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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Changing the World
Fr. Shane Johnson, LC (United States)

Fr. Shane Johnson, LC (United States)
Fr. Shane Johnson, LC

By the time I applied to college, I had worked full-time at the headquarters of a U.S. Senate campaign and full-time for the U.S. Department of Justice. I had piled up a list of achievements and scored so high on the SAT that I was confident that no university could turn down my application.

I thought I had put together the ultimate résumé. But I still did not have an answer to the ultimate question: What is the point? Who do you want to be in life? That was the problem.

Good Soil

I was born just north of Chicago, the morning after Christmas, 1976, to Alan and Cheryl Johnson, young parents who had had one of the most memorable and least enjoyable Christmases of their life. (My mother endured 28 hours of labor!) A sister and a brother soon followed, which made my father’s decision to go back to school at age 24—after working as an electrician and carpenter—all the more impressive. Both of my parents took part-time jobs to make ends meet, while my father studied over the summer to get his four-year chiropractic degree in just three years.

They set an example of hard work, dedication, and self-sacrifice that has been a critically important influence on the whole family. Their example of faith, however, was even more important.

My father is a convert to Catholicism who took his new faith seriously, and my mother was a cradle Catholic who grew up surrounded by Irish Catholic tradition. Sunday Mass at our new parish in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, was always mandatory for everybody. My parents prayed the Rosary every day, and we often went as a family to the parish celebration of the Way of the Cross on Fridays during Lent and the Rosary during May. There, I was usually the altar server for the parish priest, Fr. Ed Wawrzyniakowski, whom we all respected and appreciated so much. It all seemed very natural and very spontaneous.

My parents sacrificed—despite the lean years as my father’s practice got off the ground—to pay the extra fees to send us to Catholic grade school and high school. I was blessed to have dedicated teachers who worked overtime to foster our interest and our talents. Their hard work quickly began to pay off. In seventh grade, I won the state championship in public speaking in my category, and by eighth grade, I had placed second in the county in the national spelling bee and was competing for the local high school’s computer programming team against the other local high schools.

Going Places in Life

One thing was clear in my mind: high school is all about putting together a résumé that can get you into the best possible college in order to get the best possible job and go as far as possible in life. It seemed like the thing to do: to live for the future, to really be somebody.

The place to do that
Fr. Shane with his parents, Alan and Cheryl Johnson, at St. Peter´s Basilica.
Fr. Shane with his parents, Alan and Cheryl Johnson, at St. Peter´s Basilica.
was Milwaukee’s Marquette University High, an all-boys Jesuit high school. I spent my years there running cross country, playing saxophone in the jazz band at competitions all over the state, starting the academic decathlon team, and more. I was chosen three times for the Wisconsin state team at the ARML national mathematics competition and three times for the state Latin team at the NJCL national competition. I was taking post-calculus courses down the street at Marquette University and enough AP credits to later be exempted from three semesters of college.

Still, my Jesuit education began to imbue me with a subtle message: this world needs Catholic leaders to change and reshape it, in true justice and charity, and that means real self-giving, not a fast-track, career-driven lifestyle. Little by little, the desire to be somebody began to give way to the desire to change the world by being somebody for others.

Dead Ends

I was still floored when, at the beginning of senior year and on the threshold of college-application season, my parents approached me with a request to take a year off after high school. It was inconceivable: all of my friends would be going off to their top colleges right after graduation. How could I possibly be any different? School could wait, they argued, since I had entered grade school a year early. By graduation in 1994, I was only 17, and my parents knew that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. “Making a difference” is not a major in any university.

I did have two ideas, however: politics and law. Committed Christians in politics can do a lot to change society for the better, and a law degree opens up many doors. Since it was an election year, I gravitated almost by instinct towards politics first. I spent three months that fall working at the headquarters of a U.S. Senate campaign in Milwaukee. It was exciting to be at the nerve center: the phone was jumping off the hook all day, there were piles of donations to be handled and mass mailings to get out the door, and our office was full of policy experts and high-octane organizers. It was just about as energized as I could imagine.

Reality began to sink in as Election Day approached and our candidate still trailed in the polls after being outspent nearly 10-to-1. My co-workers in the office would be out of a job in just a week; they started placing phone calls on the side to friends and contacts. I was stunned to realize that they were calling both of the major parties, casting about desperately to stay employed. Was I really prepared to spend years jumping from one job to another, looking to always be on the winning team, even if it meant sacrificing the ideals I held so highly? The job I had been offered in Washington had we won really did not seem so interesting any more.

That left law. Providentially, a member of our parish worked in the Milwaukee U.S. Attorney’s Office and was able to get me a 6-month internship. Initially, I was awed by my federal security clearance and the fast-paced life of the prosecuting attorneys in the locked-down Federal Courthouse, but the fascination did not last long.

These young professionals, usually newly married with young families, were all doing the remarkable and often heroic work for society that I wanted to do. Still, a normal week for them meant 80 hours of slaving to build airtight cases in drug and fraud investigations in order to pay off their monumental law school debts and win them the reputation they needed to move on into higher-paying private practice. I saw it as a choice between sacrificing either family or career, a decision I was determined not to have to make.

