Fr. Billy Kosco, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Buckeye, helps repair a structure as a part of his “Undercover Priest” project to work alongside his parishioners. (John Bering/CATHOLIC SUN)

Buckeye pastor reflects on experience smelling like his sheep

Taking priesthood to the next level, was this Valley priest’s idea of an extreme Lenten makeover this past spring.

Yes, there is always Confession or Mass that are the two main ways the world may recognize a priest. But what if he was plucked away from those staple identities for a change, as a way for the world to meet Christ face to face?

What if he was brought to the closest encounters possible, in the day-to-day exchanges, with ordinary people?

Imagine getting down in the trenches, where hands get dirty from the toil of work and, suddenly, within our midst, is the one guy we identify with as “Father”? He is working side by side with us.

It was one such day, that this undercover priest went to work by taking one day each week during Lent and showing up at a local restaurant, a high school, a dairy and even as a greeter at a grocery store, sometimes donning a priest collar, and sometimes looking like the rest.

This was the case at a random dairy farm in Tonopah. Parishioners of the nearby Catholic mission, an outreach of St. Henry Parish in Buckeye, who were also employed at the dairy discovered a red-headed fellow in their midst.

Fr. Billy Kosco, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Buckeye, learns how to milk cows at the dairy where many of his parishioners work. (John Bering/CATHOLIC SUN)

They were puzzled, like the feeling someone has when they fail to recognize a person out of their element, but in this case he was one of them. Their priest was one of them.

Fr. Billy Kosco, pastor of St. Henry, took one of his days off to show up at the crack of dawn, ready to milk the cows.

“It’s hard work and fast-paced,” Fr. Kosco stated as he had to get the hang of it, appreciating the perspective he gained from witnessing members of his flock doing what they do every day.

“You know people don’t always love their work, but do it for the greater good.”

In this case it is obvious that the greater good amongst these workers is their families, community and church, for which many a fellow Catholic are together day in and day out.

He explained how he managed to get the hang of the milking, but to keep up the speed was another story; it was tough and exhausting. Many employees work the dairy for hours only to continue at another job in the afternoon, all the while taking care of raising their families. Most of them work 16-hour days, with the dairy job filling just the first eight hours.

Fr. Billy Kosco, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Buckeye, cleans the kitchen of a restaurant where some of his parishioners work. (John Bering/CATHOLIC SUN)

“It was a surprise for us to know Fr. Kosco wanted to work in the dairy milking cows,” said Tonopah mission coordinator Julia Pelagio. “By joining us, he got to experience and know better who we are.”

Fr. Kosco based his ventures as an “undercover priest” off of the television series “Undercover Boss,” where the head honcho shows up at the establishment undercover to get a taste of the workers’ perspective and, often to his dismay, discovers the flawed aspects of the business, inspiring transformation — something we all are capable of doing.

“It’s given me a greater appreciation of the people I serve,” Fr. Kosco said. Most priests agree the abuse scandal in the Church has created distrust and distance from the people.

Fr. Kosco said that resonating with the people in this way is important to allow them to know that no matter the troubles or pains, he is with them.

“I want them to think: ‘My priest is not above me, and I am not beneath him,’” he said.

Fr. Kosco had his congregation on edge for weeks, as they were trying to discover just where he might go next so that they may see first hand.

He managed to tie the themes of his experiences into his Sunday homilies during Lent, all the more interweaving the sacrificial message of Lent into the fabric of holy labor as part of our prayer and work and to create a stir among the parish community.

Fr. Billy Kosco, pastor of St. Henry Parish in Buckeye, pushes shopping carts outside of a grocery story where some of his parishioners work. (John Bering/CATHOLIC SUN)

Ora et Labora” describes in the monastic life of the Rule of St. Benedict the great balance of prayer and work. Our work actually becomes our prayer.

Fr. Kosco completed his priestly formation under the guidance of the Benedictine Monks of Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, where their spirit continues to inspire him.

St. Henry parishioners loved when they bumped into Fr. Kosco at the grocery store where he worked for hours shocking those who recognized him, as he greeted them in a store vest and priest collar. He even rounded up the shopping carts, which is an exhausting feat after a few hours.

Fr. Kosco would shout out to his flock in the parking lot, reminding them to return their shopping carts. Of course, they would laugh, scratch their heads saying to themselves, “Did my priest just say what I think he said?” and then return their shopping carts to their rightful place.

Now the whole parish is sensitive to this practice. Fr. Kosco just wanted to help people realize that those little things like placing your shopping cart back in the corral goes a long way to show appreciation for the most menial of tasks, and the poor person having to fetch the things all day.

It is with a gratuitous heart that we approach this coming Labor Day Holiday. The roots of our nation are deep, with the labor of workers past and present, they forged the railway system across the country, built the magnificent skyscrapers and plowed the bread basket of America to feed a nation. How beautiful to think that our prayer is our work and that our work is holy. Ora et Labora.