For Johnson, ‘risky decision’ to enroll in seminary paid off

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | May 15, 2019

Editor’s note: Bishop David Ricken will ordain two men to the transitional diaconate on Sunday, May 19. Here The Compass profiles Ben Johnson. Click on the following name to read a profile of the other deacon candidate:

ALLOUEZ — During Ben Johnson’s first three years at Lourdes Academy in Oshkosh, the priesthood was by no means a possibility. Thankfully, he said, he experienced a renewal of faith as a high school senior. Johnson will be ordained to the diaconate on Sunday, May 19, at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay. He is scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in the summer of 2020.

Ben Johnson

Johnson, the son of Jerry and Mary Johnson, grew up in Oshkosh, first as a member of St. Raphael the Archangel Parish and then St. Josaphat Parish, which merged with St. Mary and St. Peter parishes to form Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in 2007.

“I remember Fr. Dan Felton at St. Raphael,” he said. “My parents gave me the middle name ‘Daniel’ because of him. Last year, we had a casual meeting and I told him that. He baptized me.”

Johnson’s family attended Sunday Mass and prayed before meals and at bedtime. He attended St. Francis Cabrini Elementary School and St. John Neumann Middle School before deciding to continue his education at Lourdes.

“Our parents gave us our first major life experience decision by letting us decide where we wanted to go to high school,” said Johnson, who has five sisters. “I stayed in the Catholic school.”

While in high school, he began to question the faith.

“My faith ranged from weak to nonexistent,” said Johnson. “Throughout high school I was like, ‘No, this is not for me. It’s science versus religion.’ I was questioning things.”

A part-time instructor at Lourdes helped Johnson rediscover his faith during his senior year.

“I took an elective with him by chance because I was trying to get out of another class,” explained Johnson. “I had never met him before. This guy took the time, even after class, to accompany me on my faith journey. He brought me back. We discussed my questions. He facilitated a big return to faith.”

Johnson was a good math and science student, and had an interest in chemistry, so he wanted to study chemical engineering after high school at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). Unfortunately, when he arrived on campus, he discovered that MSOE didn’t offer chemical engineering, but biomolecular engineering appealed to him.

“A secondary vocational aspect began to rise,” he said. “Whatever I do, I want to make sure I’m doing good for people. I want to give myself for the good of other people.

“I came across the biomolecular engineering table (at the academic fair) and they talked about cancer research,” he added. “I could see myself being happy and fulfilled giving my life for something like cancer research.”

Johnson’s prayer life continued to grow in college, even though he described it as “very messy, muddy prayer” at that time.

“It was real and genuine,” he said. “I was getting good grades. I had more friends than ever before, but something was off. I thought it was homesickness, but it didn’t go away when I was home. Now I can say that it was the sense that you are not where you are supposed to be. I didn’t know what that looked like, but this sensation only left when I would go to Mass or to the nearby church and pray by myself. Sometimes, it was hard because, being in Milwaukee, the church doors were often locked. I would just pray while I walked.”

While at Mass, Johnson began to be drawn to how the priest connected people to God. Considering himself to be a “super open-minded” person he felt a need to be truly open to the call to the priesthood.

“There was something happening,” he said. “I called my mom. She facilitated a connection with Fr. (Daniel) Schuster (former diocesan vocation director). Fr. Schuster helped me discern.”

Johnson was accepted at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minn., which is connected to St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Following a year at MSOE, he spent the next three years in college seminary.

“I like to tell people that I entered seminary because I had a lot of questions that needed answering and I stayed because I found those answers,” he said. “I found purpose and fulfillment.”

Following Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, and prior to moving on to Mundelein Seminary at University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., where he currently studies, Johnson spent a year serving at Sacred Heart Parish and School in Shawano. Fr. Luke Ferris was the pastor at Sacred Heart at the time. Johnson wanted to experience daily life at a parish.

“It’s an awesome school,” he said. “A lot of the day-to-day was in the school. I also became involved in religious education and youth ministry, wherever I could help.”

While at Mundelein, Johnson has assisted at St. Alphonsus Parish in Chicago, a couple miles from Wrigley Field, as part of the seminary parish teaching program. He will serve as a deacon at St. Alphonsus during his final two semesters at Mundelein. This summer, he will serve as a deacon with Fr. Joel Sember, pastor at Holy Trinity Parish, Oconto; St. Anthony, Oconto Falls; and St. Patrick, Stiles.

Johnson looks forward to the preaching opportunities as a deacon, even though he describes himself as someone who is shy and doesn’t like to be the center of attention.

“A lot of the pressure was taken off when I learned the nature of the priest,” he explained. “Pope Francis (in Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel) shared that the Gospel has all that we need. The priest’s job is retelling of the Gospel, directed toward the people in the messiness of their modern lives; making it relevant.”

Fr. Ryan Starks, pastor of St. Therese Parish in Appleton, will vest Johnson at the ordination Mass. Johnson completed an internship at St. Therese during the second semester of his theology II year at Mundelein. He expects his thoughts on ordination day to turn to family and friends and the faith renewal he experienced.

“To go from junior year of high school with no faith to freshman year of college where I’m signing on for seminary was the most risky life decision I’ve ever made, but it totally paid off,” said Johnson.

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