KEIZER — For Father Gary Zerr, finding lost baggage was good training for priesthood.
“People wanted to hear a voice of compassion and that I might have a solution,” says Father Zerr, 56-year-old pastor of St. Edward Parish in this bustling suburb north of Salem.
As he hears confessions, counsels estranged couples, consoles bereaved families, preaches and oversees construction of a new 800-seat church, the priest uses those American Airlines skills all the time. Now he’s helping people find God.
In high school in Los Angeles, while young Gary Zerr had plans to be a physician or a journalist, he also started attending the parish youth group. There, he learned about having a personal relationship with Jesus. He began exploring his vocation and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. For one college assignment, he was to review the ancient monastic rule of St. Benedict. It thrilled him.
In 1978, after graduation from college, he entered St. Andrew Benedictine monastery northeast of Los Angeles. But it wasn’t long before he realized it was not the life for him. “I had not lived enough to go into a monastery,” he says. “There is a difference between what you are expecting at that age and what you get.”
He soon landed a job at American Airlines, selling tickets on the phone. He found the work miserable, but enjoyed the big salary and the benefits, which included a travel card that allowed him to board a plane bound for anywhere in the world.
After caring for his dying grandmother in the mid-1980s, he got another job at the American Airlines lost baggage office in Beverly Hills. He encountered irate politicians and haughty film stars. “Sometimes, it was like dealing with original sin eight hours a day,” he says. He also helped a great many kind and gentle customers and felt inspired by them.
He rented an apartment across from St. Jerome Church in Los Angeles and got active in the parish. He attended daily Mass and then started coming early, inspired by the older women he saw there deep in prayer. Despite shyness, he became a eucharistic minister and a lector. He was then invited to be the sacristan, with his own key to the church.
Meanwhile, he kept traveling the world with his handy card. “I was praying about my vocation, but not doing anything about it,” he says. “When you’re dealing with Jesus, after awhile he won’t let you get away with that.”
After a promotion and relocation offer, he realized that he didn’t want to leave Los Angeles; it wasn’t because of the job. It was because of the parish.
“The parish had become my real job,” he says. “I realized my life was at the church.”
He let himself into St. Jerome one night and threw his cherished travel card into the sanctuary and told God: “You can have this.” He decided to start applying to seminary fast, afraid he might “chicken out.”
He decided on Mount Angel Abbey, where he could discern both monastic life and diocesan priesthood. He was accepted as an Archdiocese of Portland seminarian in 1992.
At first, he seemed shy and ill-suited at seminary. The notion of preaching terrified him. But he felt compelled to continue. Slowly, he found he was good at what a priest needed to be. He was drawn to prayer, he listened and he could even preach.
“You need to meet your fears,” he says. “You have to take that first scary step, then God will be there to help.” He was ordained in 1997 at age 40.
He has learned that a priest should be a leader, but not a human bulldozer. His goal is to empower laity. “That’s what makes St. Ed’s the great place it is,” he says. “God does not want me to be the Lone Ranger or Superman.”
“He’s very committed to his priesthood and to the people he serves,” says Father Tim Mockaitis, pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem. “He’s a very prayerful guy who still has something of a monastic spirit. He loves the busy diocesan priesthood yet there is that sense of prayer and contemplation that he tries to live out.”
Cindy Harris, the office manager at St. Edward, says Father Zerr is “a wonderful pastor, a true man of God who lives and breathes his faith.”
Parishioners, Harris explains, appreciate how he relates the gospel to everyday life. “That gift makes his homilies extremely user friendly,” she says.
Harris reports that the priest strongly believes in the healing that takes place during confessions. He often encourages parishioners to have their slate wiped clean.
“Father Gary has a gift of looking at experiences in life and drawing God into all those situations — we are not alone,” Harris says. “He does that with a sense of humor and humility. He uses situations that annoy him to become opportunities of grace — teaching us to do the same.”