by Gordon Nary
Gordon: How old were you when you first considered becoming a priest? With whom did you discuss it and what was their advice?
Will: Growing up in a strong Catholic family, I always knew that the priesthood was an option, but I never seriously considered it until college. When I was younger, I always had the mindset that if I was not married by a certain age, then I could consider the priesthood. This was not the right way to think about the priesthood, but it’s the reality of how I felt at that time.
I was 19 when I first legitimately considered becoming a priest. It was my sophomore year at Wichita State University. At first, I started meeting with the pastor at the Newman Center at Wichita State in what was a kind of informal spiritual direction. I also met a few times with another priest I trusted, the former pastor from my home parish. Because I was very uncertain about entering the seminary at the time, these priests advised me to continue with my studies while becoming more involved with the Catholic community at the Newman Center. It was important for me to not make a hasty decision and to use my time at Wichita State to actively discern to what vocation the Lord was calling me. Because I was, at the time, already nearly halfway finished with college, I could finish my degree and, if I still felt the call, enter seminary afterwards. That way, I could be patient with myself and not rush into a decision while remaining open to whatever God’s will would be. The priests also stressed the importance of developing a deep prayer life. The priests advised me that discerning a vocation, whatever that vocation is, must be centered on following the will of the Lord. A person can only honestly do this if he or she has a relationship with Him. The Newman Center had Eucharistic Adoration once a week, so that was very important for me to deepen my relationship with Christ. The priest from the Newman Center gave me a few resources as well, one of which was “To Save a Thousand Souls” by Fr. Brett Brannen. This book is specifically for men who are considering the priesthood, and in the book, Fr. Brannen uses personal anecdotes to help explain the reality of the priesthood.
Though I was stubborn and would not enter seminary until two years after first hearing the call, it was extremely important for me to speak with priests. Although my experiences were different than both the priests I spoke with, they were very helpful because they each had experienced God calling them in their own lives, and were thus able to help me discern where the Lord was leading me. Ultimately, I had to make the decision on my own to follow God’s beckoning, but I could not have done so without the guidance of priests I trusted.
Gordon: Please provide an overview of your discernment process.
Will: Like I mentioned, I was in my sophomore year at Wichita State when I first felt the Lord’s call to the priesthood. I was at mass at the Newman Center when I felt a strong urge to do what Father was doing, an urge to be a priest. I did not hear a voice or anything like that; the call for me was simply a desire to celebrate the Mass. At this time, I had a girlfriend, and I did not want to give that up. I wanted to be a husband and a father. I wanted to be a police officer. I was very focused on doing what I wanted, which is the message that our society feeds to us. We are told that we can do whatever we want to do, that what we want or like is good for us and we should do that. Such a mindset is contradictory to truly living a Christian life, unless a person’s will and God’s will were perfectly in line with each other. This is the reality of only one human person who has every walked this earth, and she is the one we call the Immaculate Conception and the Mother of God. I am not her, so my will is not perfectly in line with God’s will. As a sophomore at a state university, I did not want to sacrifice my will to do what someone else, even if that someone else is God, wanted.
After feeling the first desire for the priesthood, I met with the pastor at the Newman Center and with my former pastor. As I explained in the previous question, these meetings were vitally important to me, but I did not realize that at the time. Because I thought that the priesthood was so contradictory to what I wanted, my goal was to find reasons to not enter seminary. I wanted to prove to myself that I had looked into the seminary and found it to be not what I was meant to do. However, the more I learned about it and prayed about it, the more strongly I felt about entering the seminary. I therefore tried to repress the thought completely, which was not the ideal thing to do. The girl whom I was dating at the time of my first call had broken up with me because I was “too Catholic.” Rather than see that as a very clear sign, I instead tried to shrug that off and continue dating. Each time I would begin a new relationship with a girl, I would tell myself that God certainly couldn’t be calling me to the priesthood because I had new girlfriend. This is another example of me trying to find an excuse to not enter the seminary. Each time a relationship would end, I would be left with a desperate feeling because I would have to confront God’s call.
