In the waning months of 2020, three diocesan priests from the Archdiocese of Omaha died within months of each other. I call them the “Three Wise Men from the West.” In a period of time when many clergy have bowed their heads in sorrow over the wreckage and aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal, these three are worthy of attention, for their example can lift up all of our hearts.
The background of these three was exceptionally diverse. Richard Wolbach was the son of parents of Polish descent, and was raised near the South Omaha stockyards. Valentine Peter was the born to a prominent German family from the east side of town. His father published a German-language newspaper. And Jack McCaslin was one of a family of 13 whose parents lived in North Omaha and were of Irish extraction. Despite their varying heritages, the three were alike in several ways. They were pastoral servants who all loved the people. They all walked in the footsteps of Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests.
Richard Wolbach—“Semper Fi!”
Richard Wolbach was a South Omaha boy who in his teens graduated from Omaha South Public High School. At the outbreak of the Vietnam War, as soon as he was able, he volunteered for the US Marine Corps. For the rest of his life he embodied the Marine Core value of “Semper Fi” (“Always Faithful”).
At the horrific battle of Iwo Jima, he was among the waves of Marines who waded ashore under relentless fire from the enemy. His task was to lay down communication cables on the beach. In that slaughterhouse, 7,000 Marines were killed along with 18,000 Japanese. Somewhere on that bloody and body-strewn beach he breathed a prayer for deliverance and promised God that he would respond with gratitude if he managed to survive.
He did survive, went on to enter the seminary, and was ordained a priest. He would live into his 90s a life of pastoral service in parishes, and then for over 30 years as chaplain at the Omaha veterans’ hospital. With his Slavic face and shy smile, he looked a lot like Pope John Paul II. And like the pope, he was manly and a lover of the outdoors. He was an excellent skier into his 80s, an accomplished fly fisherman, and a talented tennis player.
One story a couple of his friends knew about him, which he would never boast about, involved him receiving a phone call deep in the middle of a frigid winter night about a vet dying at the hospital. Richard’s car would not start. So he trudged many miles through the snow to administer the last rites to the dying vet. No wonder he was honored as the Veteran Chaplain of the Year, as well as being commended by the chief of military chaplains to be honored as a monsignor. Today there is an honorary plaque at the hospital containing sand from the beach at Iwo Jima.
Valentine Peter and the Ragamuffins
In the 1950s Valentine Peter attended a Jesuit-staffed Omaha high school named Creighton Prep. In his freshman year, there was a memorable Jesuit retreat master who ended each conference with the challenge: “Love the people! Love the people!” That challenge would echo down through all of Val Peter’s years. He would graduate from Prep and go on to Conception Seminary, where he would imbibe the teaching of Saint Benedict to “Receive each guest as Christ.”
Val was short in stature, a diminutive youth with wild, tousled hair which he kept for his entire life. Until his dying day he possessed a feisty temperament and an inexhaustible spirit. Had he been in either army during World War II, I think General George Patton or General Erwin Rommel would have put him in the lead tank.
Val’s brother Carl was brilliant and would go on to become a prominent theologian at Catholic University. He was revered by Val, and Val’s own brilliance was like his brother’s. After college, Val would follow in Carl’s footsteps by attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He was there along with Hans Küng, another seminarian who witnessed firsthand the convening of the Second Vatican Council. Val’s own archbishop would attend, and sometimes young Val would deliver messages and do errands for bishops and cardinals while observing the workings of the council. For the rest of his life, he would imbue and live out the reforms enacted by the council.
Before leaving Rome as an ordained a parish priest for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Val was awarded two doctorates in one year: one in canon law and another in moral theology. His early years of priesthood were spent in parish ministry, on the marriage tribunal, and teaching moral theology at Creighton University. I recently visited with Marilyn Burbach, who had a plethora of distinguished teachers as a Dominican nun, and she attested: “Val was the finest teacher I have ever experienced.” I too was his student, and I echo her appraisal.
Val could have gone on the rest of his life as an esteemed scholar in the comfortable halls of academia, but when the call came from his bishop to enter an entirely different role, he saluted and answered. He was named to follow in the footsteps of Father Edward J. Flanagan as executive director of the famous Boys Town, a care center for children in crisis, outside of Omaha. He would spend the next 30 years of his priesthood in that role.
He could execute very well. Boys Town’s outreach was expanded nationally, but for the kids, he was their Good Shepherd, and they were his ragamuffins. He knew the personal names of all the many hundreds of youngsters who went through Boys Town, as well as each individual’s story. In the era of sexual abuse scandals, Boys Town shines brightly as a haven for troubled children.
At Val’s funeral, a poem I wrote in his honor was read:
Akin to Prince Valiant
Fire in his belly
Brilliance in his mind
Compassion in his heart
Undaunted hope in his spirit.
He gathered the Ragamuffins
at his round table
Knowing each by name
Come in abused and abandoned
There is always room for more.
He was a wise sage
Who lit the lamp of learning
Enlightened scholars’ minds
Showed a moral path to tread
Taught by what he said and did.
His family heritage
Scholarly, truth seeking
Carl Peter and Karl Rahner
Angelic Doctor and Vatican II.
He walked in his shoes
Prayed at his tomb
Lived out his dream.
His faith sought understanding
May his feisty spirit
Rest from his many labors
And bask in the beauty
Of the Beatific Vision.
Father Jack McCaslin—Prophet
Jack McCaslin was tall, athletic, sandy haired, with a broad smile and a laugh that came easy. Like Val, he attended Creighton Prep, where he was encouraged to be “a man for others.” He also attended Conception Seminary where Saint Benedict’s spirit of hospitality was part of his formation.
As a young priest he discovered the plight of homeless people all around him, so he cashed in his insurance, emptied his savings, and bought two houses to lodge them. Under lay administrators, those two houses have evolved into greater structures, Francis House and Siena House, which still welcome the indigent “as Christ” to this day.
Jack was a friend of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, and following their example, he usually had empty pockets. He marched with Martin Luther King at Selma. Father Jerry Burbach, another Omaha priest, was clubbed to the ground by a state trooper. Jack was at his side.
Later in life he demonstrated at the Strategic Air Command against nuclear war. He was always a peacemaker. For crossing the line at Offutt Air Base near Omaha, where the “red telephone” would be used to launch an attack, he was sent to jail. I remember visiting him there and seeing him garbed in the bright orange jump suit of a prisoner.
These three priests differed from each other in almost every way: nationality, family background, personality. But they all shared one priesthood and a high ideal: “Love the people you serve.” Like the original Magi, they were very diverse, and each one could bring different gifts to the Christ child. Instead of gold, perhaps Rich might bring a shiny brass button from his Marine uniform. Perhaps Val would bring a muffin to symbolize the Boys Town kids he lovingly called his “ragamuffins.” And Jack? Maybe an orange jumpsuit, or maybe an empty urn, for he emptied himself for the poor. And they all might say: In these difficult days, lift up your hearts! We have come from the west and we have loved the people along our way. Love one another! Love the people! Love the people!
William John Fitzgerald has contributed articles to Today’s American Catholic for several years. His memoir, Rosemary: A Strong American Woman, was reviewed in our August/September issue.