This article originally ran in the March 2017 issue of FAITH Grand Rapids magazine. It is reprinted with permission.
From Schoolyard to Seminary: St. Patrick classmates prepare for priesthood
by Maryalene LaPonsie | Photography by Holly Dolci
Mike Steffes and Johnathan Johnson look like your typical 20-somethings. While catching up on their Christmas break, Mike sports an MSU sweatshirt. Johnathan is in a casual jacket and jeans. You might not know by looking at them, but Mike and Johnathan are embarking on a bold, lifechanging adventure.
The two, who have been best friends since second grade at St. Patrick Catholic School in Portland, are
still classmates. However, they aren’t enrolled at a college or university. Instead, they are both studying at Mundelein Seminary and are on their way to becoming priests for the Diocese of Grand Rapids.It’s a turn of events neither could have predicted when they walked the halls in Portland, but it’s one both Mike and Johnathan say couldn’t have come about without the influence of their early Catholic education.
Planting the seeds of faith
Both born in Lansing, the seminarians had different family upbringings. Mike is part of a blended family, while Johnathan is an only child. “He’s been that brother for me,” Johnathan says of their close friendship.The duo attended St. Patrick School for both their elementary and high school years. They were among a class of 32 to graduate in 2008.
During those years, the idea of a vocation to the priesthood wasn’t something they discussed. Instead, high school was marked by football, basketball, baseball and track. As Johnathan says, “Sports were always the ruling factor at school.”
And yet, both men say if it weren’t for their time at St. Patrick, they may have never made it to the seminary. “We had some good teachers who were good witnesses to us,” Mike says. He recalls one teacher – his senior-year religion teacher – who made a particularly strong impression. “He was just such a man on fire for the faith.”
However, it wasn’t until after they graduated that the seeds of faith planted at St. Patrick began to grow.
Hearing God’s call
The first time Johnathan began considering the priesthood was in fourth grade. “I started altar serving and got into the presence of God at the altar,” he says. He went so far as to tell a teacher he wanted to
be a priest, but that thought was soon overshadowed by sports, college and a serious relationship.
After graduation, Johnathan enrolled at Michigan State University. He became engaged to his girlfriend of three years, and it appeared marriage, not priesthood, would be his vocation in life.
Meanwhile, Mike took a few classes at Lansing Community College and found a job selling baseball cards. “I really enjoyed my job, but I knew there was something missing,” he explains. He credits his Catholic education as what kept sending him back to the idea that God was calling him to a different life.
“I didn’t really want it,” Mike says. “I tried giving God all kinds of excuses.” However, in 2010, he stopped fighting God’s will and entered the seminary.
One friend helping another
Mike’s decision signaled the start of what could be considered a role reversal for the friends. In high school, Johnathan was the lead blocker for Mike on the football field. Now, after graduation, Mike led the way for Johnathan to pursue his vocation.
“I was picking up on hints about it beforehand,” Johnathan says when asked if he was surprised Mike entered the seminary. He recalls one instance when the two attended a Lions-Packers football game together, and Mike walked off to attend Mass.
Once Johnathan’s relationship ended, he sent a letter to Mike about where God might be taking his life. He also joined a discernment group at MSU to, as he puts it, “see what Mike was up to.” Soon, Johnathan was leading that group, and, after earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting, he decided that he should enter the seminary.
“Initially, I was surprised,” Mike says of Johnathan’s interest in the priesthood. However, as the two talked, Mike became increasingly sure that the seminary was right for his friend. “I wanted him to enter because he’d been talking about it for so long.” After briefly considering a Benedictine monastery in Kansas, Johnathan did just that and joined Mundelein Seminary in 2012.
Catholic education fosters vocations
Mike and Johnathan aren’t the first graduates of St. Patrick School to pursue a call to the religious life. Father Ryan Riley, who serves at the St. John Church and Student Center for MSU students, graduated from the high school in 2001. Wendy Rutherford, a 2009 graduate, joined a Franciscan order in Indiana and is now Sister M. Evangeline.
While the seminarians can’t speak for other school alumni, both say their Catholic education was instrumental in helping them pursue their vocations. Johnathan remembers both he and Mike had, at one point, thought about going to public school instead of St. Patrick. The siren song of the city football league was enticing for two boys who loved their sports. However, both remained where they were and say they are better for it. “If I would have [gone to public school], there is no way I’d be where I am today,” Johnathan says.
Mike adds that the vocation initiatives offered in Catholic schools aren’t about pushing people into the religious life. “They want what’s best for that person,” he says. Although there is hope more people will recognize a call to the religious life, the end goal is for students to consider God’s will when charting their future path. “They make sure God is in the picture,” Mike explains of vocational programs.
Next up: The transitional diaconate
After more than six years in the seminary, Mike feels confident the priesthood is his vocation. He completed an internship at Our Lady of Consolation in Rockford last year and says the experience only reinforced his commitment.
This summer, Mike will be ordained to the transitional diaconate. Then, God-willing, he will become a priest in 2018. Johnathan is two years behind and will become a transitional deacon in 2019 and expects to be ordained to the priesthood in 2020.
Going to a Catholic school isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a priest, but being surrounded by the faith on a daily basis can make a difference. “People say pray for more vocations,” Johnathan says, “but we have vocations. We need to foster them.”
Parents, teachers, family and friends can all play an integral role in fostering vocations. As Mike and Johnathan have discovered, so too can Catholic schools.
Michael Steffes will be ordained a transitional deacon by Bishop Walkowiak at a Mass at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 9 at the Cathedral of Saint Andrew. The Mass will also be livestreamed at dioceseofgrandrapids.org
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