By Sue Schwind
For The Catholic Messenger
The room was pitch black. Far behind the gathered crowd, a deep booming voice sang, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” That was Father Jim Vrba, appearing as John the Baptist in a 2018 performance of the musical “Godspell” at St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, where he serves as pastor. Parishes he has served know well his musical ability.
Father Vrba loves the variety of experiences of a priest. He felt a calling to be a priest beginning in second grade when he played out the Mass, making hosts out of Wonder Bread. Even when visiting his grandparents in Chicago, he would perform the Mass in the kitchen with the help of his cousin, Janet, as his altar server.
He grew up in DeWitt and attended St. Joseph Catholic School there. After the high school closed, he attended Central DeWitt for his senior year. He was very interested in serving as an altar server, playing the organ and leading the funeral choir during those high school years.
Father Frank Kelley asked the future Father Vrba to help with the Holy Week liturgy when the young man was still in high school, during the beginning of Vatican II. He felt honored that the pastor asked him to play music according to the new directives, especially on these solemn feast days.
During his senior year of high school, Vrba met with a high school counselor to talk about career choices. He expressed interest in two things: to be an elementary teacher or to enter the priesthood. The counselor encouraged the teaching vocation while trying to dissuade Vrba from any thoughts about the priesthood.
The young man enrolled at St. Ambrose College in Davenport and commuted for three semesters from DeWitt. While living on campus and becoming acquainted with college seminarians, Vrba realized the priesthood was his true calling.
Vrba entered the seminary during his junior year and continued his formation at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was ordained to the priesthood in Davenport at Sacred Heart Cathedral in 1977. He has served at a number of parishes, including Holy Family in Davenport, St. Mary in Clinton, St. Patrick in Iowa City, and parishes in Grand Mound, Wilton and Solon. He also taught at Assumption High School in Davenport for five years from 1979-1984 while serving at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport.
For many years, Father Vrba served as the chair of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission helping with musical workshops around the diocese and offering liturgical education. Father also helped with the designing and building of the new church at St. Mary Parish in Wilton. “It was an enjoyable and creative project.” The reconciliation chapel features a doorknob with a handle crafted in the shape of a serpent to remind the faithful of the story of Adam and Eve. Father enjoys the ways in which liturgy and art speak to the congregation in unique ways.
Serving as liturgist and musician for three retreats given for Catholic Army chaplains is among the highlights of his priesthood, he said.
The retreats took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Bavaria, Germany.
The biggest highlight of being a priest, he says, is celebrating the Eucharist and the sacraments. “In the consecration of the bread and wine at Mass when I say, ‘This is my body; this is my blood, given to you,’ the words become a very personal description of my priestly ministry.”
Father Vrba says, “The life of a priest gives us the opportunity to be a part of the very special times in the lives of parishioners. The priesthood is never boring; every day is varied and different. Young people can begin to discern God’s call by being involved in the life of their local parishes, especially in the liturgical ministries.”
(Sue Schwind is a member of the Sacred Heart Vocations Committee.)