Strength in Weakness

by Rev. Mark Stang as told to Sister Vera Gallagher, R.G.S.

I am the fifth of ten children born to Andrew and Edith Stang, St. Nicholas, MN, dairy farmers near St. Nicholas, MN. I have always had a difficult time in school, perhaps because in the third grade I was put back into the first grade for reading. From thence I really never could comprehend reading material throughout my many years of studies.

I loved farming and was totally at ease on the farm with my father. When I graduated in 1976 from Kimball High School, I went to study Soil Management and Fertilizer Technology at Camby Area Vocational School in Minnesota. Then, while I was still a teenager I managed a fertilizer plant near my home town of Cold Springs, MN. However, my career as a fertilizer plant manager was short because opportunity knocked when my dad asked me to take over the family dairy farm.

I farmed with my dad for five years, trying to ignore the tiny tugs on my heart to an impossible call: the call to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. I felt certain that God would not really call me: shy, scared of crowds, too stupid for higher education. I despised any kind of books. Besides, I loved to farm, and my dad and I made a great team. I wanted to be like dad: get married and farm and raise a family.

Eventually, after five years of farming and the continuous tugs at my heartstrings to become a priest, I decided to give the seminary a try for six months, so I could get it out of my system. Of course, I couldn’t keep up with my studies and that would end my supposed vocation. Then I could farm with a good conscience.

I began the four years of college in the winter/spring semester of 1983, Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary-College, Winona, MN. Classes were difficult. I remember, several times, walking back from the college to the seminary, recalling how pleasant life was on the farm, and how difficult and unappealing were the studies. I begged God to give me a sign that I was not called to the priesthood. Right about the same time a priest told me how, all during seminary, he spent an hour a day before the tabernacle, praying. I decided to do the same, even though I needed all the time for my studies. It was difficult. Worse, I couldn’t pray. Most of my prayer-time was desolate and lonesome, with no experience of Jesus’ presence. Often my prayer would be, simply, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” No bright lights; no answer from God. All I heard was silence; even so, the next day I returned and did the same.

Throughout the seminary I suffered much desolation. But I trusted the wisdom of my spiritual directors and the staff at the seminary. I believed that God does speak through others, especially those who are wise, and who have already traveled the same road.

My six-month plan to try out the seminary turned to a year, and then another, and another…The decision was tough, but I sold my half of the farm back to my dad, and stayed in the struggle.

I completed my undergraduate degree at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary-College in Winona. Then I moved on to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland for the graduate studies required for ordination. The first year was academically stressful. During the second year I was intellectually so burned out that I suffered a psychological mind block. I simply could not keep up.

After two weeks of frustration, I decided to leave the seminary. Early on a Saturday morning, I was packed and ready to go when I decided to attend early morning Mass. It was no special Mass, and I was distracted by thoughts of the first hours of my return home; particularly, I wanted to visit my brother Mike in New Hampshire. But when I went up for Communion, as soon as Jesus was placed on my tongue, my legs went out from under me. They felt like rubber. I stumbled back to my pew, and then saw a vision of myself vested, offering the holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I cried and asked God: “What does this mean?” After three hours of intense prayer, I went back to my room and unpacked my bags, and started my homework once again.

Throughout the seminary my prayer had been: “God, show me your will. Help me to know your will, and do your will.” That prayer held little consolation. But I had trusted the wisdom of the seminary staff. I believe God speaks through others who have developed wisdom by having plodded down the same road.

One fact I did notice. In my misery, God spoke to me. I have always struggled with my pride, always wanted to be “the best” at whatever. Now I discovered this pride obstructed God’s voice in me. I learned this first from Bishop Dudley of Sioux Falls, SD. He asked us, “Are you weak enough to be a priest?” I realized that my pride blocked God’s response to my prayer for guidance. Finally, I grasped an insight foreign to the kind of person I am: When I am the most poor, the most vulnerable, the weakest – then God speaks to me.

My prayer became one of humility. I realized that a priest had to empty himself to become another Christ. I understood that I had to ditch my pride, creating the opening for God to speak to and for me.