The Seed Falls

By now it was May. I had already applied to Milwaukee’s Marquette University and Hillsdale College in Michigan. The new priorities were already sinking in: instead of heading off to a famous university which would burden me with debt and perhaps endanger my faith, I was hoping to pay my

own way through a college with solid academics and a healthy campus life, and then continue my education somewhere more famous. Both universities had awarded me full-tuition scholarships, and I picked Hillsdale.

It seemed as though my year off had been a total failure. I had soured on my only options, and a life decision, let alone a choice of major for September, seemed farther away than ever.

God stepped in at that moment. During a Saturday-evening Mass late that May, the night after having parted ways with a girlfriend, the thought, “You should be a priest” suddenly popped into my mind. Although the idea filled me with peace and a strange joy, I figured that it was some sort of emotional overreaction, and discounted it entirely. Even so, the idea kept coming back, quietly and persistently, so I started to take it more seriously.

I knew it was something authentic because it never went away. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” God seemed to be repeating. I had been looking for my vocation in the only places I knew, but all along he was waiting patiently for the right time to give me the greatest vocation possible: the priesthood.

First Blossoms

That summer, I began to spend my lunch break attending daily Mass at Milwaukee’s cathedral, just a few blocks from the Courthouse, and started praying the Rosary more frequently too. God’s grace was at work.

At Hillsdale that fall, the challenging academics and great new friendships were just what I had been hoping for, but there was something I had not expected: the overwhelming majority of my fellow students were Evangelical Protestant believers very convinced about the truth of their faith. In fact, they were just as convinced that Catholicism was, at minimum, a serious danger to my eternal salvation.

That meant buying books and spending extra time in the college library to learn how to defend the Church. Debating theology every day with my Protestant friends around the large circular lunchroom tables taught us all a great deal of respect for each others’ traditions and for the sincerity of our convictions, and far more about why we believe what we believe. The tone always stayed friendly and earnest, but I was inevitably the vocal minority, outnumbered 8-to-1. None of us managed to convert the rest, although it was a real grace to see our only atheist friend later return to his Catholic faith. I was not at all surprised to read recently that Hillsdale was rated fourth in the category of most religious students among the nation’s top universities in the 2009 Princeton Review survey.

Now events began to move quickly. I had been impressed some time before by an article in Inside the Vatican magazine about the Legionaries of Christ, and so in May, 1996, I tracked down the address of the Legionary seminary in Connecticut and quickly sent a letter requesting information. Meeting a Legionary priest that June for the first time blew me away: he was intent on doing great things for the Church, brimming over with ideals and enthusiasm, and on fire with love for Christ.

Just walking in the door to visit the Cheshire seminary that summer was enough to win me over completely: the charity and enthusiasm of the seminarians was something I could not even have imagined. I could not stay to join the summer discernment course straight away, since I had to go back to help coach the state Latin team at that year’s NJCL competition a week later, but I returned as soon as I could in early August and received my cassock in September.

Bearing Fruit

I have never looked back. How could I? My life had been totally geared towards my résumé and my future, but I had never imagined that God was asking me to love him in the here and now. Whatever future successes might have come my way, they pale in comparison to the eternal guarantee of God’s infinite love. When that love comes in the form of an invitation to follow him as a priest, it is not so much a question of giving up on the rat race as it is an invitation to something far, far greater than we could ever think to ask for. How could I say no?

I have to admit that it does make me a college dropout. I called Hillsdale that September to inform them that I would not be returning, and I was put through to the Dean of Students. He was stunned to hear that, after only a year, one of their two full-ride scholarships was walking away. He implored me to change my mind and promised to leave the scholarship open for me should I eventually wish to return. I was amazed to find that my interest had completely evaporated.

Our Lord had brought me on a big U-turn back to him: all those gifts and opportunities were not for going places, but for being somebody for others. I was not supposed to be just anybody for others, but Christ for others as a priest. It is not about me at all, of course. The only thing that can truly change the world is God’s grace.

“This is my Body. This is my Blood.” “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That is how I will change the world.

Fr. Shane Johnson was born in Waukegan, Illinois, on December 26, 1976. He studied at St. Francis Borgia Catholic School, Marquette University High School, and Hillsdale College before joining the Legionary novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut, on September 14, 1996. After classical humanities studies in Cheshire, he stayed on for three years of internship in vocational ministry, helping other young men to discern their own priestly vocations. He studied at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum College in Rome from 2002 to 2009, where he obtained a licentiate in philosophy, a degree in religion and faith, and a bachelor’s degree in theology. Since October 2009, he has been teaching philosophy at the Legionary formation center in New York where he is working on his Ph.D. in ethics.

The vocation stories of the Legionaries of Christ who were ordained on December 12, 2009 have been published in the book "I Call You Friends". During this Year for Priests, let us pray for all priests, so that their self-giving to God and to people will bear abundant fruits of grace and blessings.


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