-onset, meaning it affected the bulbar region of the brain, which controls speech and mouth movements. That explained the months of slurring and vocal weakness before his official diagnosis. With ALS motor nerves mysteriously die, wasting muscles, but the minds of its victims remain vibrant as ever. Most sufferers deal with physical limitations first; however, in the case of Fr. Reese, his
“His symptoms began a year ago and his outer extremities seem to be mildly affected and he is about 80 percent of what he was,” said Fr. Campbell. “He is still able to cross-country ski, drive and do most of his priestly ministries, except that he can’t offer Mass alone. This has been the most difficult cross for him. He can concelebrate Mass and can say the words of consecration very slowly, but that is about all he can do.”
Through the assistance of his physician, Dr. Paul Barkhaus, and his team at Froedtert Medical Center, Fr. Reese is on a waiting list for adult stem cell therapy for ALS at Mayo Clinic.
“I will try to minister as long as possible, and my parishioners and others are praying daily to (Pope) Venerable Pius XII for the recovery of my speech,” he said via email. “Jesus healed many mutes, (Mk 7:31-35) and paralytics.”
Mass with Pope Francis
Last fall Fr. Reese made a pilgrimage to Rome and concelebrated with Pope Francis and prayed at the tombs of St. Peter and Pius XII. He said the high point of the trip was Mass with the Holy Father with the image of Our Lady of Fatima.
“The message that I got there was to offer everything up to the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and especially for Pope Francis, like Blessed Jacinta of Fatima did,” he said. “It is always great to pray at the tomb of St. Peter. There were many bishops and priests there to remember Venerable Pope Pius XII and to pray for his intercession. When I prayed in the tomb, I felt that God would answer my prayer for healing in some way in his good time. I have started a Facebook page, ‘Miracles of Pius XII,’ to encourage devotion to him, and we have seen the health of many people improve when praying for his intercession.”
In addition, his prayers provided a self-revelation that the church suffers from a spiritual ALS.
“Many priests don’t preach the whole Gospel, especially the moral issues, and so the tongue doesn’t say, what the head, (the pope) thinks,” said Fr. Reese. “However, we have great bishops in Milwaukee and really great priests in Kenosha who do teach in union with the papal magisterium. In addition, we have hired a whole new theology department at St. Joseph’s Academy, which is very loyal to the papal magisterium.”
iPad helps him communicate
To assist Fr. Reese with ministerial duties, he relies on an iPad to communicate with others by typing the words, and, in turn, a program translates his words into voice messages.
“He was using it at first to give homilies on Sundays, by putting the microphone on it,” said Fr. Campbell, “but now he has to concelebrate Mass with me or another priest.”
Using the iPad to minister has allowed Fr. Reese to continue working with school children and members of the congregation for school Masses and when he hears confessions.
“At Mass, I can say a few words of thanks or give a brief homily with the iPad, but, of course, I have to speak the words of consecration when I concelebrate,” he said. “And, of course, I have to verbally say the words of absolution for confession, but I can give advice and penances with the iPad. I don’t hear confessions without explaining the procedure to my penitents.”
Medication helped briefly with the speech issues, but Fr. Reese admitted it has once again declined. However, his swallowing and eating abilities have improved.
Not one to let the diagnosis get him too discouraged, the Colorado native spends his free time on his skis.
“I am of Norwegian descent and skied a lot while growing up,” he said. “With ALS I am avoiding downhill skiing, but I go to (UW) Parkside sometimes, but mostly to the golf course on Washington Road. When it is below 20 degrees, I stay in.”
Watching him as a friend and fellow priest, Fr. Campbell has observed Fr. Reese abandoning himself into God’s hands.
Cross is God’s will
“Whatever God wills, he wills. He is patient, and I have much admiration for him as I know that this is a real cross,” said Fr. Campbell. “He said to me a few months ago, ‘Of all the types of ALS I had to get, it was the one that strikes you in the mouth.’ I think with being a priest, it is a bigger cross, but I think he has shown a heroic perseverance and abandonment to God in light of these things.”
Parishioners have rallied around Fr. Reese, praying for him through the parish Padre Pio prayer group. Elizabeth Cascio said he still assists with many daily Masses as well as Sunday Mass with Fr. Bruno (a helper priest).
“He is a true witness to his faith with the suffering that he has endured, and there would be something lacking in a person if Fr. Reese’s suffering and offering that suffering up doesn’t touch your soul and inspire you to try and live a more holy Catholic life,” she said.
Parishioner Colana Hutchinson said Fr. Reese is a wonderful example of what it means to offer up ones suffering in union with Christ Crucified on the Cross.
“He is a man of great faith, and practices what he preaches,” she said. “One of his greatest desires is to live out his vocation as a priest. We need him to guide us, offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, hear our confessions and bring us closer to Jesus. He has not let his ALS stop him, but forges ahead with confidence that God will always bring about good as he continues to offer prayer for others with afflictions.”
Never asks ‘Why me?’
Parish organist Rita Gentile remarked that, unlike many who are afflicted with a serious illness, Fr. Reese has never asked, “Why me?”
“Instead, he says, ‘This is God’s plan for me.’ He remains accepting, always in good spirits, and continues to find ways to celebrate Mass despite troubles with his speech,” she said. “Certainly, as a parishioner, there is a sense of comfort in seeing someone with a difficult diagnosis turn toward their faith for comfort and guidance, rather than turn their back on it. Fr. Reese’s struggle and how he always finds the positive will definitely help parishioners in their own struggles, and teach us all a different kind of lesson in what it means to be Catholic.”
Fr. Reese, who was ordained May 25, 1991, at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria — the same cathedral in which the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen was ordained, explained he tries to live day by day, and to thank God for the gift of his faith and priesthood.
“I am not worthy of my vocation, and I try to offer my sufferings in reparation for my sin,” he said. “I am basically very happy and grateful for all of the kind prayers and encouragement of my parishioners, friends and family. Friends from all over the world have been writing me and praying for me. I believe that I will somehow be healed, maybe not totally cured, through the intercession of Venerable Pius XII. Whenever I feel discouraged, I say, ‘Jesus, I trust in Thee’ or the words of Padre Pio: ‘Pray, hope and don’t worry. Amen.’”