I continued with this cycle of dating and repressing God’s call, then feeling desperate when the relationship ended, for two years. In this time, I had stopped meeting with the priests on a regular basis. I continued my involvement at the Newman Center, but I did not want to have anything to do with the priesthood. I was very much like Jonah in the Old Testament. I tried to hide from the Lord, but He always has a way of finding His lost sheep. Every Lent, the pastor at the Newman Center would give out books for all of us college students to read. My senior year, Father gave out copies of “Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Loves” by Jason Evert. I took a copy, not intending to actually read it. I was involved in a men’s group at the Newman Canter, and they met after the Ash Wednesday mass. They had decided to read the book for Lent, so each member should have read the first chapter by the next week. I went back to my room and started reading out a sense of duty. However, after reading the first chapter, I moved on to the second, then the third, and so on until I had read the entire book in just a couple of days. The life of the saint opened me up to a reality that I always knew intellectually, that the priests had told me, but that I never internalized in my heart. John Paul II lived his life dedicated to the Universal Call to Holiness. This is the fact that every person is called to sainthood. That means that I, Will Stuever, am called by God to be a saint. God actively desires that I become a good, holy person, and that I live with Him in Paradise for eternity. John Paul II also showed me that the easiest way to become a saint is to follow God’s will. God created me, and God is all-loving, all-knowing, all-perfect in every way. God wants me to be with Him, and He knows how I can come to be with Him. His will necessarily leads me to Him. Saint John Paul II helped me internalize these facts in such a way that, by the time I was finished with the book, I knew that I had to enter the seminary, and that I could no longer continue doing whatever I wanted. I was able to see that to fight against God’s will is simply to fight against my own happiness. If God were truly calling me to be a priest, than that life is not going to lead me to misery, but to happiness. It is not being a husband or a father or a police officer that will fulfill me, but rather it is living out my life as the Father is calling me to live, living out my life as a son of the Father, that will lead me to fulfillment. I then called the Office of Vocations for the Diocese of Wichita and started the application process.
Gordon: Why did you choose Mundelein Seminary?
Will: The application process for the Diocese of Wichita involves several interviews and essays, as well as a psychological evaluation. After completing many of the steps and after it became clear that, barring any setbacks, I would enter the seminary, the Vocation Director for the Diocese of Wichita began talking with me about where I might be going. At that time, the spring of 2015, the Wichita seminarians were sent either to Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis or to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Beginning that fall, Wichita would be sending seminarians to Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. My Vocation Director told me that there was a group a men transferring from the two other seminaries to Mundelein, and that he would like to send me to Mundelein with them. He asked me if I was okay with that. By that time, I was excited to finally give myself over to the Lord, and I told my Vocation Director that I would go wherever he sent me, and if that’s Chicago, then I’d be happy to go there. I did not so much choose to come to Mundelein as much as Mundelein was chosen for me.
Gordon: When you attended Wichita State University, you earned a degree in Criminal Justice. In your opinion, what are the major challenges facing the criminal justice system and what are your recommendations on ways to resolve them?
Will: Studying Criminal Justice in college gave me a new perspective on the criminal justice system. The American criminal justice system is focused on punishing the offender. This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but with this mindset, there is not much of a concern with the rehabilitation of the offender. One major problem in such a system is that recidivism is very high; people who have served time have a high chance of reoffending in the future. Often, when a person is finished with a jail sentence, he or she may be shunned by family or loved ones, have a very hard time finding a job, and may be in financial trouble. In such situations, a person may feel that there is no option but to return to crime. Thus the system can be a vicious cycle. As far as how to solve that, it would not be easy. I do not want to downplay the importance of punishing offenders; it is in accord with justice for a criminal to receive an appropriate punishment. But when we only focus on punishing the offender, we are not doing all that we can to better our society. We would be better off if, while incarcerated, offenders received rehabilitation so as to prevent reoffending. We would be better off if, after serving an appropriate sentence, offenders had opportunities to lead a somewhat normal life. Ultimately, this would require a complete change in our attitude of our society towards offenders. This would require heroic Christian acts by the faithful. I think here of Jean Valjean of Les Miserables; he served an unjust sentence, and after receiving parole, he stayed with the bishop and attempted to steal valuables from the bishop. When he was caught and returned to the bishop, the bishop told the policeman that he had given Valjean the valuables, and that Valjean had forgotten to take what was most valuable, a pair of candlesticks. When the policeman had left, the bishop told Valjean that he had purchased Valjean’s soul for God. This event so shook Valjean that he transformed his life and became a true hero. It was an amazing act by a Christian that shook Valjean to the core and changed his life.
