ANDOVER, Minnesota — Priesthood was a natural calling for Charles Untz, but he would never realize that dream because after a tragic car accident took his life March 20, 2000.
But the faith, piety and spirit-filled joy the beloved son of Steve and Ellen Untz of Andover, exhibited throughout his 18 years on earth has had an impact on people across the globe, including Father Steve Hansen, pastor of the Cathedral St. Joseph in St. Joseph, Missouri.
He personally experienced Charles’s intercession and credits it for saving his priestly vocation.
“Kids who want to live purity, who want to obey their parents and who want to love the church, they imitate Charles,” said Hansen told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “They ask about him. They memorize his prayer.”
The prayer, written for teens by Father David Engo, an Untz family friend from Massachusetts, calls upon Charles’s intercession.
“You gave the grace of purity, prayer, obedience and fidelity to Your servant Charles,” it states. “We now ask You to glorify Your servant Charles on earth by granting the petition we now make through his intercession.” It’s on a prayer card that shows a picture of Charles in his Eagle Scout uniform.
That prayer card has been widely circulated, including by a group of young Catholics from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who decided to hand out the cards at the 2016 World Youth Day in Poland. The youths leader was Hansen.
But he had heard of Charles before that. The Wisconsin native learned about Charles shortly after his death while on a retreat, where the young men were informed of the tragedy and asked to pray.
Later, a classmate at the Franciscan University of Steubenville shared audio cassettes from the funeral with Hansen, who was not yet a seminarian. Charles had considered attending Franciscan University, and applied there and elsewhere, but he died before making a decision about college.
Hansen’s classmate also circulated a column from The Catholic Spirit newspaper written by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, then head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, about after Charles’s funeral reflecting on the young man’s life and faith.
Early in 2020 the archbishop had celebrated Mass at the Untzes’ parish church, Epiphany in Coon Rapids, with Charles as an altar server. The prelate was impressed with the teen’s reverent altar serving.
“Any one of us can look at the untimely death of that young man and wonder out loud to God: ‘Why Charles? He was so good. He could have done so much,'” Flynn wrote. “And the Lord’s silent reply would be: ‘He can do more good from here.'”
At one juncture in the seminary when he was paralyzed by doubt, Hansen heard Charles speak to him while praying in church. It gave him the confidence and clarity he needed to move forward.
He received the call-to-holy-orders letter from his bishop accepting his request March 20, 2006 — the anniversary of Charles’s death. It happened that that year, as in 2000, March 20 was a Monday and the feast of St. Joseph.
“I would not be a priest today if he had not helped me,” Hansen said of Charles. “There’s no question about it. He’s part of the hope that kids need to navigate the many challenges to adolescent and young adult life. He’s also part of the hope that parents and grandparents need, that they can pray for their kids.”
Hansen has been tireless in telling Charles’s story. Every year on the bus ride home from the national March for Life in Washington, Hansen hands out prayer cards and tells the passengers from his diocese about Charles. He’s talked to thousands of people, including Carolyn Anch, youth director at St. Andrew the Apostle in Gladstone, Missouri.
A devotion to Charles revived their fledgling youth group, Hansen said. “When they started praying to Charles, everything changed.”
Today Hansen estimates that 12 to 15 young men from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have been inspired by Charles to pursue the seminary.
The ties between heaven and earth forged by Charles were bolstered by a seminarian from Kansas City named Wesley McKeller, who battled brain cancer for two years and offered up his sufferings to advance the cause of Charles’s canonization.
Wesley felt a special connection to Charles, said his mom, Wendy. “He was young, he wasn’t well known and he had a real heart for God from a young age, and Wes resonated with that. He used to say: ‘If the purpose of my life is to spread devotion to Charles Untz, I’m happy with that.'”
Wesley died in 2016 at age 22. Wendy has no doubt he achieved his goal, and that the two young men are now united in heaven.
“They have a beautiful connection,” she said. “They did down there and they do up there, I’m sure.”
Capecchi writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.