When he spoke, this priest made those who listened better

Every once in a while, a priest comes along in life who you know you will remember. Every once in a while, you get lucky.

For me, that priest is Father Clement Aapengnuo, a Ghanaian-born priest who served as associate pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Va., for the last seven-and-a-half years. On Sundays, when I would see Father Clem walk into the back of the sanctuary before Mass, I used to do a little dance in my seat. I was fond of all the priests at St. Charles, but Father Clem was something special.

Father Clem traveled to the United States in 2006 with the goal of earning his master’s in conflict analysis and resolution — a subject with which he was already intimately familiar. Ghana had seen its fair share of ethnic conflict from 1980 to 2002, and the priest had been active in peace-building movements, including developing and leading the Northern Ghana Peace Project.

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In December, Father Clem achieved his educational goal by successfully defending his dissertation. And in late January, he returned home to put what he had learned to good use. Though I am no longer there, I know, with Father Clem’s departure, St. Charles is a parish in mourning. While he may have been in the United States primarily to further his own education, it was we, his community, who received the best schooling.

When he spoke, Father Clem simply made those who listened to him better. Better Christians, better disciples, better human beings. His worldview — he didn’t receive his first shoe until he was in high school — offered a unique perspective that both challenged and inspired. Maybe it’s the reporter in me, but many’s the time I found myself scribbling a bit of his sage wisdom or commentary on the back of an old receipt during homilies. His three-step plan for discernment became a foundation of my prayer life for several years running (email me if you’re interested), and his wisdom has drawn me closer to God in every possible way.

One of the reasons why I love this ministry so much is that we, the Catholic press, get to honor the priests and other clergy who have made a positive difference in our lives. We hear so often in the news — or, heartbreakingly, in our own parish communities — about priests who have shamed the Church with their acts of evil. It’s good for us — especially during Catholic Press Month — to remember the priests who, like Father Clement, have touched our lives and who have changed us for the better.

Though I bid my farewells to Father Clem nearly a year ago, my heart still stings when I think of a St. Charles without him there. But I take comfort in the fact that he is following his own call — and in his parting words: “Do not be sad that I am going. You are sending me back to Ghana as a missionary to share what you have taught me.”

Godspeed, Father Clem, and may he bless you always.