By Theresa Carson
Father Eryk Koppa SVD, a member of the Society of the Divine Word’s General Council, doesn’t mind moving from one country to another. In fact, when he moves, he is thankful for the natural prompting to downsize his book collection.
“Going to a bookstore is dangerous for me,” he said with the smile of a kid in a candy store. “I gathered quite a collection. I gave some away, put others in storage and took a few with me to Rome.”
Father Koppa’s last move took him from his homeland—where he was provincial superior of the Polish Province—to Rome. Before being elected to the General Council, the congregation’s international governing body, in 2018, he was about to begin the final year of his second term as provincial.
He had begun to think about what he wanted to do after completing his term and planned to ask for a year outside of Poland, perhaps a mission in Latvia or Norway. As often happens in the life of a missionary, God had other plans.
Ordained in 1992, Father Koppa was sent to Mexico for his first assignment as a priest. The seeds for his ministry were planted much earlier. When in the seminary, he read Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” a story set in 1930s Mexico when the government banned the Catholic Church. The novel tells the story of a flawed priest who, through suffering and God’s grace, became a saint.
Having grown up under Communism, Father Koppa was intrigued by the story. “The story touched me,” Father Koppa said. “Many times, I go back to that book.
“In 1980s Poland, not much was known about 1920s Mexico,” he said. “I was interested in the Christian movement. If I could do something and be with them [the Mexican people], then I wanted to help.”
He was sent to Lagunia in Hidalgo, Mexico, to work with indigenous and mestizo people who live in remote villages. In ancient times, these people had lived in the Valley of Mexico until the Aztecs expelled them to the north.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century and discovered gold and silver in the region, the Spanish sent them to live in the desert. For centuries, the people survived as shepherds of goats and sheep.
In the mid-20th century, the Mexican government-built water canals in the region. For the first time, they were able to herd cows. By the time Father Koppa arrived in the 1990s, the people had running water and an economy that included dairy production.
Even with the advances of the 20th century, the roads in the region were treacherous. On one occasion on a two-lane highway, two semi-trucks drove side by side towards Father Koppa. He put his arms over his face to brace for the impact. Somehow, the collision never happened. Father Koppa does not know how he was spared, but he knows that it was the hand of God.
After serving in Mexico for four years, Father Koppa was called back to Poland to study moral theology.
“My passion is history, but there were four or five historians and only one moral theologian in the province,” he said.
After completing his studies, he asked to go back to Mexico; instead, he was assigned to the formation team in Warsaw for nine years. When he completed that assignment, he finally received another assignment on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
But, before he left for Paraguay, a friend became provincial and asked him to stay in Poland as his secretary. Following his friend’s term as provincial, he himself was elected as the provincial leader.
We plan, but God has another plan, and it is better for Him to surprise us than for us to put our limited expectations in the forefront, he said.
“In Poland, we have two powerful examples,” he said. “They are signs, showing me the way.”
He called to mind two saints who remind him of this principle: St. John Paul II, who adopted the motto Totus tuu, which means “total confidence in God,” And St. Faustina, who is known for praying, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
He added, “We have to make plans, but we also have to be open because God has plans for much more than what we are planning. We have to be humble and admit that we are building our own kingdom when God is inviting us to be a member of His kingdom.”
What are Father Koppa’s plans for the future? He looks forward to the 150th anniversary of the Society of the Divine Word in 2025. The planning has only begun.
“We invited all of the provinces to participate in the anniversary,” he said. “Each province has a different culture and can help to inform what that charism is, connected with the past. We are different but we are one.
“Interculturality is our treasure,” he continued. “We better understand different cultures when we are open, when we try to dialogue. When we are honest, we discover that more things connect us than divide us. We are all children of God. It is the basic thing that unites us.”