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Msgr. John Enzler, Catholic Charities head and ‘pastor to the poor,’ to retire from that post in spring 2023

Msgr. John Enzler, at center, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, serves food outside the agency’s headquarters in a 2014 photo, joined by John Carroll Society volunteers Bill Chip and Michael Huston at left and Valencia Camp at right. On Sept. 20, Catholic Charities announced that Msgr. Enzler will be retiring in spring 2023. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Msgr. John Enzler, who became Catholic Charities’ “pastor to the poor” when he began leading that agency of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington 11 years ago, will retire from that post next year as he marks his 50th anniversary as a priest.

Catholic Charities announced on Sept. 20 that Msgr. Enzler will retire as the agency’s president and CEO in spring 2023, and after that, he will continue to support its social justice mission and fundraising efforts. A national search for a new Catholic Charities CEO is now underway.

The priest, who is known as “Father John,” led the agency through a period of expansion in its outreach as it inaugurated several new programs to serve those in need, including support to newly arrived immigrants in the Washington area and outreach to families experiencing domestic violence. His personal motto of “say yes” to those in need became a rallying cry for Catholic Charities’ staff and volunteers, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency served a record number of people.

“Father John has served the poor with incredible devotion during his tenure as CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington,” said Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington. “His skills and ability to encourage others to engage in the Church’s ministry of social justice has been a blessing that will be difficult to replicate. Merely thinking about Msgr. Enzler’s approaching retirement brings me great pride and deep gratitude.”

Catholic Charities DC – the largest non-governmental social outreach agency in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area – serves more than 167,000 men, women and children annually in Washington and the five surrounding Maryland counties. The agency’s more than 50 programs provide care for families, support to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty, assistance to people experiencing food insecurity, health care for the uninsured and shelter for the area’s homeless. 

During the last fiscal year, Catholic Charities served more than 2.9 million meals, and provided medical and dental assistance to 7,301 people.

John Veihmeyer, the chair of the Catholic Charities Board of Directors, offered congratulations and thanks to “Father John for his inspiring leadership of Catholic Charities and his 50 extraordinary years as a priest.” 

Praising Msgr. Enzler’s pastoral approach, Kevin Virostek, the chair emeritus of the agency’s board, said, “Whether it was the unemployed looking for work, the hungry looking for food, or the homeless looking for shelter, he has been there to serve.” He added, “On a personal level, he has always been there to baptize our babies, preside over the marriages of our children, counsel us in troubling times and bury our loved ones. He has never demonstrated the ability to say ‘no’ — only ‘yes!’”

In a 2015 photo, Msgr. Enzler high-fives a student at the dedication at the St. Maria’s Meals program being offered outside Catholic Charities’ Susan D. Mona Center in Prince George’s County, which offers health and wellness and feeding and nutrition programs and legal services. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Now ‘the pastor for the poor’

Msgr. Enzler, who turned 75 on June 10, had hinted in his “Faith in Action” columns in the Catholic Standard newspaper in recent years that he might step down as Catholic Charities’ leader either at that age or during the year when he marked his 50th anniversary as a priest.

A native of Washington, D.C., John Enzler grew up attending Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Bethesda, Maryland, graduating from that parish’s elementary school and then St. John’s College High School in Washington. After earning a degree in political science from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, he entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1973.

As a parish priest, he served as a parochial vicar at the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, and later as pastor of Mount Calvary in Forestville, Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac, and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington. He also served as executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization and Office of Youth Ministry, and as the archdiocesan director of development.

After Msgr. Enzler was named to lead Catholic Charities in 2011, a friend asked him if he would miss being a pastor, and then added, “Now you’re the pastor for the poor.”

The priest said he realized that instead of being a pastor serving a parish in a geographical area, he would be a pastor serving those in need.

“If you’re poor, I’m your pastor. If you’re vulnerable, I’m your pastor. If you’re in need, I’m your pastor. I love the fact that’s what people see in me, and that’s what I try to do,” he said in an interview.

Before coming to Catholic Charities, Msgr. Enzler had helped found Potomac Community Resources that provides community-based programs for teens and adults with developmental differences, and the Shepherd Foundation that has raised millions of dollars to help students in need attend local Catholic schools.

