‘To your left and right’: Newly ordained Father Nicolas to serve God’s people

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Nicolas Rapkoch was ordained a priest June 3, but that wasn’t the beginning of his service, not by a long shot.

He was a U.S. Marine, an entrepreneur. Now he is transitioning to another part of his life, and he couldn’t be more excited. When he sat down to talk with NC Catholics a few days before ordination, he didn’t know where his assignment would be, but he didn’t bother himself with that. And he didn’t speculate about which parish he’d be working in.

“The Lord’s timing is perfect, and from the beginning, God knew where that assignment would be,” he said. “I get to celebrate the sacraments for the people of God, and that’s plenty good enough for me!” Although he does mention, with characteristic humor, that the ordination is a “mix of joy and holy terror.”

Nicolas grew up in Tacoma, Washington. Faith was an essential part of his life from the beginning.

“Faith started in the family. Both my brother and I went to Catholic high school, St. Robert Bellarmine, in Tacoma,” he said.

That education was important to his parents and critical for formation before adulthood.

“It was a priority for them,” he said, “and they sacrificed other things so we could have that opportunity.”

After graduating high school, he headed to the East Coast and attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was during his sophomore year when the world was shocked by the September 11 terror attack, and after graduating in 2004, he immediately joined the United States Marine Corps.

So many people were volunteering to serve then; it wasn’t until 2005 that he could attend Officer Candidates School. He served nine years and had three deployments while on active duty, two tours in Afghanistan and one on a ship in the Middle East.

Every week, when in Afghanistan, he was on the cutting edge of the U.S. presence during the deployments and mentioned that, during those 16 months, he only had the chance to interact with a priest for six days. He took it upon himself to hold a Liturgy of the Word each week and made it open to anyone interested. He found he liked leading prayer but had no idea at the time that it would be part of the tapestry that would lead to the priesthood.

Looking back on his time as a young man, Nicolas said that he can empathize with the fact that many people find the world to be an “attractive place” in many tempting ways.

“The wisdom of the Church says to be aware of these things, but when you’re young and think you know better, you can find yourself in difficult situations,” he said. “So when there were times of trouble or times of being stupid, there was always that faith of my family to return to.” 

As a deacon, he often told parents who spoke with him regarding their children’s faith struggles as young adults to keep praying. Speaking of himself, he said to those parents, “Look what God will do to a life when you reach out just a little bit to God because he’s reaching out a lot to them.” This reminds him of the ‘Creation of Adam’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel. “If you look at it, you can see that it’s true; God is active and reaching out,” he remembered. “And Adam is laid back, and the fingers are not quite touching. All Adam has to do is lift a finger.”

Nicolas has had a life of reaching back out to God.

Some priests have had military careers before joining the priesthood, and he said, “There might be some things with the Marine training …” then paused to recall a summer program he did in 2019.

“I did … IPF, Institute for Priestly Formation, in Omaha. It was a great summer; you do courses on prayer and spend time in a parish when you’re there. One of the things I did with the parish was visit a retirement home for religious. One of the guys I was with said, ‘Nic, you have to meet this guy.’ They introduced me to a gentleman in his late 80s, Monsignor Richard Wolbach, who was wheelchair-bound and a little ‘in and out’ with his focus but was introduced as someone who was also a Marine. He looked at me and saw the Marine emblem on my shirt, and his eyes welled up; it was like he came back to life.”

He and Nicolas had a conversation about his service. They found out that Monsignor Richard and Nicolas’ grandfather were both in the 4th Marine Division on Iwo Jima at the same time. 

“He gave me his priestly blessing; he had spent 40 years as the chaplain at the VA in Omaha. It was cool, but there’s just something about Marines where we like throwing ourselves into the breach, and it’s life-giving. It’s really about the guys to your left and right, and the thing now is that the people to my left and right are my brothers and sisters in Christ; we are all the people of God together. My vocation is to stand in a particular breach on behalf of God’s people [as a priest], and there’s life in that.”

Part of his leadership philosophy is that part of every leader's role is setting the example.

“So I hope an example I can set is that 1) this faith is true, what we are doing here is true, real, and beautiful; 2) it’s worthy of wonder and is good; and 3) it is worth giving your life to,” he said. “By saying yes to this, and no to other things in life, friends have commented ‘he looks so happy,’ and others respond ‘Because he’s doing what God has called him to do.’ That’s the thing, when people ask why you would want to live this life, all I can say is, ‘Come and see.’”

After his time in the Marines, Nicolas worked for a business with a friend from the Marines whose brother owned the company.

“My title was vice-president of distribution and marketing, but I was also the delivery guy,” he laughed. “That was part of the fun of entrepreneurship.”

During that time, he used the GI Bill to get a master’s degree in theology from Catholic Distance University.

“That was part of my vocational journey. I had the resources available,” he said. “I wanted some adult catechesis that was deeper and serious. It’s where I was at the time.”

Nicolas had mustered out from the Marines at Camp Lejeune, and it was in Burlington, North Carolina, after a search across the country for the best place to start, where the business he worked for after he left the Marines had been located. North Carolina and the Diocese of Raleigh had become home. 

He was thinking about the priesthood and praying about it. It’s hard to explain, he said, but he could literally see himself at the altar celebrating Mass.

He laughed, “It was actually disconcerting; I was like, ‘no, no, no!’”

But he decided to attend a function one day where Father Phil Tighe, the diocesan vocations director, would be. Nicolas thought he could stealthy introduce himself to gauge whether he was the one to speak with about possibilities. This event took place just as Father Phil became vocations director in 2016.  Nicolas hadn’t decided to commit to a vocation, but he and Father Phil talked about the potential and became friends.

Nicolas said Father Phil had the sort of personality that would draw people in.

“You could tell he had the ‘leadership by example.’ His vision for the Lord, his magnetism, was an extra draw. He didn’t have to do anything special. He just talked to them and had the vision,” he said.

When Father Phil called him in 2018 and said, “Nicolas, you need to commit,” he decided.

“There are many guys ordained in the last couple of years and into next year who all came in with Father Tighe. His vision drew people in,” Nicolas recalled.

When asked what he looks forward to as a priest and what he sees as his role in the Church, he mentioned celebrating the sacraments, all of them, but especially Mass.

“God works in all of our lives, but our sacraments and the liturgical prayer are the first encounters we have in our faith with God because we are all together. God’s very wise in ensuring we do these things together,” he said.

Father Nicolas, it turns out, will be heading to Chapel Hill to be a parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Church, and the faithful there will be blessed with an inspiring model of leadership and service to others. His engaging sense of humor is an added benefit.