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(Editor’s note: In conjunction with the Year for Priests, The Criterion is publishing a monthly feature titled “Faithful Fathers.” We plan to continue to profile a priest from each deanery during the next eight months.)
Born and raised in Indianapolis, he grew up in Holy Cross Parish until he was 14. His family then lived briefly in St. Philip Neri Parish in Indianapolis before moving to Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove.
For 22 of the 43 years he has been a priest, he has served as pastor of the two main parishes of his youth: Holy Cross and Holy Name.
Returning to be pastor of Holy Cross and Holy Name parishes—“It keeps you a little humble when there are people in the pew who knew you in grade school at Holy Cross. At Holy Name, there were people who knew me all through the seminary.
“When I became pastor of Holy Cross [in 1996], it felt like a homecoming. Of course, it was a little different from when I grew up. The school was smaller. When I drove through the neighborhood, my initial reaction was to be depressed. Then I turned a corner and saw an older woman talking across a fence to a younger woman with a baby. That seemed hopeful to me.”
Call to the priesthood—“It happened in the sixth grade here. When I was in the sixth grade in this Irish-Catholic neighborhood, being a priest was an important thing. It was the most important thing I could think of. I sometimes joke that I wanted the front seat in the church. They just didn’t tell me that when I was sitting in that front seat, I had to worry about paying the bills.”
The best part of being a priest—“It’s the people and the interaction with people in significant moments of their lives—funerals, weddings, when they’re sick. And the liturgy is a huge part of that interaction with people. A young priest once told me, ‘Sunday morning is when I get to spend time with my favorite people.’ I agree.”
Helping people in need—Father Voelker is a past director of the archdiocesan Catholic Charities. Holy Cross Parish is in a neighborhood challenged by poverty.
“Helping people has always been important to me. It forces you to build partnerships. If I can’t do this, who can do it, and how can I make the connections? We’ve recently spent a lot of time here asking about our role in the neighborhood. The stability of schools is very important to the near east side. Our school means stability for the people who live here, and it offers an alternative for people moving into the neighborhood. There’s a lot of rehab work going on in the neighborhood. We’re seeing young people moving back.”
Serving as a chaplain at the nearby Indiana Women’s Prison—“I really enjoy it. …We have Bible study on Tuesday nights, and I say Mass there on Sundays. Someone once asked me what’s my goal when I go out there and work with them. I try not to know what they’re in for. I just want them to know [that] God loves them.”
His role as director of spiritual formation for the archdiocesan Office of Deacon Formation—“I’m really proud of the guys who are in the deacon program. For me, the important part is the linking of the diaconate with the service ministry, and watching them grow in their spirituality. What they do on the altar is important, but what they do away from the altar is really important. If we had a deacon here, I’d want him to be known for his service to the poor.”
His term as a legislator for the state of Indiana—Father Voelker served as an Indiana state representative from 1971-72.
“In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was very involved in a community organization on the south side of Indianapolis. I had one brief stint in politics serving a term in the state legislature. The voters saved the pope from telling me to get out. From that experience, I can see the wisdom of priests not being involved in partisan politics.”
The image of the lion and lamb resting together in artwork in his office, and how that relates to his priesthood—“In the last two situations I’ve gone into, I knew there was conflict in the parish. When God comes into our life, things that often don’t seem to fit together can be at peace together, like the lion and the lamb. I’ve sometimes done some fantasizing when looking at the lion and the lamb—wondering what they are thinking. I sometimes imagine the lamb thinking, ‘I wish you wouldn’t look at me that way.’ ”
The significance of the large picture that fills the wall behind his desk, a picture that captures a defiant older man holding a cup of coffee—“I was at a meeting in Chicago for Catholic Charities about 30 years ago when I got it. For some reason, it captured me. He’s a crusty old man. He has that look in his eyes like, ‘You’re not going to fool me.’ There’s a strength there.
“Over the years, I’ve met a number of crusty old men who don’t care what people think of them, and they’re going to do what needs to be done. In helping people with spiritual direction, I’ve found myself describing my encounters with crusty old men and having tears in my eyes. I don’t consider myself a crusty old man. I still worry about what other people think. My goal is to be a crusty old man.”