A group of seminarians were on a nine-week pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Alone one morning in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Rev. Mr. Derek Hooper lay prostrate at the place where Jesus died on the cross.
“I had this inspiration to tell God, ‘I’m ready to lay my life down for You,’” said Rev. Mr. Hooper, a transitional deacon for the Jefferson City diocese.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight plans to ordain Rev. Mr. Hooper to the Holy Priesthood at 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 5, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City.
All are invited to attend.
The Mass will be livestreamed on the diocese’s Vimeo channel at vimeo.com/diojeffcity.
“I’m just asking for the grace to be the priest God wants me to be,” said Rev. Mr. Hooper, “to be good, holy and faithful and bring God’s love to the people He’s going to entrust to me down the road.”
The ordination will take place the weekend the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
“God’s timing is impeccable with this,” said Rev. Mr. Hooper. “I’ve always had a special place for the Eucharist in my heart. It is the manifestation of God’s love for us. It has been bringing people closer to God for centuries.”
Rev. Mr. Hooper’s younger brother, Father Gabriel Greer, a priest of the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, will ceremonially help Rev. Mr. Hooper put on his priestly vestments during the Ordination Mass.
“I’m really excited about that,” Rev. Mr. Hooper stated. “It’s one more reminder of how many ways God has been working in my life and bringing me to this point of joy and anticipation.”
Along the way
Rev. Mr. Hooper was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Southeastern Kansas.
His family put their Catholic faith into practice.
His high school chaplain and the young and exuberant priests at his home parish made a strong impression on him.
Young Derek first thought about becoming a priest when he was 12 or 13, but other aspirations prevailed.
He served two years in the U.S. Army before enrolling at Pittsburg State University in Kansas to study finance.
He learned the story of Servant of God Father Emil Kaupan, a priest of the Wichita diocese who ministered heroically as an Army chaplain before dying in a prison camp during the Korean War.
“I’ve had a devotion to him since my own time in the Army,” Rev. Mr. Hooper said of Fr. Kapaun, whose sainthood cause is now under consideration. “I attribute my making it through that time period to his intercession.”
He added that if he could be “half the priest” that Fr. Kapaun was, “I would be doing pretty well for the Church.”
The Catholic Newman Center at Pittsburg State brought Rev. Mr. Hooper into contact with people who are now some of his best friends.
“My prayer life really started taking off there,” he recalled. “We prayed the Liturgy of the Hours regularly as a group. We prayed Rosaries, went to Mass and all sorts of stuff.”
He also discovered a gift for ministering to young people.
“I enjoyed being with kids, interacting with them, helping them try to grow in the faith,” he said.
After graduating, he went to the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas, to pursue a Master of Business Management (MBA) degree in corporate finance and sports and entertainment management.
By then, his brother Gabe, eight years his junior, was discerning Priesthood at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Rev. Mr. Hooper had a flash of inspiration near the end of graduate school while visiting his brother in the seminary: “Wouldn’t it be cool if you and he were in the same ordination class?”
He didn’t like the idea of foregoing marriage and family, but he was moved by the example of faith, prayer and service he had observed in several priests.
He applied and was accepted into priestly formation for the Wichita diocese.
He entered and left the seminary twice in the following 11 years.
“I wasn’t at peace with where I was,” he recalled. “I knew I needed some time away.”
Right at home
In between, he worked for a while as an accountant for a manufacturing company in Pittsburg, where he would discuss philosophy with his coworkers during down time, then as an instructor of Church history, morality and the teachings of the Church at his alma mater, St. Mary’s-Colgan Catholic High School in Pittsburg.
“I really came into my own while teaching the faith, working with the kids,” he said.
His brother, newly ordained, was now serving at Church of the Magdalen Parish in Wichita.
His pastor was Father Shawn McKnight, who was about to become bishop of Jefferson City.
Fr. Greer told his brother, “If still you feel any indication that you’re being called to Priesthood, give Bishop McKnight a call.”
Rev. Mr. Hooper had been praying throughout that year for some clear direction.
“God opened doors that I never expected Him to open,” he said.
