Father Bob Benko was installed Oct. 23 as pastor at St. Mark Church in Boynton Beach by Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito (left). Photo provided by the Diocese of Palm Beach
By Janis Fontaine
St. Mark Catholic Church of Boynton Beach has welcomed a new priest, Father Bob Benko.
“He’s young and full of life,” parish secretary Margaret Askar said. “We’re just very excited about the new energy that he brings to our parish.”
St. Mark is a Conventional Franciscan Parish and Benko is a Franciscan priest and a member of the Franciscan Friars Conventual of Our Lady of the Angels Province, based in Maryland.
Boynton Beach is his fourth assignment — he’s led parishes in New Jersey, North Carolina and Georgia — and he requested Florida because he prefers warm weather.
Growing up in New Jersey can do that to you.
Benko, who will turn 59 this month, was born and raised in the Garden State. He went to Catholic elementary and high schools and then to St. Peter’s College (now University), a private Jesuit school in Jersey City, where he earned an associate degree in business administration.
Although Benko had grown up in the church and been active in the youth ministry in his teens, he had never thought of himself as priest material. Known as a quick learner and a leader, he thought the business world would be his field. He got a job in real estate working as right-hand man to a developer, doing whatever needed his attention. Benko learned a lot, but he wasn’t fulfilled.
In his mid-20s, he heard the call. A calling is like an invitation from God asking you to fulfill your life’s purpose, and to follow God on your path to your destiny.
Benko entered the seminary in Massachusetts and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy with a minor in Franciscan studies and another in English literature. After that, he moved to Staten Island to enter the novitiate for the Franciscan Order, a yearlong program of prayer and discovery before you make your first vows as a Franciscan.
The Franciscan is one of many paths (or orders) within the Catholic church. Some of the most popular are Franciscans, Carthusians, Jesuits, Benedictines, Salesians, Dominicans, Carmelites and Trappists, each with its own focus.
The Franciscans take vows of poverty, meaning they don’t own things such as cars or homes and they attempt to put others before themselves. Their values, beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith — like the importance of charity, benevolence and selflessness — govern all they do.
So, when the church leaders asked Benko to learn Spanish and go to Central America, he said, “Sí.” He traveled to El Salvador and then ended up in Costa Rica. (“Not that Costa Rica,” he says to people who have visited the luxury resorts and rain forests — the tourist face of the country.) Most of the country is incredibly poor “but full of faith,” he said.
That strong faith is shared by the members of his new parish. Now fluent in Spanish, Benko publishes his weekly message in English and Spanish and is comfortable pastoring in both languages, a real asset with his diverse congregation.
St. Mark was established in 1952 and implores the faithful to never be timid in the profession of faith. In its mission, the St. Mark congregation proclaims, “We believe that we are called to be peacemakers, to be people of hope and compassion. We welcome those that are searching for God in their lives.”
The parish has more than 1,900 member families, which translates to about 4,800 people. Like other houses of worship, a declining congregation is one of its biggest concerns.
Benko is just getting to know his parish, its people and what they think is important. He is recruiting members to serve on a pastoral council that articulates the parish goals and finds ways to achieve them.
“We’re asking, ‘How do we want to express our Catholic faith? What is the personality of our church?’” Benko said. He says pastoring without a vision is like rowing a boat with one oar. It’s a lot of work and you don’t really get anywhere.
“How do we use our grace — our God-given gifts, talents and abilities — to make a better world?” Benko asks.
His answer? Baby steps.
First, become a better person (“the person God wants me to be”), then a better spouse and better parent. From there we get a better neighborhood, city, state, nation and, ultimately, world.
“As a priest, I’m trying to show the world a different way,” Benko says. “A better way. I want St. Mark to be the church people are talking about.”
St. Mark is at 643 St. Mark Place (NE Fourth Ave.), Boynton Beach. Mass is celebrated at 9 a.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday; and 8 and 10 a.m., noon and 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 561-734-9330 or visit www.stmarkboynton.com.
Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.