MADISON -- David Johannes originally dreamed of being a doctor. “My desire was to help people and heal people,” he said.
He was especially interested in rural medicine. He remembers driving to Madison from Wautoma — an hour and a half trip — when there was a family health emergency. He knew there was a need for more doctors in small towns in Wisconsin.
Active in the Knights of Columbus
Johannes came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for undergraduate studies in genetics. At the university he became active in the Knights of Columbus at St. Paul’s University Catholic Center. “I joined the Knights of Columbus the second day on campus,” he recalled.
Johannes’ father, Fred Johannes, had been active in the Knights of Columbus. “My three brothers and I would be dish washers at the Knights’ pancake breakfasts when we were growing up,” noted Johannes.
He eventually became the grand knight of the UW council, which won the Most Outstanding College Council Award at the national level for two years.
His involvement with the Knights of Columbus included a trip to World Youth Day in Toronto. “I got to see Pope John Paul II up close. He turned and I felt he looked at me and smiled,” he recalled.
“The Knights of Columbus helped me to be a leader and to do it with heart,” said Johannes.
Through the Knights he became involved as a volunteer with the Apostolate to the Handicapped of the Diocese of Madison. He became a server and commentator on the weekly television Masses sponsored by the apostolate on Channel 3.
Acquainted with priests
During his time at the university, Johannes became acquainted with a number of priests, including Frs. Steve Kortendick and Steve Steele at St. Paul’s University Catholic Center; Msgr. Tom Campion, director of the Apostolate to the Handicapped; and Msgr. Dan Ganshert and then Msgr. Paul Swain (now Bishop Swain), who were rectors at St. Raphael Cathedral in Madison. The Knights of Columbus helped decorate the cathedral at Easter and Christmas.
Johannes got to see the priests on a regular basis and admired them. “To see the joy in these priests’ lives was truly inspiring,” he said, although at that time he didn’t think about the priesthood for himself.
He graduated from the university, began working in cardiovascular research, and started a small business with a friend. He still planned to pursue a career in medicine and he also wanted to get married. During this time, he also was asked to be a driver for Bishop William H. Bullock and for Monsignor Campion.
While he was driving for them, Johannes said he learned a lot more about the Mass. “I learned more about the parts of the Mass, the reasons why we kneel and stand, why we use incense.”
He gained a greater appreciation for the Eucharist during this time.
Conversations with God
Bishop Bullock encouraged him to pray. “I started to go before the Blessed Sacrament during Adoration at St. Raphael Cathedral. It was special to me,” said Johannes. “It was a silent conversation with God.”
Johannes asked the Lord to help him pursue his plans to go back to graduate school and to ask his girlfriend to marry him.
Instead, the Lord told him, “Go ask about the priesthood.”
At first, Johannes said “no” to this request. “I was fearful. I kept putting it to the side.”
But the thought of the priesthood persisted. “I finally went to Bishop Bullock and asked for his vocation story. He told me his joyful story. I left thinking, ‘That’s nice for you.’”
Taking the plunge
Still, Johannes continued to think about the priesthood. “I met with Bishop Bullock again and he asked, ‘Do you think the Lord might be calling you to be a priest?’”
Bishop Bullock added, “Sometimes you have to check it out.”
Johannes used to be involved in the Polar Bear Plunge and Bishop Bullock said, “Do you put your toe on the edge? No, you have to take the plunge.”
“That was the best advice I’ve gotten,” said Johannes.
He also recalled the Scripture verse about the annunciation. “Mary’s initial response was fear. But the angel Gabriel (which is my middle name) said, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Mary then says ‘yes’ with her soul and her body.’”
Johannes did take the plunge and was accepted into seminary studies for the Diocese of Madison.
He has attended St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colo., for six years. He plans to be ordained to the transitional diaconate on May 27 of this year in Madison. (Mark Miller, another diocesan seminarian, will be ordained to the transitional diaconate in Rome this year.)
Johannes said the years of seminary study are the “process of proposal,” as when a man proposes to a woman in marriage. “When the bishop puts his hands on your head, that’s the answer. It’s incredible.”
He has enjoyed attending the seminary in Denver. Archbishop Charles Chaput lives on the campus. “We see him often. He’s very encouraging.”
He has and fellow Madison seminarian Garrett Kau enjoy skiing and road biking in Colorado. He appreciates the brotherhood they share.
However, Johannes says there is a bit of homesickness for the Diocese of Madison. “Any time I enter the diocese, I feel home. It’s a great feeling. I thank the people so much for their prayers and support.”
Influence of Sisters
One of his special memories in the seminary was an emersion experience with the homeless in a shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity in Phoenix, Ariz. He was impressed by the Sisters’ calling and their strong faith, which emphasized the importance of the Eucharist.
The Sisters also went to Confession every week and Johannes asked them why they did that when they seemed to live such a holy life. They told him that sometimes we are not living life to the fullest and have sins of omission.
“They influenced me. Confession is very important in my life. I go every week and want to be in His grace. It helps me see deeper into my life.”
He remembers Monsignor Campion saying that he was available at any time to hear confessions. “I hope I can convey to people that I will be available like that, too,” said Johannes.
He emphasizes that priests also need to ask people about vocations. “I’m very thankful to all the priests and bishops — including Bishop Morlino, Monsignor Bartylla, and Father Arinze — and the openness they have. Their joy in their priesthood is so evident.”
His years in Madison weren’t Johannes’ only introduction to vocation stories. His father, Fred, spent eight years in the seminary in the Diocese of Green Bay.
Although he didn’t become a priest, his father prayed that one of his sons would be a priest.
When his mother Azminda was pregnant with him, there were complications. The umbilical word was wrapped around his neck and his mother had much pain. His mother and father went to a person who prayed over her and the pain was lessened.
Johannes was born and although he had to wear braces for a few years and had physical therapy, there were no lingering problems.
His family’s faith was strong, he said. “We grew up in household with a crucifix in every room, even the bathroom.”
His dad had many priest friends and even bishops who would visit their home. “I can recall many priests and nuns who were close to our family and had an influence on me, along with my parents’ faithfulness to the Lord and the Church.”
Appreciates power of prayer
Johannes said he continues to appreciate the power of prayer for vocations. “To have people praying for you by name is so incredible. The seminary is not easy. God’s assistance has to be there. With a calling from God and the prayers of the people, you have the strength to answer the call.
“Prayers mean so much. We don’t always know who’s praying for us. To have the diocese in prayer behind me really strengthens me to keep saying, ‘yes.’”
As he prepares for ordination, Johannes realizes he will still become a doctor — of the spiritual variety. “My desire to be a doctor was to help people, but it is the same with the priesthood: to heal people for eternity and to bring them to Christ. As a doctor, you can heal people, but in the end everyone is called home to the Lord.”
“I’m so excited about the priesthood. I’m ecstatic to serve the people and bring Christ to the people. The Lord is able to speak through me, to be his instrument. He says, ‘I need your eyes, voice, and hands.’
“I’ve spent 31 years of my life and I’m about to be who David Johannes should be.”