Bishop McKnight invited him to spend a year teaching at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City and learning about his new diocese.
“I really loved that,” said Rev. Mr. Hooper. “From very early on, I knew the peace that I had been missing. I felt at home.”
The joy and satisfaction of teaching young people and interacting with their families helped solidify his calling.
“Kids are sometimes some of the most brutally honest people on earth,” he noted. “It was good to get positive feedback from them.”
Bishop McKnight sent Rev. Mr. Hooper back to Mundelein Seminary in Chicago to complete his theology studies.
He said his mother is “super-excited” about him pursuing the Priesthood.
His late father was similarly pleased.
“One of the last things he said to me before he passed away was, ‘I’m happy for you. You’re going to do what you love. You’re going to be great, and I can’t wait to hear you preach someday,’” Rev. Mr. Hooper recalled.
His friends are also happy to see him persevere in searching for and following God’s will.
“They keep telling me I’ll be a great priest,” he said. “I trust their judgement.”
No greater love
Rev. Mr. Hooper and his fellow third-year theology students at Mundelein made their Holy Land pilgrimage shortly before being ordained transitional deacons last year.
While taking classes, they visited the holy sites and followed in the steps of Jesus in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
“It was so intense, this outpouring of grace, that it’s taken a good chunk of this past year to sit with it and pray with it and work through everything that’s been going on,” Rev. Mr. Hooper stated.
He frequently returns to his encounter on Calvary, which will be repeated when he lays prostrate before the altar during his priestly ordination.
“I look back on the freedom and ability and grace to be able to do that — to be able to lay down my life,” he said.
Bishop McKnight ordained Rev. Mr. Hooper a deacon at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic last May.
Only 80 people could attend the ordination in person.
He was assigned to assist the pastor of St. George Parish in Hermann and Church of the Risen Savior Parish in Rhineland last summer before returning to Mundelein to complete his studies.
He has gotten to baptize six infants as a deacon.
“There’s just this great sense of spiritual fatherhood that comes with that,” he said.
He’s also gotten to preach homilies at Mass, often reminding people of God’s unfathomable love made visible in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
“He loves each and every one of us so much that He suffered and died for us,” Rev. Mr. Hooper noted. “There’s a tremendous sense of hope and joy to be found in that.”
He thinks about what his dad told him, every time he gives a homily.
“I hope he’s enjoying hearing me preach,” said Rev. Mr. Hooper. “Although I think he’d be proud of me no matter what.”
That’s how Rev. Mr. Hooper visualizes God’s love.
“He’s proud of us and wants to love us because we are who we are,” he said. “We’re made in His image. We’re His sons and daughters.”
Rev. Mr. Hooper plans to hear confessions in the Cathedral of St. Joseph the day of his priestly ordination.
He will offer a Mass of Thanksgiving the following afternoon, at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 6, in the Cathedral of St. Joseph.
“Saying Mass and hearing confessions: these are two of our most powerful sacraments that show in a tangible way the love God has for us,” he said.
“If we’re open and honest in Reconciliation and seeking God’s mercy, He will forgive our sins,” the future priest noted. “In the Eucharist, He gives us our Daily Bread to go out and live the life He wants us to live and have the grace to do His will.”
This time as a deacon has helped Rev. Mr. Hooper anticipate the spiritual fatherhood that will come with being a priest.
“I’ve been able to see and experience such great joy this past year through the baptisms, through preaching,” he said. “I’m looking forward to more of this, diving deeper into Holy Orders, into the sacred Priesthood.”
He said being a priest means guiding people into a deeper relationship and sense of love with God, Who loves them beyond anything they could imagine.
It is a shared journey.
“The priest nurtures the people but the people also nourish the priest while we all go about trying to serve God and discern His will in our lives,” he said.
As Priesthood approaches, he asks for prayers for God to make him a good holy priest who listens to God’s promptings and helps bring people closer to Him.
“And we need to continue praying for vocations,” he stated, “that guys and their parents and families will have an open heart to the notion that we need more priests to bring Christ’s love into the world more fully and richly.”