The new Catholic Charities programs started under Msgr. Enzler’s leadership include:

  • The Newcomer Network, which helps newly arrived immigrants become established in this area;
  • St. Maria’s Meals, that distributes nutritious meals to people in need at three locations;
  • The Financial Stability Network, which provides financial mentoring, budgeting help and tax preparation for low-income individuals;
  • Cup of Joe, which serves a pre-packaged breakfast to people in homeless shelters;
  • The Compass Program, which has social workers offering intensive case management for people seeking well-being and self sufficiency in Wards 7 and 8;
  • and the Family Peace Initiative, which assists families experiencing domestic violence.

Meeting Jesus in the poor

Explaining his approach to priestly service, and his leadership of Catholic Charities, Msgr. Enzler said, “Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of doing your best to say ‘yes’ in every possible situation, and ‘no’ only when you have to.”

The priest said he is guided by Jesus’s words in Matthew 25: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“That particular Gospel speaks to me, basically (saying), ‘You want to meet Jesus, be with the poor… I actually meet Jesus every day in ways that have changed my life,” he said, adding, “I loved being a parish priest, but this is the best job I’ve ever had.”

He noted that on a recent evening, he had attended one of Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals food distribution programs, not to give out food, but to visit with the people coming there for help.

“I don’t serve food anymore. I just want to sit and talk and hear their stories,” he said, describing how one woman thanked him for the meal, saying she hadn’t eaten all day. “Those moments say to me, you really are meeting Jesus in these people.”

Msgr. Enzler said he advises his staff, “Don’t you worry about changing the world. I hope you can say every night, before you go to bed, ‘I helped one person today get what they needed, and brought them closer to God.’”

After his first two years of leading Catholic Charities, Washingtonian magazine honored Msgr. Enzler as a 2012 Washingtonian of the Year.

Three years later, Pope Francis stopped by the headquarters of Catholic Charities during his 2015 papal visit to Washington and spent time with the agency’s clients, staff, volunteers and supporters.

“That was the highlight of my priesthood… having the pope come to visit our ministry at Catholic Charities,” Msgr. Enzler said. He noted that after Pope Francis gave the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, “He leaves there and comes to be with the poor, at St. Patrick’s (Church) and our place… He was in his element.”

During his 2015 papal visit to Washington, Pope Francis hugs a boy as he stops by Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals Program, where he met with people helped by the agency and some of its volunteers and staff. (Catholic Charities photo by Tony Powell)

The ‘power of partnerships’

In a “Faith in Action” column about his ministry with Catholic Charities, the priest stressed “the power of partnerships.” He noted how Catholic Charities’ Susan D. Mona Center, in Temple Hills, Maryland, in a partnership with the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health and Doctor’s Hospital, features dental and medical clinics, legal services, and food outreach.

Catholic Charities also partnered with the University of Maryland and the Maryland State Dental Association Foundation to provide several Mid-Maryland Mission of Mercy programs hosted by the university, where in 2019, 500 volunteer dental and medical professionals served more than 1,000 patients in need.

In early 2020, more than 5,000 solar panels on Catholic Charities property in Northeast Washington, D.C., became operational, forming the largest solar array in the nation’s capital. The energy generated by the array offsets nearly all the energy costs for Catholic Charities’ 12 buildings in the District of Columbia, freeing up that money for the agency’s programs serving people in need. 

The solar array’s partners included Catholic Charities, which is leasing the land; IGS Solar which financed the project; and Solar Energy Services, the general contractor that constructed the array. Catholic Energies – a program of the Catholic Climate Covenant based in Washington – was the project’s developer. 

Then-Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, laugh before the 2019 blessing of a solar array on property owned by Catholic Charities. Behind them and in the photo below are some of the more than 5,000 ground-mounted solar panels now generating energy there. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

Doing God’s work

Throughout his leadership of Catholic Charities, Msgr. Enzler has praised the agency’s staff and volunteers, saying they “do God’s work, day in and day out.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic as they provided boxes of food to people lined up in cars, some Catholic Charities staff and volunteers wore T-shirts labeled with Msgr. Enzler’s motto, “Say yes.”

“They were first responders,” the priest said.

A volunteer gives out grocery boxes during a Catholic Charities food distribution in August 2021 outside St. Bernard of Clairvaux Church in Riverdale Park, Maryland. (Catholic Charities photo)

In the pandemic’s first year between the spring of 2020 and 2021, the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities served a record 235,000 people who were helped through its large-scale food distributions, new teleservices and a range of outreach that included health services, job training and English as a second language classes.