Another problem with the criminal justice system is the prevalence of mental illnesses in prisons. There are many criminals who have a mental disability of some sort, and the prison setting is not a healthy one for them. In many instances, a person with a mental illness who is imprisoned is sent to solitary confinement because that is the only way for the person to serve his or her time without causing disruption. While in solitary confinement, a person with a mental disability usually only gets worse, and so the person ends up serving a longer time than what was originally sentenced, and he or she is worse off after being incarcerated. Again, this is a complex issue. It is just for a society to hold its people accountable for their actions and punish when necessary. Solitary confinement is a legitimate possibility for certain cases. In most cases, though, it is not helpful for the individual. This also reveals another problem: the workers in the criminal justice system, especially the prison guards, do not receive the appropriate training for dealing with such people. There simply are not enough resources or time to be able to properly train prison guards to adequately deal with people with mental disabilities. The guards then feel as though there is no other option but to put such people into solitary confinement. A solution to this issue is not an easy one. Greater training for the people working in the criminal justice system is certainly necessary, but that may not be possible with how the system currently is. There has to be major changes, and, though my suggestions may provide insight, they are not sufficient. I don’t know exactly how to improve the system, but I know that it will take a lot of hard work and a transformation in society.
Gordon: We are asked to visit the imprisoned .In your opinion, what can parishes do to remind us of what Christ has asked us?
Will: Visiting the imprisoned is one of the corporal works of mercy, but it is one that many people likely wish they could ignore. It is not easy to visit the imprisoned. In some cases, it’s not possible to visit the imprisoned, especially with today’s criminal justice system. One very basic thing that people can do is to pray for those who are imprisoned. This is not the same as visiting the imprisoned, but it is significant. A story of St. Therese of Lisieux comes to mind. When she was young, Therese read a story of a murderer who had been given the death penalty. Therese enthusiastically wanted to win the soul of this criminal for God, so she dedicated her prayer to him, asking God for a sign that the murderer had changed his ways. After refusing to confess his sins while awaiting execution, the murderer, on the day of his death, embraced a crucifix and kissed the wounds of our Lord. Therese, with her beautiful boldness, saw this as a fruit of her prayers; the man who had seemed like one of the worst people in society had turned to the Lord after she had prayed for him unceasingly.
In order to be able to pray for the imprisoned people, a Christian person must not look upon these people as society does. Christians should see these people with the Christian charity that sees all people as made in the image and likeness of God. This charity does not necessarily mean that we should fight against imprisonment; true charity is in line with true justice. Some people have merited prison time because of their evil actions. These actions, though, do not strip a person of his or her inherent dignity. Even while imprisoned for committing a heinous crime, a person is still loved by God beyond all measure. Our charity should follow the example of Therese of Lisieux. We ought to pray for these people to turn back to the Lord and turn away from sinful lives.
If a person wants to be more involved with caring for the imprisoned, priests need to know how a person can get involved. In the Diocese of Wichita, we have the St. Dismas Ministry for the Incarcerated, which witnesses to and offers “God's unconditional love, compassionate forgiveness, healing justice and holiness to the incarcerated through community worship, personal presence, and varied activities and materials.” This ministry is not well known, but it is an important one. Christ urges us to visit the imprisoned, and this is a way that a person can safely do so. The Archdiocese of Chicago has a similar ministry, the Kolbe House Jail Ministry. These ministries require people to be outside of their comfort zones, to sacrifice time, but to more perfectly follow the Lord’s call to love our neighbor.
Gordon: What impact has the sexual abuse crisis had among the seminarians at Mundelein?
