Yesterday, we attended the funeral Mass for Father Jacek Shuster, Pastor of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Augusta. His very untimely passing at age 47 due to the ravages of cancer was so tragic, yet his service and example to his parish community leaves a positive legacy.
From all accounts, Fr. Jacek (Ya-zik) was a rather private man, coming to America years ago from Poland to serve as a missionary priest, ultimately landing in the Diocese of Savannah. I read in an article from 2005 that Fr. Jacek grew up in a Polish town not far from the home of St. Pope Paul II, to whom he attributed much inspiration and example in his call to serve God’s people through the priesthood.
Unlike so many of the Irish priests I have known, who also migrated to Georgia and shared openly their Irish heritage, Fr. Jacek said little about Poland that I can recall, instead having a singular focus on serving the people of his parish. A rather persistent and persuasive fundraiser, Father made many improvements to the beautiful 1850’s Most Holy Trinity church building. He had a strong devotion to Catholic education, and through his efforts expanded and improved Immaculate Conception School, which now boasts of a program for special needs children. He received national recognition for his accomplishments in Catholic education.
On a personal level, Father once provided me a bit of helpful counsel when facing my own struggles, reminding me to share my burdens with Jesus and not go it alone. I later began sending my weekly reflections to him, and in a few words after Sunday Mass, he would give me encouragement. My family became fond of Father Jacek, and one of our sons was inspired to return to the church owing to his influence.
It was how he faced his cancer which said so much about the character of Jacek Szuster. In recent months, we could tell that something was different about Father Jacek in his weakening physical demeanor, yet he had little to say. As the cancer worsened and later metastasized, Father stoically went about his duties as priest and pastor, never complaining at all. This reminded me of John Paul II, who suffered greatly before his passing. To the end, Father was faithful to his mission, to help bring souls to Jesus, and to leave his parish community better than he found it, which he did.
Father would always remind us at the end of Mass, in his Polish accent, to “enjoy your life as much as you can”.