Father Mark Stang, a priest of the Diocese of St. Cloud who serves as a chaplain at St. Cloud Hospital, is somewhat surprised to be the author of a book. Titled “Finding the Water,” the book was released last December. It tells of his feeling like a “fish out of water” while stepping off the family farm in St. Nicholas and into the seminary.
Father Mark’s response to school, work as a fertilizer and feed plant manager, and other facets of life was to be the best that he could be — as a farmer or in his career, in relationships and, ultimately, in answering the call to the priesthood. He also learned that he had to accept his own weakness.
“Being a farmer had always been my dream,” said Father Mark, 61. “But I kept feeling these persistent ‘tugs’ to become a priest, which meant giving up on that dream. All through the seminary I felt very inadequate. Then a year before my ordination to the priesthood, I was diagnosed with cancer [a fast-growing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma]. I fell into a deep darkness. I had to totally surrender to God, not knowing if there was a God or not.
“I wondered why God would do this to me when I just wanted to do God’s will. I had to trust, and surrender.”
Because of the dire diagnosis, St. Cloud Bishop Jerome Hanus petitioned Rome to move up the priesthood ordination one year early.
Shortly after his ordination in 1990, the doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester discovered his cancer had miraculously disappeared.
Carol Sanders, one of Father Mark’s parishioners when he served at St. Donatus in Brooten, had heard him share bits of his story from the pulpit. She collaborated with him to publish the book.
“His story was too good to be lost,” Carol said. “I believed it should be shared nationwide in ways that newspapers and speeches can’t.”
After Father Mark left St. Donatus to become a hospital chaplain, Carol realized it was time to write this book. She discovered he’d already begun it while on a sabbatical in 2007. Canadian Benedictine Sister Anne Murtagh had also encouraged him to write a book and had typed his story. Her sudden death, however, halted the book project for 10 years.
Carol helped Father Mark add his own feelings and reactions as well as what others said to him — details that brought the story to life, she said.
“I was particularly inspired with Father Mark’s vision when he was about to quit the seminary but decided to stay,” Carol said.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE ‘HOLY’
“I am honored to dedicate this book to my little sister Jean, who died from cancer at the age of 39. I thought the book could be helpful for young men and women going through the discernment time of their lives,” Father Mark said. “That’s why I’ve chosen that all the profits from this book go to the diocesan Vocation Office to help them in discerning their vocation.
“Sometimes young people feel they have to be ‘holy’ in order to be a [member of a religious order] or to be a priest. Hopefully this book paints the picture that God will take whatever we give God, and go from there. I learned that I didn’t have to be this holy person, but just Mark, and let God use me.”
He believes it was people’s prayers for an increase in priestly vocations that allowed him to listen to the quiet “tug” in his heart.
“I’m indebted to so many people who prayed for me, not only when I was in the seminary but all through my challenge with cancer. This story truly is the fruit of people’s prayers,” he said.
Carol agreed. “Your faith will get you through any kind of troubles. When Father Mark finally quit struggling against God, that’s when he found himself. He was no longer the fish out of water because he was back in the water where he belonged.”
“It took lots of courage and trust to be so vulnerable, to open up my life to others,” Father Mark said. “I’m overwhelmed when people say they enjoyed the book, or that it was inspirational. It’s humbling to hear their comments. But I get uncomfortable when others raise me up or put me on a pedestal for writing it. Me? A book? Really? If I feel I have to meet those expectations, that causes me stress.
“Yes, it was difficult — but also grace-filled — to share what God has done. I had to be vulnerable to allow my life to be put out to the world. The blessing back to me is in hearing people share their challenges and how God has touched them in those challenges,” he said.
“To be open and listen to that small ‘tug,’ I had to find quiet in my loud, busy life,” he added. “I challenge others just to start with 10 minutes of deep breathing and being mindful of the presence of God.
“I learned through this experience that at times we don’t have to work hard to prove ourselves to God. Maybe God is just calling us to surrender and invite God’s Holy Spirit to take over.”
How to get it
“Finding the Water” by Father Mark Stang can be purchased for $12.95 at the following locations:
• St. Cloud Bookshop, 23 7th Ave. S., St. Cloud;
• Online at Covenant Books: https://bit.ly/2xvGG8n
• CentraCare Gift Gallery (located near the North Lobby and North Entrance of St. Cloud Hospital)