Serving God by Standing Up for Others

An Interview with Father Val Peter of Boys Town

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By Traci Osuna

OMAHA, Nebraska, JUNE 8, 2010 ( At an early age, Father Val Peter felt that God was calling him to help others. Throughout his life, he has been giving a voice to those who were forgotten by society.

By carrying on Father Edward Flanagan’s famed work at Boys Town, the now retired Father Val Peter, who was the executive director there from 1985-2005, has formed a unique, and almost surprising, bond with the troubled youth that he helps on a daily basis.

With his mantra of «Life is Hard, God is Good» to see him through, Father Val, 75, is not only able to see the innate goodness in people, he has also helped those with seemingly overwhelming obstacles see the goodness in their own lives and to persevere.

ZENIT: How did you come to your priestly vocation?

Father Peter: During World War II, we were an immigrant-oriented family in the Middle West. We spoke German. For obvious reasons, we were the object of ridicule and bigotry. I relished the challenges of standing up for the family and for our country. A mentally challenged boy lived across the street. We became fast friends. It was fun making sure nobody messed with him. Serving Mass one day in the sixth grade, I realized how close God could get to me. A 10th-grade teacher went out of his way to give me a sandwich when I had no lunch. It was the first time I went to church and said: Lord, I want to do that for others.

Now it became increasingly clear God was calling me. I did not want to say yes, just the opposite. It was hard to do what God wanted of me. I would have rather done something else. The Lord won out, but not without a good fight. After I started doing what the Lord wanted, it was even more fun to stand up for people, and it’s been fun for 50 years of priesthood.

Have there been hard times in the priesthood? Yes, of course. All my life has been fun, but hard. Standing up for people God wants you to stand up for is worth it. I stand up for people whom life has failed, not at the end, not in the middle, but at the beginning. It’s worth it.

I say it this way: Life is very hard. God is good. Blessed be the name of the Lord. All the great saints taught me to say that, starting with the martyrs.

ZENIT: How did you come to work at Boys Town?

Father Peter: I was working in a parish down by the river (we were called the river rats) teaching at Creighton University and taking care of kids. They asked if I would be interested in going to Boys Town. My response was: If you want me at Boys Town, I’ll be able to stand up for more people whom God wants someone to stand up for. That’s a marvelous place. They said yes, and I thought they were crazy. But our national expansion is history.

ZENIT: Father Edward Flanagan borrowed money to start a home for five boys in 1917; today, Boys Town is a world renowned organization addressing the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of thousands of young men and women. What about Father Flanagan and his idea of helping wayward youth made Boys Town such a success?

Father Peter: Father Flanagan was influenced by lots of failure and frustration. He and his family fled Ireland because they were failures there under the harshness imposed by British rule. Secondly, upon arriving in America, he tried to go to the seminary and sickness stopped him. He knew failure again.

He worked at Cudahy Packing Plant, regained his strength, was ordained in Innsbruck, Austria, came home and failed a third time while working with «skid row bums.» He learned from all of this, three things he applied at Boys Town. You need to give the boys a very firm structure, lots of warmth, faith and spiritual discipline and empowerment. It worked.

ZENIT: Boys Town is known worldwide for helping troubled youth. How do you, as a Catholic priest, relate to the young people who have already experienced so much hardship in their lives?

Father Peter: I know from experience what loneliness, frustration and anger are. These kids have had it 10 times worse and we have become family. Life is hard. God is good. Praise be the name of the Lord.

ZENIT: What do you see for the future of today’s youth?

Father Peter: In every kid today, there is a spark of selfishness, narcissism. And in every kid today, there is a still a spark of the divine, a spark that ignites a fire making kids today realize selfishness needs spiritual healing. Healing cannot happen in splendid isolation. The self is capable of great virtue and great viciousness. The future belongs to those who embrace the spark of the divine.

ZENIT: How is Father Flanagan a role model for today’s priests and today’s youth?

Father Peter: Father Flanagan was ill most of his life. He did not let his infirmity get the best of him, but rose above it. Life was hard, but God was good. He felt himself called to greatness and made sure his boys felt the same call. His prayer was: «Speak Lord, your servant is listening.» His prayer was not: «Listen Lord, your servant is speaking.»

ZENIT: Can you comment on the status of the canonization cause of Father Flanagan?

Father Peter: It’s a long road. We are at the first stage, the stage where you begin to notice so many people are coming to Father’s tomb, praying, through his intercession, for help and guidance and strength. Father Flanagan said close to his death: «This work will continue whether I am here or not because it is God’s work, not mine.» I believe that Father Flanagan’s canonization will happen because it is God’s work and not mine or yours.

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[This article is part of the column God’s Men — a series of reflections on the priesthood that ZENIT is offering its readers during this Year for Priests, which ends Friday.]
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