Deacon Lukasz Kopala has a story not very different from other seminarians. He grew up in a traditional Catholic family. He served at the altar as a youth, considered the priesthood while in high school, but held off so he could experience some independence. What sets him apart from the others at Christ the King Seminary is the path he took to get there.
A few days before his Sept. 27 ordination as a transitional deacon, he sat down for an interview with the Western New York Catholic, to tell about his spiritual journey. He came with a prepared biography since he is still learning the English language.
Born in Ropczyce in southeastern Poland 34 years ago, Deacon Kopala did grow up in a traditional, faithful home where his father would lead Lukasz and his two brothers in prayer before meals and at bedtime. The family attended church three times a week. Deacon Kopala can still recall strongly feeling the presence of Jesus when he received his first Holy Communion.
"In high school I seriously thought about what it would be like to be a priest," he said. "I made the final decision when I was in college. I started to see more priests and talk to them, share about my experiences and my feelings, that I believe this is the road I am supposed to do in my life. I had a lot of questions, a lot of anxieties. You could say fears, because this was something completely new and different."
He developed a strong bond with his childhood pastor, who acted as a mentor.
"My pastor from Poland was my first spiritual director, who really took care of me and helped me understand more," Deacon Kopala recalled. "He always told me, don't rush, and pray a lot. Spend time in the chapel. Go for retreat."
During this time he belonged to the parish youth group, which also helped him discern his vocation.
After college he let his fears win out and took two years to work and experience life. He found a job at Krakow's City Hall and in a hotel. He had earned a theology degree, so he also taught high school religion. Looking back he realizes he needed to experience life in the secular world before committing his life to Christ. He feels he was too young to join the seminary right out of college.
"Because I had this experience and had seen life, not as a priest, but as a layperson, I think it was much easier for me to make the decision," he said.
He remained connected with the pastor who supported him in his discernment, and spent most of his free time at a university parish. While on retreat he reached a point where he became sure of his goal and, after two years in secular life, he decided he was ready for the seminary. He applied and waited until he received acceptance before telling his parents.
"My parents always knew I would be in the seminary because they saw what I was doing. They were not extremely surprised because they knew how I was active with many things of the Church," he said.
Deacon Kopala attended Good Shepherd Seminary in the Diocese of Sandomiesz for three years. During this time he set some spiritual goals for himself, such as understanding himself better. He's still working on that eight years later. While studying, tragedy struck. His father, who had been the strong head of the family, died at the age of 54. Deacon Kopala took a year off from his studies to care for his mother and himself.
"It was very tragic for us," he said. "He was very young. He never complained about life or health. My mother was horrible during this time and somebody had to take care of her. So I decided to take a break from school. Even with myself, I was not able to do many things."
During his year off, he visited the U.S. to see family in Hartford, Conn. While there, he attended Polish and English churches with his family and on his own. He spoke to a Polish priest who mentioned the decreasing number of priests in this country.
"He said, 'We need priests in America," Deacon Kopala said. "Think about that. Maybe you'd like to be here.' I said, 'No, I cannot be here because of the language and everything.' During this time I didn't speak English."
The two kept in touch. The priest told Lukasz about SS. Cyril & Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Mich., which prepares men, primarily from Poland, for the priesthood. Deacon Kopala spent one year there learning intercultural communications. The seminary invites vocation directors from across America to visit and recruit seminarians for their own dioceses. Deacon Kopala met Father Walter Szczesny, vocations director for the Diocese of Buffalo, who told him about Buffalo's rich Polish community.
"Buffalo reminds me of Poland a lot," Deacon Kopala said. "The climate is the same. There are a good number of Polish priests here. So it was much easier for me to assimilate."
During their summers off, seminarians spend time in parishes assisting the pastors and serving in the community. For the past three summers, Deacon Kopala has served in a variety of parishes, learning the life of a parish priest.
Lukasz is grateful to Father Bernard Nowak, pastor of Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park, for accepting the Polish immigrant into the parish and treating him as a member of the family.
"He opened the door to his rectory and he was always welcoming. He made me feel at home, which for me was very important, being from far away," Deacon Kopala said. "He gives me good advice. He was like my mentor too."
Father Leon Biernat, then pastor at Our Lady of Pompeii, took him to a couple retreats in Steubenville, Ohio, one for priests, deacons and seminarians, which he calls a "great experience" and one for youth.
"I met so many priests, deacons and seminarians from other dioceses. We experienced time with prayer and meditation. I think this also helped me understand the priesthood more, where I am going. This experience was very helpful for me on my journey," he said.
Deacon Kopala will continue serving at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Niagara Falls until his priestly ordination this spring.