Kwik Trip sponsored employee John McHugh’s presentation at a multi-parish staff retreat Aug. 22 in Hammond. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

More than 100 parish and school employees of St. Patrick, Hudson; St. Bridget, River Falls; Immaculate Conception, New Richmond; and Immaculate Conception, Hammond, gathered for a joint staff retreat Wednesday, Aug. 22, at Immaculate Conception in Hammond.

John McHugh, the director of corporate communication, leadership development and training for Kwik Trip, Inc., presented on Gospel depictions of Jesus’ compassion and charity. A graduate of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, and the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, McHugh studied Scripture in graduate school and was a principal and instructor at Aquinas Catholic High School in La Crosse before working for Kwik Trip. He is also a friend of Fr. John Gerritts, pastor of St. Patrick, Hudson.

Throughout his three morning presentations, McHugh offered his interpretation of Gospel stories, interwoven with personal stories from his childhood, college years and adulthood. When he spoke of Jesus’ treating others with compassion “because sometimes we don’t know the burdens people carry,” he recalled how he learned, almost by accident, that his father had spent time in an orphanage – something he’d never known despite a lifetime of hearing his father’s stories.

When McHugh spoke of Mark’s parable of Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed – tiny in size, but grows big enough so birds “can perch in its shade,” McHugh referenced the mustard growing in his grandfather’s fields, how the Kingdom of God is like a persistent weed – once planted, it is “enrooted in you.”

To remind educators their task is to start, not finish, the work of teaching and instilling the faith, McHugh read Luke’s account of the priest Zechariah, who is punished with silence for questioning the angel Gabriel. As a result, he cannot speak or fulfill his obligations as a priest, so he has failed. Many educators and workers in parish ministry take on an ambitious task, McHugh added, and “when we don’t get it done, it’s failure.”

But, he said, it’s the role of teachers, ministers and others to start the task, not to finish it. “The finishing is done by Him,” he added, and advised listeners not to expect perfection from themselves, and to learn to recognize and appreciate their own gifts.

Not recognizing one’s own gifts is the beginning of despair, he added, although “sometimes the gifts we’ve been given don’t come wrapped the way we want them wrapped.”

His personal example: His grandmother invited him to come on a cruise with her when he was a single 20-something just out of college. It wasn’t until they arrived onboard that they learned they were on a honeymoon cruise full of amorous newlyweds.

His takeaway from the experience was although the gift didn’t come packaged exactly as he would have chosen, it was still a vacation, and he had every reason to be grateful.

“If I start to forget they’re gifts, I start to lose my gratitude,” he said.

Similarly, there are times when McHugh doesn’t get anything at all out of Mass, he explained. The point of going is to give thanks.

“You’ve been given 168 hours of pure gift this week,” he added. “We sit for one hour this week, and we think about all the things God has given us.”

Filled with gratitude and joy, we are better able to respond to others with compassion, McHugh said. The Nativity story is sometimes cited as exemplifying our collective lack of gratefulness for the gift of Jesus.

But, analyzing the Nativity story, McHugh proposed the common imagery of a barn, a manger and “no room at the inn” is a “gross misunderstanding of the text.”

What is often interpreted as an “inn” is actually the Greek word for a guest room – hospitality is very important in Middle Eastern culture, he explained – and because all the guest rooms were filled in each home they passed, Mary, Jesus and Joseph were given what was analogous to the master bedroom.

“We did respond with compassion, and we gave him the best spot in the house,” McHugh said.

After lunch, attendees met in small groups, and the day concluded with Mass celebrated by newly ordained Fr. Richard Rhinehart, who serves St. Bridget. Adoration and reconciliation were also available for retreatants.