Confessions in a squad car
By Bob Okon firstname.lastname@example.org February 1, 2013 9:54PM
Rev. Vytas Memenas marks 40 years as a chaplain for various fire and police agencies as seen in the Holy Family Catholic Church rectory Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Shorewood. He currently serves as chaplain for the Will County Sheriff's Office and Illinois State Trooper Lodge 41. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
MEMENAS THE CHAPLAIN
Illinois State Police District 5 in Will County, Feb. 1, 1973-1979
Joliet Police, 1979-1995
Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge, 1980-2010
Frankfort Police, early 1990s to 1999
Illinois State Troopers Lodge 41 in Springfield, 1999-present
Will County Sheriff’s Department, 2002 to present
MEMENAS THE PRIEST
Holy Family in Shorewood, senior priest in residence
St. Anthony’s in Joliet, administrator
St. Anthony’s in Frankfort, pastor
St. Patrick’s in Joliet, pastor
St. Mary’s in Mokena, pastor
Our Lady of Lourdes in Gibson City, pastor
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:09AM
Rev. Vytas Memenas would ride with Joliet police on overnight shifts years ago when he was the department chaplain. Sometimes, he’d get a request if the patrol cop was Catholic.
“Father, can I go to confession?” an officer would ask.
“Sure,” Memenas would answer.
The police radio would crackle. Memenas would make the sign of the cross and utter, “Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Go ahead.” And, he’d hear confession.
That’s one of the many memories Memenas told The Herald-News in an interview before he marked 40 years as a police chaplain on Friday. At age 83, he’s still chaplain for the Will County Sheriff’s Department and for a state troopers union lodge in Springfield.
Memenas’ experience riding with cops was one reason Sheriff Paul Kaupas asked him to become chaplain when he was first elected in 2002.
“He knows what the (cop’s) job entails,” Kaupas said.
Besides that, Kaupas said, Memenas “is just a great guy. You can sit down and talk with him. If you say something inappropriate, he doesn’t get bent out of shape. He laughs.”
Memenas’ empathy for the police officer is so great that it conflicts with the teachings of the Catholic church in one area. He is against capital punishment, which is the church’s teaching. But, Memenas said, not when it comes to police and other first responders.
“When a law officer is killed in the line of duty, or a firefighter or a paramedic, there should be a death sentence,” he said. “If they are not safe carrying a badge and a gun, then how are we safe?”
Memenas is more familiar than most priests and most people with the shock and pain that comes when a police officer is slain.
One of the police officers he rode with in Joliet was Martin Murrin, who was killed in 1984 while making an arrest. He has consoled police widows. He went to more police funerals than he can count while chaplain for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police State Lodge from 1980 to 2010.
“I went to almost every funeral of an officer killed in duty in the state of Illinois — from Rockford to Missouri,” he said. “I went to Chicago one week three times when three cops were killed.”
Memenas’ devotion to the duties of a police chaplain was recognized in 2007 when he was chosen to deliver the invocation at a ceremony for slain officers at the National Police Memorial in Washington. He preceded the main speaker, who was President George W. Bush.
Memenas was familiar with the perils of a police officer before he first became a chaplain on Feb. 1, 1973, for Illinois State Police District 5 in Will County.
He speaks with a heavy European accent that reflects the heritage of his boyhood in Lithuania. It was a boyhood interrupted by World War II and invasions by Nazi Germany and then communist Soviet Union. He remembers a Soviet tank in the marketplace of his hometown of Anykciai. The communists executed the town police chief. His father, a police sergeant himself, decided it was time for the family to leave Lithuania.
“He knew what was waiting for him — a bullet,” Memenas said.
Memenas spent his high school years in a German refugee camp. He went to Rome to study for the priesthood. In 1957, he came to the United States to work as a priest in the Diocese of Joliet.
Memenas is a retired priest, although he continues to say Masses and hear confessions as senior priest in residence at Holy Family Catholic Church in Shorewood. He continues his work as a chaplain.
“It’s very close to my heart,” he said. “The priest’s job is very, very similar to the police officer’s job. We help people. With the priest, you cannot enforce. You talk with people. With the police, if they catch you doing wrong, they do not talk. They throw the book. That’s the difference. But, I still see that we both help people.”
Memenas’ skills as a chaplain, and as a parish priest, may have been as much his ability to listen as to talk.
He tells of encounters with people in their dark moments, both as a police chaplain meeting with crime victims and as a parish priest serving parishioners, when he barely said anything. Being there and staying to listen seemed to matter most.
Memenas remembers listening for three hours to a woman who had been recently divorced and wanted to talk. It was nighttime, and he was growing tired. He had to fight off sleep to keep listening.
But when the woman was done, “She got up and said, ‘Father, thanks so much for your help.’ I said to myself, ‘If I said 10 words ... ”
Being able to keep his mouth shut probably served him well as a police chaplain.
There were potentially embarrassing moments when he rode with Joliet police and came upon parishioners, such as a group of underage drinkers at a teen party one night.
“Then, I’m standing next Sunday in church and a woman comes to me and said, ‘Oh, my daughter said she saw you,’” Memenas said. “My philosophy was what I saw from the squad car stayed in the squad car. I didn’t say, ‘Yes, I saw your daughter. She had a beer can in her hand.’”
And, a cop did not have to be a Catholic giving confession for Memenas to keep what he heard to himself. When a police officer confided in him about problems at work or at home, Memenas said, he kept the conversation to himself.
If the squad cars in which he has rode with police were not sacred places, Memenas describes them as if they were.
“To me,” he said, “the squad car was like a confessional box.”