November 8, 2019

Father Godecker celebrates 50 years of ‘being Christ for others’

Father Jeffrey Godecker celebrates Mass at Nuevo Paraiso, a community for neglected children in Honduras, during a parish mission trip while he was pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Father Jeffrey Godecker celebrates Mass at Nuevo Paraiso, a community for neglected children in Honduras, during a parish mission trip while he was pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

As they grow, many children change their answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

But not Father Jeffrey Godecker.

“I never wanted to be anything else,” he says. “I have no memory of wanting to be anything else but a priest.”

His desire was fulfilled when he was ordained an archdiocesan priest on May 24, 1969.

Now, after 50 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, he reflects on his multi-faceted—and continuing—ministry of sharing the Good News in central and southern Indiana and beyond.

‘It set us out on mission’

Father Godecker grew up in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. His pastor was a “big influence” on him and his desire to become a priest, he says. But his greatest inspiration did not wear clerics.

“My Baptist grandmother was such an impressive woman with great faith,” he recalls. “She had a tough life. She used to sit in her rocker and sing ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’ … I carry that image with me, and I carried it with me into the priesthood.”

Father Godecker pursued his call to the priesthood as early as possible. Not only did he receive his master’s of divinity from Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad in 1969. He also graduated from Saint Meinrad’s former seminary high school and former seminary college.

It was during his college years that a tidal change occurred in the Church.

“Vatican II was wonderful, freeing,” said Father Godecker of the Vatican’s second ecumenical council from 1962-1965. “It loosened up a lot of us to develop ourselves rather than become cookie-cutter priests.

“Theology became very scriptural, whereas before it was very scholastic. It got us out on the streets. It set us out on mission.”

While he ministered in several parishes during his five decades as a priest, many of Father Godecker’s assignments revolved around education. He has served as a teacher; director of high school, deanery and archdiocesan religious education departments; and ministered as a chaplain in Indianapolis at Butler University and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

His involvement in education was “not something I planned, for sure,” he says. “I didn’t want to teach. Of course, I got assigned as a [high school] teacher on my first assignment and found out I love it. … It brought me joy. The enthusiasm of the young, their vibrancy as I grew older—that gave me energy.”

‘He’s a renaissance man’

Among those vibrant youths at IUPUI during his chaplaincy there in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a young man named Chris Wadelton. Father Wadelton, who now serves as pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus, says Father Godecker was one of the influences on his decision to become a priest.

“He engaged us and was able to relate to college students very well,” he says. “He provided a spring break alternative to West Virginia to do service work. He took us on backpacking, canoeing and camping trips.”

Father Godecker admits he “loves backpacking and canoeing.” He led similar trips for men when he was pastor at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Indianapolis.

“It was a ministry,” he says. “It got all these men to relax and quit the fast pace and stress of business. … We would have prayer every day, have Mass. Men came back better able to serve.”

He recalls the service trips to West Virginia and the men’s camping trips as “some of the greatest moments of my priesthood.

“Taking people out of their environment and introducing them to new kinds of environments is very important. It gets them out of themselves, ... introduces them to different people, different economic conditions and cultures. And that all expands their lives—they certainly expanded mine.”

Father Wadelton agrees his life and priesthood were expanded by Father Godecker and the experiences he provided.

“If I had to describe him in one word, it would be ‘broad,’ ” says the younger priest. “He has broad interests from outdoors to travel to food, theater and music. He’s an avid reader. He’s a very creative man, and he uses that creativity effectively in his ministry.”

Immaculate Heart of Mary parishioner Ellen Healey describes Father Godecker in much the same way.

“He’s a renaissance man,” she says. “He has such wide interests in so many fields. His homilies are great—he draws on all his knowledge. He was well-liked by the parish,” where he celebrated his anniversary Mass on June 2.

He is also “very pastoral, kind and understanding,” adds Healey, 92. She recalls a time when there was an emergency in her family, and she called Father Godecker.

“He was on his way to Bloomington, and he offered to come right back,” she says. “I tear up just thinking about it.

“He had a tremendous impact on me. He was such a human person. He shared his trials with others, and that helps so much. He greatly inspired me and deepened my faith. He’s unsparing of himself.”

But he had a tendency to “work too hard,” she adds.

‘Retired in theory’

That tendency has not stopped. Father Godecker says he is “retired in theory,” and a look at his recent activities proves his point.

At 76, Father Godecker completed five years of directing continuing education for priests. He is now helping with spiritual formation for archdiocesan deacons.

He lives in a home on the grounds of Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. With Cathedral High School next door, Father Godecker says he celebrates Mass there occasionally, and also at other parishes.

But he also makes time to continue hiking throughout the United States and abroad. On Jan. 1 this year, he traveled to New Zealand for a hiking trip. He had just deboarded the plane when the unthinkable happened.

“I was standing in line and a doctor was right behind me when I had a cardiac arrest,” he recalls. He had open heart surgery and spent six weeks recuperating in New Zealand.

“I was well-cared for,” he says. Father Wadelton flew over to assist him, as well as family members.

Fully recovered and undaunted, Father Godecker hopes to return to New Zealand next year.

‘Being there at significant moments’

As with his trip to New Zealand, Father Godecker says he has “loved the priesthood and loved the journey, but it’s not been without its mistakes and challenges and difficulties,” such as trying to satisfy others as a pastor when “people expect different things.”

Today there are different challenges, notes Father Godecker.

“The culture and the moral divide in the Church are so hard to navigate,” he says. “The key question is, how do we be compassionate toward everybody while sticking by our moral principles? That’s a huge tension.”

Yet giving and receiving compassion remains one of the highlights of Father Godecker’s 50 years as a priest.

“It’s those one-on-one experiences with people, being there with people at the significant moments of their lives—weddings, funerals and other kinds of growth points and crises.

“I love being Christ for others in some way, and allowing them to be Christ for me.” †

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