By Alan Holdren
ROME (SNR) - After more than four years of work in the Vatican, a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln is coming home... at least partway.
“It came as a complete surprise to me,” Father Menke said. “While I had never really intended to stay in Rome all that long and had been thinking about returning home, I thought it would be another three or four more years before that would be possible.”
Late last year, Bishop James Conley was approached by USCCB general secretary Msgr. Ronny Jenkins about the possibility of Father Menke assisting in the bishops’ liturgy office. After some thought and prayer, and consulting Father Menke himself, Bishop Conley agreed to the request and informed the Congregation in Rome.
So, the native of St. Joseph Parish in Superior will be “on loan” again, serving the Church in a different capacity.
“Father Menke is a generous and faithful priest,” Bishop Conley told the Southern Nebraska Register. “His experience, intelligence, and good judgment will be helpful to the bishops across the United States. I’ve relied on his advice many times, and I’m confident other bishops will come to appreciate him as I have.”
The 41-year old priest is one of two English-language officials—both from the Diocese of Lincoln—currently serving at the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The office assists the Holy Father in regulating and promoting the liturgy of the Catholic Church, especially the sacraments.
A temporary summer assignment in the office in 2010 unexpectedly turned into a full-time position, and Father Menke has been in Rome ever since.
He was looking forward to going back to a parish in the Lincoln Diocese, but this unforeseen twist is like others in Father’s life that he’s taking in stride.
Back in 1993, he was getting general coursework out of the way at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to later specialize in engineering. Through participation in Newman Center activities and contact with seminarians, he felt the call to the priesthood himself.
The new Lincoln bishop back then, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, first sent him to St. Philip’s Seminary in Toronto, Canada, for two years of philosophy training. He then went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., for four years of theology before his priestly ordination in 1999.
For the first five years, Father Menke worked in various parishes and schools in the Diocese of Lincoln. He spent another five as master of ceremonies for Bishop Bruskewitz before coming to Rome.
In his own words, the assignment he’s now concluding at Rome’s Congregation for Divine Worship has helped him “in general, ‘seeing the bigger picture’ of the Universal Church.”
He spends many of his work hours responding to inquiries and complaints from across the English-speaking world on behalf of the Congregation. He also edits official Catholic liturgical books, which must receive the approval of that Vatican office before they can be published.
Other matters that fall under the authority of the Congregation include adding new saints to local liturgical calendars and the approval of new translations of liturgical books.
The introduction of the new English translation of the Roman Missal took place during his tenure in Rome. Another specific project he participated in was the preparation of liturgical texts for former Anglicans entering the Catholic Church in large groups, called “ordinariates,” through a special Benedict XVI-led initiative.
In addition to his work at the Vatican, Father Menke has employed much of his “free time” in Rome to study.
After three years at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo, in 2014, he earned a degree known in Rome as a “license” in Sacred Liturgy. That’s the rough equivalent of a master’s degree in the United States.
In addition to English, he had to take oral exams in Italian. By his own admission it was “frightening,” but this from the ever self-effacing priest who also passed a French exam to finish the course.
He’s currently working on a doctorate from the same institution, studying 13th-century manuscripts that document the final stages of development of the original Roman Missal. For this, he’s been given access to the rather exclusive Vatican Library.
And, that’s been the source of some of his most unique moments in the “caput mundi,” such as being able to leaf through the handwritten pages of irreplaceable parchments.
“I’d say the most moving thing for me is to be examining a book that was surely used by popes in the early 13th century when they celebrated the Mass,” Father Menke told the Register.
“The manuscripts are very valuable, so the authorities are extremely careful about security these days,” he added of the priceless archives as a whole. Many of the documents in the collection pre-date the printing press.
Father Menke said that, in general, living and working in Rome has made him “much more aware of the challenges facing Catholics in different situations and cultures.”
Sharing a house with roughly 20 other American priests who work in different departments for the Holy See has also been an education. Mealtimes provide an opportunity to learn about the Church in other parts of the United States and the work taking place in other Vatican offices.
When he’s not working or studying, Father Menke makes time for prayer and exercise. He also celebrates Mass frequently for the Missionaries of Charity who run the “Casa Dono di Maria” (Gift of Mary House) soup kitchen inside the walls of the Vatican City.
Though there are some similarities, life on the whole is really quite different from back home in Nebraska. And, it’s not just the fact that he navigates the city streets on a sleek, black “motorino” scooter.
“Like everything, life in Rome has its ups and downs,” said Father Menke. “On the one hand, you’re surrounded by history, and great art and architecture, and all kinds of interesting people. But on the other hand, it’s easy to feel a bit homesick at times.”
That said, he may also have moments of “Rome-sickness” when he gets back to the States. He’ll be leaving some great friendships behind, particularly with other U.S. priests working in Rome.
And, Nebraska connections have never been far away. Fellow Lincoln priest, Msgr. Thomas Fucinaro, works for the Holy See in the same liturgy department, and at various times Father Sean Kilcawley, and Father Steven Snitily, have been students in Rome. Father Matthew Rolling is currently studying in Rome, and seminarian Jim Morin is also currently a student at the North American College.
The Nebraskans get together on a regular basis, and sometimes even manage to catch Husker games, despite the seven-hour time difference. Night games back in Lincoln make for particularly long nights in Rome.
All considered, Father Menke expects his “Rome experience” to come in handy for his new assignment. The USCCB’s Secretariat for Divine Worship serves the American bishops in many of the same ways the Vatican’s Congregation serves the Holy Father.
In his new position, he’ll be working in an office that gives publishers permission to print both the actual books used in the official worship of the Church and also to those that are for the personal use of the faithful. Among other responsibilities, the office also assists the bishops in answering liturgical questions and in the preparation of educational materials.
The secretariat reported in an August 2014 newsletter that it is dedicating its work in “the coming months and years” towards the approval and publication of a number of liturgical books, including the second editions of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Order of Celebrating Matrimony. It is also revising translations of texts for confirmations, church dedications and exorcisms.
Father Menke will be working along with three lay staff members under the leadership of the secretariat’s executive director, Father Michael Flynn. The assignment is for an initial three-year term that can later be extended, depending on the needs of the USCCB and the Diocese of Lincoln.
Whatever changes the future may hold, Father Menke’s motivation remains “trying to do God’s will, trying to serve the Church, according to the mind of the Church.”
Editor’s Note: Alan Holdren, a native of the Lincoln Diocese, is the Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.