The road to the priesthood took Transitional Deacon Lukasz Kopala from Poland to the United States four years ago. Deacon Kopala, who spent his pastoral year at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Niagara Falls, will be ordained by Bishop Richard J. Malone at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo on June 6.
Deacon Kopala, who celebrated his 35th birthday on June 2, taught religious education to sixth-grade students at Catholic Academy of Niagara Falls, where he shared stories of his life in Poland, talked about the importance of vocations and was involved with youth ministry. He participated in St. Vincent de Paul's RCIA program for adults interested in becoming new members of the Catholic Church.
As of early May, he preached at daily Masses on Tuesdays and Thursdays, gave homilies at weekend Masses once a month and participated in weddings, baptisms and funeral arrangements.
"I go to the school to be with the kids, because they have Catholic Academy. I see the kids and talk to them about Jesus, about faith, about church and who is a deacon and who is a priest," Deacon Kopala commented. "I gave them some idea about it, and also showed myself to them. I am a man who will be ordained soon, (and) I saw people in nursing homes and hospitals."
Deacon Kopala said he enjoys ministering to children since he can also share stories from his childhood and youth in the small southeastern Polish town of Ropczyce. Although he spoke little English when he first came to the United States, his grasp of the language has improved from daily use. He also spent a year studying English at the State University of New York at Buffalo to help him even more.
"I teach them about God; they teach me about English," Deacon Kopala said of his interactions with the children he taught at Catholic Academy, whom he visited several times a week.
He also visited patients in nursing homes and participated in Masses. If one wants to truly find God in his or her life, going to visit sick people is a good way to do this, he reflected. "These people also helped me to see how to take the focus off of myself, but to see the needs of others. Life is not simply about myself, but is in serving other people. It is through these experiences that we see Jesus in other people."
As he gains experience in serving others, Deacon Kopala has experienced the daily routines of life in an American parish. He realizes how important it is as a priest to be "fully present to each and every parishioner" by attending social functions at the parish. By doing so, he made himself "present to assist and participate, so as to allow (himself) to be a visible and active presence" to all the parishioners.
While at the parish, Deacon Kopala attended many of the social functions at St. Vincent de Paul in order to become more immersed in parish life. Some of the events there have included parish picnics, pancake breakfasts and social gatherings with youth. "I have tried to actively participate in all the parish ministries, as well as the social events that take place at this parish," Deacon Kopala said.
When asked what he likes the most about St. Vincent de Paul, Deacon Kopala said the parishioners been "very welcoming," more so than he was expecting, which enhanced his experience.
"The parishioners have been so wonderful, very welcoming and supportive. Their thoughtfulness and prayers helped me so much on this last year of my journey to priesthood," he said.
As a seminarian, Deacon Kopala would sometimes go to schools, but he is grateful that St. Vincent de Paul has one so he can experience a Catholic school and be with children. While living at the rectory of St. Vincent de Paul, both pastor Father Robert Hughson and parochial vicar Father Andrew Lauricella took Deacon Kopala under their wings, making him feel more comfortable and teaching him.
"I think the pastor was too, but I would especially like to say thank you to Father Andrew, who really helped me, especially at the beginning," Deacon Kopala said. "Being a deacon is different than being a seminarian. At the beginning, it was kind of difficult, so he always was very open in helping to teach me about baptisms, funerals and all of these things. I usually go with him to nursing homes."
Deacon Kopala thanked God Himself and His people for their prayers and support, his mother and late father and his brothers, Raphael and Thomas, for their support during his formation years.
Others to whom he offered thanks were Father Bernard Nowak, pastor of Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park, his home parish in Western New York; his "American family" Kathy and Frank Stock; close friend Msgr. George Brennan; Father Leon Biernat, pastor of St. Gregory the Great in Williamsville; Father Jozef Dudzik, a Polish native and pastor of St. Brendan on the Lake Parish in Newfane; Father Bryan Zielenieski, administrator of St. Christopher in Tonawanda and spiritual director Father Joseph Burke.
He also extended his gratitude to friends Diane and Michael Melerski, Francesca Speranza and Ellen and John Schreier of Orchard Park, where he previously lived, and family friend Zbyszek Bryja.