After a challenging year of serving their parishioners during the coronavirus pandemic, all three priests at the rectory of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, had a special reason to celebrate, because all three are celebrating anniversaries in 2021.

St. John Neumann’s pastor, Msgr. Robert Panke, is marking his 25th anniversary, following his ordination in 1996. Father Peter Sweeney, a retired priest in residence there, was ordained in 1961 and is celebrating his 60th anniversary. And Father Stefan Yap, the parochial vicar, marked his first anniversary after being ordained in 2020.

In interviews at the St. John Neumann rectory on June 8, the three priests reflected on their vocations, how their priestly brotherhood helped them during the pandemic, and what they had learned this past year.

“The dynamic was three generations of priests, which is really a beautiful thing, and three generations of priests that are happy in the priesthood,” said Msgr. Panke.

He spoke of his respect for Father Sweeney, who is 84 and has been serving as a retired priest at the Gaithersburg parish since 2012, and who continued to celebrate Masses and provide the sacraments to people there during the pandemic.

“I look up to priests who are older than I am, and all the hard work and effort they’ve put into the priesthood,” Msgr. Panke said. “To see a priest like Father Sweeney who is so happy and joyful and desiring to serve is a great inspiration.”

After serving since 2011 as the founding rector of the Saint John Paul II Seminary of the Archdiocese of Washington, Msgr. Panke became St. John Neumann’s pastor in July 2019. One year later, the newly ordained Father Yap came aboard there as a parochial vicar. As a director of priest vocations and formation for the archdiocese and then as a rector, Msgr. Panke had the joy of seeing the men he helped prepare for priesthood be ordained, and Father Yap had been one of his seminarians at Saint John Paul II.

“It’s a real honor and privilege to bring in a new priest and to help him in his first days of priesthood,” said Msgr. Panke. “He (Father Yap) is also a very happy, joyful, hardworking, very good priest. We’re very blessed in this rectory.”

Msgr. Robert Panke (standing at left), the pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, and Father Stefan Yap (at right), the parochial vicar there, join Father Peter Sweeney, (seated) a retired priest serving at the parish. All three are celebrating anniversaries in 2021. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

By July 2020, public Masses had resumed in local Catholic churches with safety precautions. In mid-March, the pandemic lockdown and local restrictions on gatherings had prevented public Masses from being held. Like other parishes, St. John Neumann Parish began offering its Masses online and adjusted its other ministries.

“During the lockdown and the days after that, where there wasn’t as much ministry outside and more time to spend with one another, it  changed the culture in our rectory and the expectations we would pray together and have meals together,” said Msgr. Panke.

As the lockdown began, the St. John Neumann rectory included Msgr. Panke, Father Sweeney and the parochial vicar then, Father William Wadsworth, who in July 2020 was transferred to serve in that role at St. Raphael Parish in Rockville. Father Yap took his place at St. John Neumann, and the priests there have continued having evening prayer and dinner together.

For Msgr. Panke and the St. John Neumann priests, that change in dynamic at the rectory initially brought on by the pandemic lockdown reinforced their spirit of priestly fraternity.

“A life lived in a rectory with a number of priests as I was blessed to have, it’s important that we carve out time to spend with each other, to support, to encourage one another, to live a life of fraternity, like a family,” Msgr. Panke said, adding, “We’re all committed to the same goal.”

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