Will: Honestly, I think the sexual abuse crisis has strengthened the Mundelein community. There are many people smarter than me who speak of why this crisis happened and how to move forward. Whatever the reason is, it is examples of priests who did not behave as priests should. It is understood among us seminarians that, if we are to become priests, we have to be good and holy priests. The world does not need priests who are not good and holy. There is a renewed focus on becoming saintly. Before this scandal broke out, the talk at the seminary was how to become priests. Now, the talk is how to become saints. We are very clearly and openly talking about how we can grow in sanctity, about how we can become saints. Having such a focus is very significant, and it brings a community together in a unique way. This focus is prevalent not only among the seminarians; our priests and professors speak of the sainthood more often than ever before. In what we are doing, we are trying to become priests, yes, but more so we are trying to become saints. We speak about the crisis in many, if not all, of our classes. Many priests preach about the crisis during our daily masses. We are not trying to hide from this crisis, but rather acknowledging that it is the reality, but that those sinful actions of those priests and bishops do not accurately reflect Christ’s priesthood. As priests, as Christians, we are called to live lives that proclaim the Good News of Christ. This crisis forces us to strive for sanctity above all else, because the world will eat alive all priests who are not good and holy.
Gordon: What in your opinion are of some of the major challenges that new priests may have to address?
Will: New priests are being confronted with things that were unheard of for previous generations. The extreme sexualization of our society is a huge problem. A person can scarcely watch fifteen minutes of television without being bombarded with sexual messages either from the program or from commercials. Men are treated like uncontrollable sexual beasts and women are treated like mere sexual objects in such a society. This is not healthy for anyone. True masculinity and true femininity have been ransacked. Everything is now about how attractive a person is, which contributes to his or her sexual value. There is scarcely any concern of the actual value of people, the true dignity that people have as made in the image and likeness of God. The good news for Christians is that we have an answer to such a society. This was given to us by Pope St. John Paul II in what is called the Theology of the Body . At its core, this is an in-depth look at Sacred Scripture. This teaching helps us to regain our understanding of the human body as truly good and beautiful in the Christian sense. The true expression of love is not just sex, but rather complete self-sacrifice. The Theology of the Body is a true gift that we are beginning to understand and that we have to share with the world.
A byproduct of this society is the evil of abortion. Priests must not grow weary of leading the people in the fight for life for all unborn children. President Ronald Reagan, in his essay “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation”, argues for the inherent value of human life. When we begin to state that one life is more valuable than another, we are going down a dangerous road. “We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life – the unborn – without diminishing the values of all human life,” the president says. The discussion should not be about the value of certain lives, but of the sanctity of all lives. Abortion is a grave evil that cannot be overlooked.
Another byproduct of our sexual society is total confusion about sexuality. In today’s world, when it comes to sexuality, we are taught that a person ought to be able to do whatever he or she wants to as long as it makes him or her feel good. This is very dangerous. We can again go back to John Paul II’s. Men and women are created to be complimentary in order to give oneself to the other in the sacred bond of marriage. The importance of the family is being attacked by our society. Priests have to courageously and charitably defend the truth that the sexual act can only properly make sense in a valid marriage between one man and one woman. Any other sexual act is contrary to a person’s happiness. Because of the prevalence of sexuality in our culture, priests must proclaim the truth and beauty of the Christian understanding of sex while opening up all people to God’s love and mercy.
Another challenge that priests today face is that people are more isolated than ever before. People are more easily able to be connected than ever before through modern technology, but ironically, this has led to great isolation. People are very attached to social media. It is very common for people be on their phones while talking with each other or while in a group of people. It is very common for people to always be taking pictures of everything that they do rather than truly experiencing the moment. It is very common for people to stress about a picture uploaded to social media out of a sense of fear that other people won’t like it. We are too worried about appearing to live well on our social media accounts. We do not know how to actually live; we only know how to appear to live. With social media, we run the danger of creating an idol and placing it before God. We can become so obsessed with how we appear online that that becomes our measuring stick for how we live, while our measuring stick should always be how we live in accordance with God’s will. Priests have to be counter-cultural. I’m not saying that social media is inherently bad and no priest should use it. What I am saying is that priests cannot become completely engrossed in social media. Priests must be able to show the people their true dignity apart from technology. It is not technology that gives us dignity, it is the image of God that gives us dignity.
Gordon: Are you a Cubs or a Sox fan?
Will: Neither, actually. I’ve been a Yankees fan since I was a little kid. One of my earliest baseball memories is watching the 2003 World Series and being devastated when the Yankees lost to the Marlins. Since I was little, my dad has been taking me to see the Yankees when they play the Royals in Kansas City each summer, so I have many great memories of watching the Yankees play. I have become a Blackhawks fan since coming to Mundelein, though.
Gordon: Thanks for a great interview and your valuable insights