Also during the pandemic under Msgr. Enzler’s leadership, Catholic Charities’ supporters in the archdiocese and the community responded with record generosity, raising more than $100 million for the agency’s capital campaign.

Asked about his approach to fundraising, the priest said, “It’s all relationships,” noting that he has drawn upon the relationships he formed during his years as a parish priest to encourage local Catholics and other community members to support programs serving those in need. “I really actually think this was all planned by God,” he said. “I think God wanted me to have relationships so I could use those in order to help me do my work with the poor.”

Vocation began at home

A vocations profile of Msgr. Enzler noted that his phone message was, “Remember today is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.”

In interviews about his priesthood, Msgr. Enzler has often said his vocation began at home, inspired by his parents, the late Deacon Clarence Enzler and Kathleen Enzler, who raised 13 children and led family life efforts in the archdiocese for many years.

“My priesthood is completely about my mom and dad’s example, inspiration and influence,” he said.

When John Enzler was a young boy, he liked to tag along with his father to daily Mass, and he remembers a time a poor man asked them for help on a cold day, and his father took off the coat that he was wearing and handed it to the man.

“You witness that, and you say, ‘That’s how you’re supposed to live, how you take care of the poor,’” the priest said.

Msgr. Enzler recalled how as children, he and his siblings sometimes knelt on different steps as they prayed the family rosary together. Growing up in a big family prepared him for his work as a priest, he said, adding, “I was used to working with all ages and learning to give and take and work things out.”

The priest joked that most of the parishes where he’s served have been “within jogging distance” of his family’s Bethesda home. Since being appointed to lead Catholic Charities, he has been in residence at St. Bartholomew Parish in Bethesda, about two and one-half miles from where he grew up.

While on his weekdays he’s working downtown at Catholic Charities’ headquarters, Msgr. Enzler explained that, “My weekends, I’m like a parish priest. I’m doing two Sunday Masses. I have a wedding, Baptism or funeral every week.”

Msgr. John Enzler at right prays during a 2016 Mass at the St. Ursula Chapel in the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, that honored priests celebrating milestone anniversaries that year. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The gift of priesthood

The greatest blessing of his priesthood, he said, remains “celebrating Mass, having people come to church and being able to walk with them to be closer to the God. The Eucharist is the key part of that. You’re walking with people who are seeking Jesus, and you’re part of that journey.”

He added, “The priesthood is really one of the greatest vocations you can imagine…It’s been a huge blessing.”

In August 2020, Msgr. Enzler had open heart surgery, and his recuperation required two months of rest. “I learned to be more into Jesus, to be more into prayer, to be more into taking care of myself. I am a worker, and I couldn’t wait to get back out and be busy again,” he said.

But he added that having to stay at home during the initial weeks of the pandemic “was tougher than that for me. When COVID-19 came in March 2020, the first few months for me were very difficult. I couldn’t do any Masses, I couldn’t do any weddings, Baptisms or funerals.”

At that point, he thought to himself, “Retirement will be tough for you, unless you stay busy.” And in his retirement, he plans to continue his priestly ministry. He added, “I have no fear of death at all.” His approach, he said, is “Do the best you can. Let God take over. God’s in charge.”

This year, Catholic Charities has faced new challenges, including the influx of buses carrying migrants from Texas and later also Arizona, that began arriving at Union Station during Holy Week. Msgr. Enzler and Catholic Charities staff members were there when the first buses arrived, and the agency has continued to serve the asylum seekers. Catholic Charities is now providing casework for nearly 100 families from Venezuela, 352 people including 152 children who are now being housed at a D.C. hotel. The agency is helping them find jobs, schooling and assisting them with immigration appointments.

“This is what we do, we help people who are in need,” Msgr. Enzler said. “…This is really helping people change their lives.”

Msgr. John Enzler, who was ordained as a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington in 1973, served as a parish priest for many years before being named as the president and CEO of the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities in 2011. (Catholic Charities photo)

For most of his priesthood, he served as a parish priest. Then in 2011 when Msgr. Enzler was named to head Catholic Charities, he came to understand that he was now “a pastor to the poor.” He is convinced that the trajectory of his life, and his ministry, has all been part of God’s plan.

“It’s a great gift to be able to share your gifts with those in need,” he said.

In a 2018 photo, Msgr. Enzler greets a guest getting food at the St. Maria’s Meals program outside Catholic Charities’ headquarters in downtown Washington. (Catholic Charities photo by Will Espinoza)