When Rich Jasper recently traced the course of his life that lead to the priesthood, he said, “As you can see, the Lord writes straight with crooked lines.”
However, in an era when men are often ordained beyond their 20s, Jasper’s vocation path of ardently practicing his faith, teaching it to young people, and sharing it with parishioners and with the needy has had a clear route to the altar in retrospect.
Jasper, 42, will be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Wilmington by Bishop Malooly on May 20 at the Cathedral of St. Peter.
A native of Delaware County, Pa., Jasper, son of Kathryn (Whitworth) and Rick Jasper, grew up in Drexel Hill, Pa., where he attended St. Charles Borromeo School and Monsignor Bonner High School. The family, including Jasper’s brother Brian, still lives in Drexel Hill.
“We were never one of those families that prayed the rosary every night but my mom made sure we went to Mass every Sunday or Saturday night. Dad, to his credit, supported that,” Jasper said.
His father, an Episcopalian, deserves that credit, not to mention paying the Catholic school tuitions for his sons over the years.
“I think the Catholic culture [of the parish] where I (grew up) was such a big part of who we were,” Jasper said.
“I grew up in Catholic school and had a really good experience in grade school. I had the IHM Sisters. I really think that part of the seed of vocation was planted through them.”
Specifically, by his sixth-grade teacher, Sister Julia Marie, who had a love of both diagramming sentences and also asking “quite a few young men,” Jasper said, “did you ever think about having a vocation?”
That thought was reinforced at St. Charles by “a model priest who was there when I was growing up,” he said.
The pastor, Father James F. Gallagher, “was always present. He seemed like a happy priest. That always stuck with me. I hope I can be that positive and happy as a priest.”
Jasper was taught by Augustinians in high school. Those friars at Bonner also made a strong impression, he said, especially theology teacher Father Bill Atkinson, a quadriplegic, who died in 2006 and whose cause for canonization was endorsed by the U.S. bishops in 2015.
After graduating from Bonner in 1992, Jasper received an English and communications degree at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa., in 1996.
“When I was in college, I started going to Mass every day,” Jasper said. “I can’t say why. I think I just started to grow more in prayer and the natural step was to start going to Mass. So that was God at work.
“Mass is where I find my greatest strength and where I’m fed,” he added.
With his college degree, Jasper kept his job at Shadeland Pharmacy, where he had worked since high school, but, with an eye even then toward priesthood, he enrolled in philosophy studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.
In 1998, however, Jasper’s brother Brian was in a car accident that left him paralyzed.
Jasper would visit Brian during his stay at Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation. Sometimes, to take a break from those visits, Jasper said he would drive to St. Mary Magdalen Church in north Wilmington to go to confession. There he met Father Joseph Cocucci, then the associate pastor.
“He was very good to me during the period after my brother had his accident,” Jasper recalled.
Brian Jasper survived the accident without a brain injury, but he can’t walk. He still has the use of his arms and didn’t lose his sense of humor, but the “accident was bad,” Rich Jasper said.
“They say, ‘good comes from tough moments,’” Jasper said. “I think in my own life it has made me more patient, compassionate and understanding, I hope, with people.”
The traumatic event had brought about Jasper’s connection with the Diocese of Wilmington, and he decided to volunteer for a year at Catholic Charities’ Seton Center in Salisbury, Md.
“I did whatever the Sisters of Charity wanted,” Jasper recalled, “everything from intake with food coming in, to the Thrift Shop that they ran. I delivered furniture to farm workers.”
Teaching middle school
After his volunteer year at Seton Center, Jasper returned to Drexel Hill to teach at St. Charles Borromeo School.
“I ended up teaching where I was taught,” he said. “I loved that experience. I taught middle school students — sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I loved working with the kids, especially in middle school as they’re trying to figure out who they are and figure out who God is for them.”
In the classroom, Jasper still thought about a vocation. He said the principal at St. Charles, IHM Sister Eileen Loretta Cassidy, was a helpful sounding board.
“She has been my favorite nun of all time,” Jasper said. “We would have such great talks on faith and God, and she always supported me both in teaching and in going to the seminary.”
When the Philadelphia archdiocese closed St. Charles School in 2007, Jasper took a closer look at a religious vocation when he entered a pre-novitiate program with the Augustinians to become a teaching brother. However, when he considered the Augustinians could assign him to far-flung schools across the country, Jasper decided he’d rather stay closer to his family and decided to return to teaching.
He worked at Sacred Heart School in Manoa, Pa., for two years while the notion of priesthood became stronger for him.
Father Cocucci, who had become Wilmington’s vocation director, had stayed in touch with him and, Jasper said, called him every year. “Are you ready?” he would ask.
In 2012, Jasper was ready, and he entered St. Mary Seminary and University in Baltimore to become a priest for the Diocese of Wilmington.
“I’ve always felt there’s something different about the church in Wilmington,” Jasper said. “I saw it in the sense it was smaller in many ways from the Philadelphia archdiocese experience. I saw the close-knit atmosphere of the church here. I saw that when I was down on the Eastern Shore. There was something about the church in this diocese I just felt the Spirit was attracting me to.”
Jasper praised the clergy of the diocese, too. “The priests here have been really good to me. There’s a good fraternity here. … We look out for each other and support each other.”
Jasper, who served his transitional diaconate at St. Mary Magdalen, thanked the pastor, Father James T. Kirk, and also Father Norman P. Carroll, pastor at St. Elizabeth’s, where Jasper was assigned summers and a pastoral year, as “being fantastic in helping me.”
Surprise call to orders
The years of seminary studies, parish ministry and working with young people came together on April 8 when Bishop Malooly called Jasper to orders during the Youth Pilgrimage Mass April 8 at St. Elizabeth’s Church.
Jasper recalls that Bishop Malooly said, “It gives me great pleasure in this place where you’ve spent so much of your journey and in front of so many people that you’ve given your life to as a teacher, to now call you to orders.”
“I was so humbled by it,” Jasper said. “I was very honored.”
Now officially “cleared” for his May 20 ordination, Jasper said that he “just wants to be a man who brings Christ to others, wherever they are on their journey. I want to be able to pray with them, to celebrate with them in good times, to help them grieve in difficult times.
“I want them to fall in love with God, to know that God loves them through the good times in their lives and through the suffering and crosses that come their way, and to know that the church is always there for them.”