The Rev. Krzysztof Wtorek has two great loves - God and music. They come together when he leads the rock-gospel choir at Epiphany Church in Longport.
From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Sundays, Wtorek, 58, can be seen leading his choir with his Polish accent on such songs as the traditional spiritual "Somebody's Knocking at Your Door" and the gospel tune "Soon and Very Soon."
The choir, made up of six women, may not be ready for the Bobby Jones Gospel show, but when Wtorek supplements the voices with programmed bass and drum sounds and plays along on keyboard or a Fender Stratocaster, the effect is well beyond what you might expect in a Roman Catholic church.
Dozens of parishioners in the pews are moved enough to clap, sing and and wave their hands to the music.
"The older congregation that is coming, they tell me they always want to have a joyous feeling in the church," Wtorek said. Aside from ministering to people, the joy in his life comes from playing music, he said. "That's how I deliver the music, from my heart."
Wtorek's musical mastery and creativity will travel this summer beyond the walls of his church.
He will lead an international rock-gospel group with singers and musicians from the U.S., Germany and Poland, who will perform in front of Pope Francis and thousands of young people at World Youth Day in Poland.
Eleonora Vespertino, 50, of Margate, has been a member of the Epiphany Church's rock-gospel choir for the past two years. She will be traveling with Wtorek to perform with the international group.
"I think it's a great way to spread the good news of the Lord and to bring people closer to Jesus," she said.
None of this would be happening if not for Wtorek's earlier life as a rock musician. The priest still keeps his hair in a ponytail and sports a beard and mustache from his rebellious rock days.
Wtorek said he learned to play songs such as the Animals' "The House of the Rising Sun" by listening to Polish radio. It's a song he still can play to this day.
Wtorek's days as a rock musician lasted from age 16, when he started in garages, to age 23, when his band, Astat, was able to play in theater-size venues.
When Wtorek came to the United States in 1988 and entered the seminary, he thought his life as a musician was over. Instead, he has found himself creating updated arrangements of traditional hymns, using a variety of instruments and computer software.
Wtorek said he has developed much more as a musician since he became a priest as he has learned how to compose, arranged and improvise.
In each of Wtorek's parish assignments since his ordination in 1995, he has cultivated a music ministry. He was assigned in 2009 to Saint James Church in Ventnor. When the Longort, Margate and Ventnor churches merged into one parish, Holy Trinity, in 2010, he became the associate pastor for all the churches.
Since Wtorek has been doing the rock-gospel mass on Sundays, it's attendance has grown from 30 people at the start to 150 people during the off season to as many as 220 people during the summer, said Basil DiCerbo, the church's Eucharistic minister.
The start of the international gospel-rock group can be traced to eight years ago when Wtorek visited Poland. One of his friends called and asked him to stop in Germany before heading back to this country. Wtorek, whose main instrument is the bass guitar, was asked to play bass with a 98-voice German choir, which sang gospel music, at a concert in a castle.
Wtorek, who lives in Margate, found the German voices singing gospel music to be so beautiful that he asked the choir master if the choir could add its gospel stylings to original songs he had written. He discovered that the German choir had parents and children singing together, just as his Longport choir did.
In 2013, Pope Francis was in Rio De Janeiro for World Youth Day and announced the day would next be marked in Krakow, Poland.
"When I heard that, my heart was moved. I said, 'Wow,' and of course, all these people are calling me and asking me, 'Yeah, are you going to play? The Pope is coming.'"
Wtorek and his friend in Germany began to prepare for the chance to play for the Pope. Group members, including Wtorek's nephew, who plays drums and saxophone, held rehearsals using Skype.
Last year, the international group entertained at a preliminary concert in Krakow, Poland. Wtorek also worked on his music, making recordings in his studio he has just off Saint James Church in Ventnor. He posted the songs on iTunes and began filling out the forms to apply for his group to perform during World Youth Day.
"When I was in Poland, we met with the different heads of the Youth Festival, and they told me, 'Yes, we want you to come. We want you to perform the material that you presented,'" said Wtorek.
Wtorek has a letter from Dennis J. Sullivan, bishop of Camden, that allows him and his group to participate in World Youth Day, which will be held from July 25 to 31.
The aim of Wtorek's music is to make people happy. People want to be happy, he said, and the desire for happiness without God sometimes drives them to do things that are self-destructive, such as turning to drugs.
"This is really evangelisation," he said of his music. "You can be happy. You can be peaceful. You can be meditative," Wtorek said. "I believe in that. I put my life into that."