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Father Christopher Cordes hasn’t forgotten the advice an old friend gave him about preaching homilies at Mass.
“Pick out one point, hit everybody right between the eyes with it, and then shut up and sit down,” the friend suggested.
“I don’t know if I always get that right, but it has probably kept some homilies shorter and closer to the point than they might have been,” said Fr. Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest of the Jefferson City diocese.
He said he’s grateful for “faith, family, friends, the parishes I’ve been and am in, the Priesthood and the life I have.”
A son of Geraline “Gerrie” and the late Thomas Cordes Jr., he grew up in a devout Catholic family in Jefferson City and attended St. Peter Interparish School and Helias Catholic High School.
He said he had “too many good teachers to count.”
Saundra Allen was his fifth-grade homeroom and subjects teacher at St. Peter School.
“She was a great teacher who was joyful and encouraging and affirming and challenged everyone to do and be their best,” he recalled.
He grew closer to God in high school.
“My faith became more important to me and I knew that I wanted to live a committed Catholic life and put my faith into practice,” he said.
He was a member of Helias Catholic’s varsity football team during its 1984 “Quest for the Best” state championship season.
“Coach Ray Hentges was my coach and was also a faith inspiration at a time in my life when I needed it,” the priest recalled.
The young athlete, whose father had played on Jefferson City High School’s varsity football team at the beginning of its record-setting winning streak — had to miss two years of all sports because of a bone condition in his wrist.
“Coach Hentges’s example and the way he talked about his faith in religion class helped me accept that in a better way than I would have otherwise,” said Fr. Cordes.
Sports bolstered his high school education.
“I learned commitment, dealing with adversity, and the importance of working together on a common goal,” he recalled.
With thoughts of becoming a high school teacher and coach, he went to study English at what is now Truman State University in Kirksville, where he quickly became active in Catholic campus ministry at the Newman Center.
“I was on team for a couple of Teens Encounter Christ weekends each year of college,” he said. “I got involved in a Bible study and I took a course called ‘History of American Religious Thought’ and enjoyed it more than any of my other classes.”
Joy and hope
He started thinking about Priesthood during his first year of college but waited two years to start looking into it.
“The initial reluctance moved in the direction of a persistent possibility,” he said. “Even so, I kind of had a feeling of ‘should’ more than ‘want’ for a while.”
He decided to finish his degree at Truman before considering the seminary.
Over time, he became more confident that God wanted him to be a priest and that it would be the best commitment for him to make.
His mother was very happy at the prospect.
“I’m the only son in my family and it was harder for my dad, especially at first,” he recalled. “But he was supportive of me in whatever I decided to do, and eventually was at peace with it and happy about it.”
Fr. Cordes spent two years in pre-theology at Conception Seminary College in Conception before moving on to theology studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
He enjoyed what he was learning, especially systematic theology, psychology, Church history, Scripture, moral theology and the Documents of the Second Vatican Council.
“The best thing was spending time with people who had the same goals and general values I had, in a prayerful and discernment-oriented community,” he said.
He spent two summers in Denver working at a camp for young people from low-income families. Another summer brought him to Washington, D.C., to work with the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition.
Other ministry assignments included the St. Joseph State Hospital in St. Joseph, and St. Mary’s Health Center and the Samaritan Center, both in Jefferson City.
He served as an acolyte at Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City and as a transitional deacon at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia.
He continued to struggle with the prospect of never getting married and having a family of his own.
“It took a lot of prayer and encouragement and knowledge of myself and trust in God, and I eventually made the decision that this is what I want to do,” he said.
“The reassurance came from the sense that this really is the best life for me and who I am and I have to trust that God and grace will be there when I need it most,” he said.
On May 20, 1995, in St. Peter Church in Jefferson City, Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe, now deceased, ordained him to the Holy Priesthood.
Mr. Hentges and Mrs. Allen proclaimed the readings.
“This is a happy time for me,” Fr. Cordes said at the time. “My life has been filled with people and experiences that have given me much joy and hope. Ordination is a time to celebrate that.”
“Ready for anything”
Fr. Cordes served for four years as associate pastor of Cathedral of St. Joseph parish in Jefferson City and as sacramental minister at St. Michael parish in Russellville.
Monsignor Michael Wilbers, now retired, was his pastor.
“He gave me quite a bit of responsibility and was very affirming of how I was doing,” said Fr. Cordes. “I learned that you have to be ready for just about anything, and I learned that people appreciate priests and are supportive of them.”
He then served as pastor of St. Mary parish in Shelbina and St. Patrick parish in Clarence, then as pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Montgomery City and sacramental minister of St. Patrick parish in Jonesburg.
In Shelbina, he worked with parishioners to get an elevator installed in St. Mary Church, so people who could no longer climb the steps could start going to Mass again.
He then served as pastor of Mary Immaculate parish in Kirksville and the mission of St. Rose of Lima in Novinger for seven years before being appointed pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in 2015.
He and the Mary Immaculate parishioners reached a consensus to renovate their existing church in Kirksville rather than build a new one.
In Columbia, he helped oversee the building of a 25,000-square-foot addition to Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School.
“I’ve enjoyed and learned from and grown in my faith in all the parishes I’ve been assigned to,” he said.
He believes it’s important to draw on those experiences into ministry to the diocese. He has served on the diocesan Presbyteral Council, the Ministry to Priests committee, the Diocesan Pastoral Council and the leadership team for the “Disciples in Mission” parish renewal program.
“I’ve enjoyed working with all three bishops and many diocesan staff members,” he said.
Fr. Cordes describes himself as “a Catholic priest who finds that serving the Church brings meaning and joy to my life.”
He remains convinced that the Catholic Church contains the fullness of the truth that Jesus Christ revealed about God.
The sacraments help define the Priesthood, since the priest represents the sacramental presence of Christ in the Church.
“But it’s more than that,” Fr. Cordes stated. “A priest also hopes to be the presence of Christ in the life situations where people encounter him. It’s the unique combination of the two — making Christ sacramentally present and relationally or pastorally or interpersonally present.”
Fr. Cordes enjoys the variety that priestly ministry affords him.
“Every day is different,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a Mass, sometimes a conversation with someone, sometimes a hospital visit, sometimes a young person or older person.”
He still gets nervous about preaching homilies, but he likes having to do it because it requires him to pray and reflect more about life and faith and put it into words.
He remains prayerful through all of this, “trying to ‘hear’ what God is saying in the middle of things.”
His priest support group has been meeting regularly for 20 years and provides accountability and fellowship with priests he enjoys spending time with.
In his spare time, he enjoys visiting with family and friends, walking, listening to music, traveling to see historical sites, assembling photos into albums, reading, and playing some golf.
He said his sisters and their families have included him in their lives in very meaningful and joyful ways.
Struggle and joy
For men who believe they might be called to the Priesthood, Fr. Cordes recommends “praying long and hard about it.”
“Make sure you care about people,” he said. “Realize that it’s about prayer and sacraments but also about practical situations and people, and you find joy and struggle in both, but the joy and satisfaction and meaning outweigh the struggle.”
His favorite saints are St. Katharine Drexel, because she’s an American who forsook wealth in order to become a religious sister and used her wealth to help people in need, and St. Martin de Porres, who was poor and rejected but lived with joy and served the poor.
His favorite Scripture passage is 1 Corinthians 13, “because it gives a practical and inspirational vision of what love really is.”
His favorite prayer is the one attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, which begins with, “Make me an instrument of Your peace.”
For his silver jubilee, Fr. Cordes asks for prayers for “wisdom, acceptance, hope, joy, perseverance, compassion and humility.”