GREEN BAY —Guests attending the May 31 Mass of ordination were required to take detours to St. Francis Xavier Cathedral due to road construction on Monroe Street. Fr. Ryan Starks, who was ordained to the priesthood Saturday by Bishop David Ricken, was understandably concerned about the inconvenience for family and friends, but he was able to find a silver lining in the alternate routes.
“We all have come on different paths,” he said. “I was looking at it as many obstacles for the people coming in, but there is some symbolism.”
Fr. Starks traces his path to priesthood to a Teens Encounter Christ (TEC) weekend in Kellnersville in April of 2005. The experience was life changing for the son of St. Mary Parish in Marion.
“That’s where it all started,” he said. “That was the first time in my life that I realized God’s love in a very real way.”
A group of European exchange students from Global Outreach had a profound effect on him at the retreat.
“I saw peers who loved their faith,” he said. “They were very dear to me. I remember going back to my home parish, standing up in front after Mass to do some fundraising. I wanted to go on the summer (Global Outreach) trip to Slovakia to grow more. I was a shy kid, so it wasn’t an easy thing for me to do.”
So the once shy kid now preaches to the congregation.
“Love conquers fear,” he explained. “Encountering God’s great love for me and for all of us has trumped any fear of public speaking and being in a large group. Love is a passion that you want to share with others. It doesn’t matter what’s currently in the way. I became more and more confident, even enjoying it; enjoying being with people, preaching, speaking.”
Fr. Starks has been appointed to serve as parochial vicar (associate pastor) at the Quad-Parishes on the west side of Green Bay, which include Annunciation, St. Joseph, St. Jude and St. Patrick. He looks forward to getting to know the people.
“It’s always tempting for a newly ordained to become overly zealous and say I’m going to save the world in a couple weeks,” he said. “A good piece of wisdom I’ve heard is to go in not knowing what kind of priest you’re going to be. Wait until you meet the people at the parish. Every parish has different needs. Go in being available, ready to learn, ready to be with the people. Wait for the promptings of the Holy Spirit to tell you what to do.”
Moments of grace from various experiences have prepared him for the priesthood, said Fr. Starks. He studied at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago area. He served as an intern at St. Joseph Parish, Wautoma, while a seminarian. This past spring, as a deacon, he served weekends at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Green Bay.
“One of the things I enjoyed about having a year as a deacon is beginning to acclimate to becoming a public minister: assisting with Mass, reading the Gospel, preaching at times. Before and after Mass, you are with the people greeting them. It’s a great transition to begin to be that servant of God.”
Fr. Starks described his experience at St. Philip as a “great blessing to work with both the Anglo and Hispanic communities.” He studied Spanish in high school and college and took part in an immersion experience in Mexico in 2009.
“I knew that we didn’t have many priests in our diocese that speak Spanish, so over time, it became a desire of mine,” he said. “The people at St. Philip were very kind, very gracious and very patient.”
Fr. Starks is thankful for the many priests who have influenced him on his faith journey. Fr. John Girotti, who was his pastor in Marion, and Fr. Tom Long, vicar for ministers and former vocation director for the diocese, had a significant impact, he said. The two priests vested Fr. Starks at the Mass of ordination.
“Fr. Girotti told me eight years ago, ‘During the journey of seminary, there will be several priests who will impact you in several ways because every priest is different. By the end, you will have a blend of different qualities you see in the others.’ I can see that now as I look back,” said Fr. Starks. “It’s a litany of priests who have showed me the different qualities I want to embrace.”
Fr. Starks especially looks forward to sharing the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist with the people of the Quad-Parishes.
“(Reconciliation) is one of God’s greatest gifts for us,” he said. “I think it’s been neglected over recent decades. To be able to share that as a priest is very humbling, but also very beautiful.
“I look forward to sharing with the people Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, a greater devotion to the Eucharist, through Mass and adoration, cultivating that relationship through the Eucharist.”
He will also embrace teaching opportunities.
“Everyone who is a disciple of Christ has a hunger to grow in their faith,” he said. “When I teach, I’m learning myself. I’m growing in my own discipleship. In terms of what that teaching will look like, it won’t necessarily be formal in a school. It may be a Bible study, a class on a certain topic or just the day-to-day catechesis formation that is deposited in everything you do. That’s something that brings me great life, preaching and sharing the beauty of our faith with others.”
Fr. Starks, who will also serve as chaplain for West Side Youth Ministry, celebrated his first Mass on June 1 at St. Mary Church in Marion. On June 7, he will celebrate the 4 p.m. Mass in Wautoma and on June 8, he will celebrate in English at 9:30 a.m. and Spanish at noon at St. Philip in Green Bay. He is where he is meant to serve, he said.
“I grew up in a small town and I can remember being in high school and thinking that I wanted to go off to a big city,” said Fr. Starks. “Over the past eight years, my desire to come back to Wisconsin has grown stronger. This is home. The Green Bay Diocese is my home.”