And yet, I fought the same old battle: I wanted to leave for home, the farm, raising a family. I know God wants us to be at peace when we make a life-commitment. This time, God left the decision totally up to me. He would accompany me either way. The old thoughts kept racing through my mind: you are not smart enough, not good enough for ordination. Such thoughts, eventually I realized, did not come from God, so as soon as I recognized them I said, “Be gone, Satan!” I discovered that commitment to God carries peace.

That February we made our annual retreat. Late one night, I went into the chapel, knelt before the tabernacle, and gave my whole life to God: my sexuality, my talents, my everything. Then I prayed that my heart might be united to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As I prayed with closed eyes, I got a vision of a man in a dark abyss: “You can’t ask that; you are not worthy; you have committed too many sins. “Satan,” I cried out, “Be gone!” Instantly the darkness was gone and a bright, warm feeling came over me and a Voice that said, “Do you realize what you are asking?” Somebody else then walked into the chapel. I moved, still shaking with what was said, and moved to the icon of Mary. I asked her to take my hand and lead me through whatever God might have planned for me.

Only two weeks later, I found an abnormal lump in my abdomen. I went to the Mayo Clinic, Rochester. Several doctors studied the lump and diagnosed malignant lymphoma cancer. During Holy Week the surgeon operated. On April 26 I started chemotherapy. This treatment usually made me very sick for about a week.

On June 24 I was ordained a deacon. Then on June 25 the doctors put me through a CAT scan. It revealed three additional tumors – they had developed while I was undergoing chemo. The doctors at Mayo said I had little hope of survival; maybe I had one year left.

The doctors recommended intensive treatment, including bone marrow transplants and long hospitalization. I needed time to think and find God in all this.

Next day, before the Blessed Sacrament, I asked God, “What more do you want? I gave you my all.” God filled the place with his presence, and I saw Jesus, hands outreached, saying, “Just trust me. I’ll be with you. I will not let you go.”

The next day the Bishop offered to ordain me one year ahead of time so that I could reach the priesthood before undergoing the long and difficult treatment proposed.

At times, I felt abandoned by God, left in total darkness. However, way off in the distance, I could see a small beacon of light. I believe that light was Jesus and I had to keep my eyes focused on Him. I felt sad and scared to leave my family and friends at such a young age.

I saw this cancer as a gift. It gave me the gift of weakness, and in my weakness I could empty myself, and Jesus could fill me with Himself. Then it wasn’t Mark Stang being a priest, but Jesus being the Priest in Mark Stang.

I asked the doctor to hold the treatment for three months so that I could prepare for ordination. He refused, saying that my tumors were growing too fast for long delays. Reluctantly they gave me six weeks, and set up another CAT scan for August 28th.

I was ordained to the priesthood on August 25th at St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud. I celebrated my First Mass at my home parish in St. Nicholas Church, St. Nicholas, MN. Then I celebrated a private Mass for the immediate members of my family, and immediately afterwards headed out to the Mayo Clinic. After a full day of tests, the doctors discovered that the tumors had disappeared! The doctors could give no explanation. There was a small plum-sized area the doctors were concerned about. They recommended more treatment, but I asked that they wait until October. In October, the CAT scan revealed that the mass had not developed further, but as a precaution, they gave me chemo for that mass. After two months, they did another CAT scan and found it the same size. They concluded that they were really treating scar tissue. The first tumor had been so large it had left a large scar.

So now, I am in total clinical remission of cancer. Will it come back? Only God knows.

God tries us in various ways -- for me, cancer and reading problems; for another, alcoholism; for another, life with a handicap, and so on. I wonder why people treat those who suffer as one who is less of a person when, in fact, they are more of a person in the eyes of God, particularly if they can allow God to enter into their pain.

Now I pray with many persons who suffer from all types of illness and loneliness. Some of these are bitter at God’s will; others abandon their lives into God’s hands. These latter minister to me. It is my experience that the many times I struggled with pride, trying to take life into my own hands, I was like a ball of clay – dry, hard, and crumbling. But when I suffered the most; when I experienced the depth of my weakness, then my clay became soft and malleable. Then God could shape and form me into His beautiful instrument stamped with His own image.

When we are most weak, then God makes us strong.

scan of a newspaper report about Fr. Stang.