“Here I am, Lord”
By Joni Moths Mueller
In the Gospel of John 15:16, God speaks: “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and ordained you. … ”
Nathan Wendt, Comm ’01, and Paul Shelton, Arts ’03, processed up the aisle of Church of the Gesu with three other Jesuits. Witnessed by family, friends and their Jesuit brothers, the five men were ordained in a holy and heady celebration of Catholic faith that spilled out onto campus.
“It feels very gratifying to be at the end of such a beautiful, humbling process,” said the new Father Shelton. “There is really nothing you can do to prepare to be a priest. In one way, you know that God is really steering the ship.”
The ceremony marked the end of their formation for priesthood and launched Fathers Wendt and Shelton on to new lives, a response to their mutual desire to serve as priests and ministers and listeners and strong shoulders to Catholics. They took up the challenge almost immediately, both to serve in the way they’d hoped for and prayed for — as ministers to underserved populations.
Father Wendt is spending the summer at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Kingston, Jamaica. “It will be a good place to begin my priestly ministry,” he said. “It will be an adventure and challenging, but I’ll learn a lot.” This fall he will begin his yearlong pastoral sacramental ministry at Detroit Gesu Church.
Father Shelton is in Tampico, Mexico, beefing up his Spanish language skills. “I’m pretty excited to help out a poor parish. Those people will not only teach me Spanish, they’ll also teach me how to be a priest,” he said. In the fall, he will begin his yearlong pastoral sacramental ministry at St. Procopius Parish and Catholic School in Chicago.
These two new priests join the ranks of scores of alumni called to religious life, many as members of the Society of Jesus. As witnesses to the vows of their newest brothers, there is little doubt that every other Jesuit in attendance recalled what brought him to the same moment, the same profession of faith, the same excitement about his first assignment as a priest.
Father Shelton has wanted to be a priest for as long as he can remember.
“When he told me the first time, I thought every little boy wants to be a priest,” remembered Shelton’s mom, Sandra Rains. She calls him PJ still, the nickname of his youth, resisting his reminders that he is now “Paul.”
She told PJ to keep thinking, attend a coed university and experience more of life before choosing a direction. But she took note of extraordinary moments that now seem prophetic. For instance, there was the day the collection basket was passed at Mass. The family had no money to offer, so 10-year-old PJ stuffed his sweater in the basket.
Father Wendt discerned his calling later in life. He graduated from Marquette and went to work as a promotions director at radio stations 1290 KKAR and 1620 KOZN in Omaha. He was confident, successful and hard at work in a field he loved. But he was pulled toward something else. He returned to Marquette to explore it, the idea of religious life.
And that’s where these two curious seekers met and began the journey that kept them moving forward together for eight of the past 11 years of Jesuit formation. In May, when their journey was nearly complete and they wrote their last final papers and took their last final exams at Boston College, they were nothing short of jubilant to be done with classes.
“I still have a pretty youthful complexion, but the greys are peppering,” said Father Shelton with that infectious laugh that peppers his conversation. “It’s crazy to think about 11 years of school and that I’m going to be a priest soon. I’m excited for it. In one sense, it’s like a wedding. I’ll get to see all my family and friends. I can’t wait for my brother to meet the Jesuits or for my mom to get to be proud and brag.”
Father Wendt looked forward to the change from school to active parish ministry. “I’ve been a deacon since October. I’ve been able to exercise that ministry here in Boston a bit, but it will be a welcome challenge to be a priest and administer in that way,” he said.
It’s easy to understand their impatience. Jesuits Wendt and Shelton entered the novitiate in Minnesota on Aug. 23, 2003. Ahead of them stood hours and hours of prayerful discovery followed by years and years of study to earn advanced degrees in philosophy and theology — both required in Jesuit formation. Added to that was the initial testing of waters, practiced by setting out on pilgrimages alone and with little more than $30 for bus fare and trust in divine guidance to lead the way.
That exercise was scariest for Father Shelton’s mom. “I called the novitiate and said I needed to talk to someone about what they were doing and whether it was safe,” Rains remembered. “They told me, ‘Well, nobody’s ever not come back.’ I told them, you don’t have a mother’s heart; I need to talk to someone else.”
Rains was ultimately more than satisfied. “He’s the happiest person I know,” she said of her son. “I saw the joy he was feeling, and I can feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in my son. I hope PJ gets what he wants from God and God gets what he wants from PJ.”
And then, of course, there were immersions in ministry practices called the “long experiment” that are done while living in community. Father Wendt was sent to Milwaukee to work at Nativity Jesuit Middle School on the city’s south side. He spent a semester teaching, coaching, leading Boy Scouts and living in the nearby Jesuit residence.
“It was the first time I had lived in Milwaukee without being focused on academics or my job or thinking about a career,” he said. “That was my first experience of living with other Jesuits, living in the neighborhood — feeling more incorporated in the neighborhood — and serving people there. That helped me discern if I could live a life of integrity and prayer and find joy in what I was doing. Which I did.”
In the Gospel of John 15:16, God speaks: “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you and ordained you. … ” It sounds easy, clear cut, a choice made as if hardly any worries need accompany the steps that move a man to priesthood. But in truth, much care is given to help each man discern the core of his calling, and one of the guides is Rev. Ray Guiao, S.J., assistant director of formation at the Wisconsin Province.
A key piece of Jesuit formation, Father Guiao explained, is matching newly ordained priests with the needs of Jesuit apostolates around the world. “It really is quite complicated mutual discernment on the part of the Jesuit and the provincial superior,” he said. “My job is to facilitate the conversations through what I know of the man, his experiences in formation and his desires.”
Father Guiao may hold more frequent flyer miles than any other Jesuit in the world. His ministry keeps him hopping city to city and even country to country to visit, counsel and weigh the progression of every Jesuit in formation. He visits each Jesuit at least twice a year for lengthy conversations about his needs and desires.
“It is incumbent upon us as Jesuits to make ourselves available, to serve wherever the need is greatest in apostolic obedience,” Father Guiao said. “So part of Jesuit formation is telling our desires but not holding on so tightly that we are limited in our availability, but to be willing to say ‘yes’ to what the Society needs.”
Working with the homeless, working as priests to the marginalized, those were the treasured ambitions Father Shelton and Father Wendt expressed as their great desires during the years Father Guiao shadowed their development as Jesuits and watched them mature, struggle and then achieve their Jesuit vocation.
The first-year pastoral sacramental ministry identified based on those deep conversations and discernment will allow Father Shelton to “walk with the poor,” which is how he expressed his greatest desire.
Father Wendt can’t wait to live and work in Detroit, a city that is in the midst of hard times financially but where people have a lot of hope. “I will do a lot of learning about what people are dreaming about and what their hopes are for trying to live well in the city amongst all the difficulties,” he said with so much enthusiasm.
The love the two new Jesuits express for the marginalized, Father Guiao said, is what every priest should have because, ultimately, a priest is the bridge that connects the people of God to the church.
“I’m awed by their response to the spirit of God,” Father Guiao said. “The responsibility of formation some would say rests with me. But our documents say it rests — after God — with the man himself. Paul and Nathan will be fantastic priests.”
Go to marquette.edu/magazine for a slideshow of the ordination.
Trajectory to Jesuit priesthood
• Two years at a novitiate; novice studies the history, constitutions and vows of the Jesuits and then takes first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
• Three years in First Studies as a brother or scholastic.
• Three-year Regency experience in Jesuit ministry.
• Theology studies to earn advanced degrees in theology and often philosophy before ordination.
• After five to seven years in active ministry, the Jesuit begins Tertianship, followed by final vows to the Society of Jesus.