Fr. Dittmer’s vocation benefited from ‘fertile soil’ at home, Emmaus Days

Father Antonio Dittmer raises the monstrance during Benediction at the Spanish Father-Son Encounter April 9 at the Sacré-Coeur Retreat House in Magnolia. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

MOLINE — Father Antonio Dittmer credits his parents, Ramona and the late Richard Dittmer with creating the “fertile soil” for his vocation. Attending Emmaus Days in 1985 nurtured the seeds that had been planted.

“I think Emmaus Days taught me that God has a will for me and if I am faithful to prayer, he will make known to me his will,” Father Dittmer told The Catholic Post.

“Even the first Emmaus Days, when I was before the Eucharist, I think I experienced a very deep awareness of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and so falling in love with the Eucharistic Lord made me even desire more to seek his will and be open to what it is,” he explained.

When I was before the Eucharist, I think I experienced a very deep awareness of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and so falling in love with the eucharistic Lord made me even desire more to seek his will and be open to whatever it is.

Father Dittmer was born May 9, 1971, in Marseilles. The Dittmer family — which included three daughters and five sons — loved their longtime pastor at St. Joseph Church, Father Donald Schladen, a “tell it like it is” crusty German who was not afraid to preach the difficult topics.

“He was a good example of a faithful priest,” Father Dittmer said, noting that Father Schladen vested him at his ordination.

Instead of going to seminary right out of high school, however, Father Dittmer enrolled at Illinois Valley Community College to play football and think things over. It was Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, then vocation director, who asked him, “If you know God is calling you to be a priest why would you ever put that off?”

The following year Father Dittmer entered Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, as a sophomore to study philosophy. Three years later he went to the Pontifical North American College in Rome to begin a five-year licentiate degree program.

He was ordained with Msgr. Jason Gray on July 12, 1997, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria after four years of study, and then returned to Rome to complete his licentiate in moral theology.

Father Dittmer’s parish assignments have been as parochial vicar at Holy Cross, Champaign; administrator at Sacred Heart, Farmer City, and St. John, Bellflower; pastor at St. Hyacinth and St. Patrick, and rector at Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine, all in LaSalle; and St. Mary, Moline, and St. Anne, East Moline. He is currently pastor at St. Mary, Moline.

He has also served as chaplain at The High School of Saint Thomas More, Champaign, and St. Robert Bellarmine Newman Center, Normal, and returned to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary as spiritual director from 2009 to 2012.

Father Dittmer will gather with family and friends at his home parish in Marseilles for a Mass of Thanksgiving and meal in July.

Mail may be sent to St. Mary Church, 412 10th St., Moline, IL 61265.

What drew you to the priesthood?

“Emmaus Days. I obviously received a really wonderful Catholic upbringing from my mom and dad. We always went to church. God was the highest priority at all times in my house. That obviously was the fertile soil,” Father Dittmer told The Catholic Post. “But it was when I went to Emmaus Days in 1985, the summer of my eighth grade year going into high school, for the very first time I met seminarians. And I met young priests.

“The seminarians at the time were men like (Msgr.) Phil Halfacre and (Msgr.) Mark Merdian and (Father) Joe Donton and these are all really great guys. I think what Emmaus Days taught me was that God has a will for me and if I am faithful to prayer he will make known to me his will. . . .

I would not have a vocation if it were not for my mom and dad. . . . They formed me and taught me exceptionally well, so that when godly people did come into my life, the soil was fertile for me to respond. . . .

“Even the first Emmaus Days, when I was before the Eucharist, I think I experienced a very deep awareness of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and so falling in love with the eucharistic Lord made me even desire more to seek his will and be open to whatever it is,” Father Dittmer said. “Seeing these young seminarians who were saying “yes” to Jesus made me realize that I have to keep priesthood as a legitimate possibility. I cannot take that off the table. . . .”

Even so, he thought to himself, “Someone else is called to be a priest, not me.”

While he deferred his entrance to the seminary by one year, Father Dittmer eventually went to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary and said, “It was exhilarating. I knew as soon as I got there that this is where I was supposed to be.”

He added that studying theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome was “glorious.”

“It introduced me to the universal church, the history of the church, the saints, John Paul II,” he said. “Now I’m meeting seminarians from all over the country and not only that, but seminarians, Sisters, and priests from all over the world. And it was a beautiful encounter with all of the movements of the church.”

Greatest influences?

“I would not have a vocation if it were not for my mom and dad,” Father Dittmer said. “They formed me and taught me exceptionally well, so that when godly people did come into my life, the soil was fertile for me to respond. . . . It begins and ends with them, without a doubt.”

Others were Msgr. Rohlfs, who preached at his first Mass; Bill Myers, his football coach at Ottawa High School, and the coach’s brother, Bishop Myers, who inspired Father Dittmer. “He was definitely a spiritual father to me.”

Priest-saints include St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Miguel Agustin Pro, and St. Padre Pio, for the way he celebrated Mass, his love for the Eucharist and his availability in the confessional.

Memorable moments?

Father Dittmer said one memorable moment was serving as miter bearer for Pope John Paul II on June 29, 1994, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. Others include being able to bring his parents to Pope John Paul II’s private chapel for Mass, and renewing their vows at 50 years in St. Francis Church in Chicago, where they were married.

Father Dittmer said it was also special when two former students, Corey Krengiel and Jeremy Freehill, were ordained to the priesthood.

Greatest lessons?

“Get out of the way and let God do his work.” Another is listening to God when he says, “I’m going to run your parish. Just run to my heart.”

From Archbishop Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, he learned that it was important to die to self every day because “if I live for myself, the flock will die.”

Greatest joy?

Hearing confessions. “What is so edifying is when you see someone fall in love with Jesus. It’s just the most beautiful thing — and when you see their lives change and Jesus becoming more and more the center of their life.”

Favorite Scripture passage(s)?

  • John 13:34: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
  • John 3:30: “He must increase; I must decrease.”
  • Hebrews 5:2: “(The high priest) is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness.” This was on Father Dittmer’s holy card 25 years ago. “Because I’m sinner and I’m a big sinner and because my sins are before me always, that particular passage has been comforting for me to know that God is using my own sins to allow me to be compassionate in the confessional and merciful and empathetic,” he said.
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