A promise kept

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At 7 p.m. on the second Saturday of every month, more than 400 people gather at St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax for a healing Mass and service. The celebrant is Father Stefan Starzynski, parochial vicar of St. Mary of Sorrows.

It's been a bumpy road for the boy who grew up in Arlington to the man who's an instrument of God's healing.

Father Starzynski was born in Thailand to Paul and Florence Starzynski. His father was an employee of the U. S. Information Service. After traveling the world, the family eventually settled in Arlington.

The Starzynski family was not particularly devout. His mother attended Sunday Mass and they said grace before meals, but that was it.

He said for some inexplicable reason he came home from school one day in the second grade, slammed his fists on the table and said to his mother, "I don't care if God wants me to be a priest, I'm not going."

It was an unusual statement from a child who didn't attend Catholic school until the fourth grade, was not encouraged to find a vocation and who really didn't know any priests.

Another seemingly random event happened when Father Starzynski was a senior at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and began looking at colleges. His father had computer software that would help pick a school that matched criteria entered into the program. Gannon University in Erie, Pa., popped up first on the list. Gannon is a Catholic school located within the boundaries of the Erie Diocese.

He told his mother he was going to Gannon. She asked why.

"I don't know," he told her, "but that's where I'm going."

It was at Gannon where his vocation grew. The religion courses filled him with a desire to become a priest. He applied to the seminary his freshman year, but failed the psychological test because of a lifelong battle with depression.

When he was a junior he attended a pro-life conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. A conference attendee asked him to pray the rosary with him, but he told the young man that he hadn't prayed the rosary since he was in grade school.

He prayed the rosary, and when he returned to Gannon he promised God he would pray the rosary every day. From that moment, his vocation was firm.

"I've kept that promise," he said. "In 21 years, I've never missed a day."

Many days he says the rosary more than once.

It was Father Bob Levis, spiritual director at Gannon, who encouraged the young man's vocation.

Father Starzynski went to Father James R. Gould, then-diocesan director of vocations, looking for another chance.

"Father Gould said that he would take anyone that Father Levis recommends," he said.

He took the psychological test again and passed.

That summer, after applying to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., he went to India to work with Blessed Teresa of Kolkata and waited for his application to be considered. Mother Teresa prayed for him, and his vocation, and he received word that he was accepted.

Father Starzynski was ordained May 18, 1996. At his ordination reception, a friend asked him if he would leave the party and anoint the baby of his neighbors who had been very ill since birth.

He left the celebration, stopping at St. Ann Church in Arlington to pick up sacred oils.

"I went to the hospital and saw the baby," said Father Starzynski.

"Do you believe that the baby will be healed if I anoint him?" he asked the parents. "Yes, we believe that," they answered.

Three days later the family told him their baby was healed.

Father Starzynski began helping Father Horace "Tuck" Grinnell, then pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, with his healing ministry and eventually he began celebrating healing Masses at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, where he was parochial vicar. He continued the healing Masses at St. Patrick Church in Fredericksburg and eventually at St. Mary of Sorrows.

He said that of the hundreds who attend each monthly service, about a third are new. About 20 percent are not Catholic.

Father Starzynski said he believes that God chose him for this ministry because "I needed more healing than most. God (wanted) to heal me and in turn help bring the healing of Jesus to others."

His work in the healing ministry was not something anyone expected him to pursue.

Father Lawrence J. Gesy is a priest in Baltimore and a man who brought the healing ministry to the Arlington Diocese. When Father Starzynski was at Mount St. Mary Seminary, Father Gesy would talk to the seminarians about healing. But Father Starzynski thought that healing was "feel-good fluff."

Father Gesy appreciated the irony of Father Starzynski's work.

"Of all the seminarians that he knew I was the last one he thought would get involved in the healing ministry," he said.

Father Starzynski authored a book on miracles: Miracles: Healing for a Broken World. The proceeds from the book help fund another of Father Starzynski's projects, the Paul Stefan Foundation, which operates three homes for unwed mothers.

God chose Father Starzynski to be a healing minister, but he believes that we are all called to bring healing to the world through prayer - something we're all capable of.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011