The Thought of Becomming a Cardinal for a Day!

Kim Brandt was a classmate of mine at Saint Mary's in Antigo as well as at Antigo High School. While we were certainly good friends throughout our formative years, I am saddened that I have not seen her since graduation from high school back in 1984.

Lately we've been keeping in touch over Facebook; most recently I've also been in contact with her son, Jared. Jared just graduated from Newman Middle School in Wausau which was located at Saint Matt's parish until about two weeks ago. Now the school has moved onto the Newman High School campus not far from the parish.

Jared had a paper to present before graduation. For some reason, he chose to interview me. I suggested that it would be more interesting, at least I thought so, if I would come and present in person to the class [and give a few plugs for the Norbertine Order and Saint Norbert College at the same time!]. The school was most accommodating; however, I think you know how crazy life is here at the end of the academic year. Newman's end of the year was even more crazy considering the move they were undertaking. They actually ended the year a bit sooner than usual to accommodate the move. As such, given conflicting schedules between St. Norbert & Newman, I was asked to shelve the idea until the fall. The kind folks at Newman High School have already asked for me to come out to the foot of Rib Mountain in the fall to share my priesthood story with the high school freshmen.

Nevertheless, the 8th grade graduates already know a bit of my story given the information I supplied for Jared. I thought some of you might find this interesting, also. Hopefully the answers I provided for Jared's depth-filled questions will offer evidence of my happiness and fulfillment as a priest, not just as well celebrate the Feast of Saint Norbert this week, but truly throughout the year and years! Perhaps you'll also see shades of yourself in this written interview as well!

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Dear Jared,

I hope this note finds you doing well and enjoying life at St. Matt’s. As I have stated to your Mom, I am more than willing to come to your class to speak with all of you about some of the questions you have offered here. I’ll look at the dates she offered, and I’ll respond soon. Until then, let me take a stab at your specific questions.

How do you share in the ministry of Christ? Can you please describe your role as: Ministry; Divine Worship; Authority?

Regarding your first question, I am a priest of the Norbertine Order of the Roman Catholic Church. I entered the Order (religious community) in 1986 – a young 20 year old at the time! I have been an ordained priest for 17 years now, loving every moment of it! I serve the Church as the Pastor of Old Saint Joseph Church – Saint Norbert College. The bulk of my parishioners are 18-23 years old, 2100 of them! I also serve as a Sacramental Minister at the Green Bay Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison built for 800 inmates. Today there are 1200 inmates in the institution. Further, this Sunday, I begin my 14th year as the chaplain to the Green Bay Packers. I love the work I do with each of these apostolates.

As far as ministry is concerned, I love the fact that I minister to the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the imprisoned and the free on a daily basis. Often times the ministry is liturgical in nature. I offer the sacraments to the people I serve – I celebrate Mass, hear confessions and preside at weddings and funerals and anoint the sick in each of these places. Given I have a graduate degree in Sacred Liturgy, I feel very comfortable serving in this role. Normally, I offer Mass to groups of 600 people or so at my college-parish church. At the Packers, I offer weekend Mass to 20 - 40 members of the team and coaches; at the prison I offer Mass to nearly 40 inmates at a time – gang bangers, murderers, tax evaders, you name it, I minister to them!

My priestly ordination allows me the authority to offer these Sacraments to the people I serve. It is my connection in the lives of the people, however, that gives me the ‘authority’ to minister with conviction. By that I mean, I try my best to enter their lives to the best of my ability so I can preach a message that speaks to them --- not some sort of general watered-down version that you can preach in any sort of generic setting or homilies found on preaching websites. As you can see, Jared, I have some pretty specific groups of people to whom I minister.

Can you share some personal information? When did you realize that you were being called by God to become a priest?

Well let me tell you, unfortunately there has been no thunder, lightning, epiphany or Theophany; but rather a consistent feeling of “fit.” Having stated all of that, so when did I “hear the call?” Other Norbertines will kiddingly say that I was a priest “out of the womb.” That while some little kids’ first words are “Mommy” or “Daddy,” that my first words were, “The Lord be with you!” That’s a joke, Jared! I grew up with great priestly role models. In many ways, I wanted to be just like them! I would carry the thought, therefore, of priesthood throughout my grade school – and much of my high school years. Nevertheless, I was also interested in architecture and the world of psychology. Those interests would remain constants throughout my priesthood. Naturally, in high school I had different thoughts about professional and personal pursuits – including having a wife and children at some point in my life. However, it was coming to DePere, to Saint Norbert College, where I determined that priesthood was the right choice for me; again, given the great role models to whom I was exposed.

Can you please describe the importance of faith in your life?

Faith is the foundation of all that I do, Jared. It’s a three-pronged approach from my perspective: Faith in God; Faith in the People of God; and faith that people are inherently good – that failures, sin, crime… … is all a byproduct of one’s choice to swerve away from the Goodness that God has endowed in each and every one of us. That is not to imply that doubts do not exist in my life and ministry. I have plenty of doubts! But somehow God has blessed me with a pretty good life – one in such a way that when doubts persist, I am able to sift through the difficult moments of life’s darkness to see rays of light – goodness amidst life’s evil, hope amidst despair, healing amidst illness.

What previous parishes did you minister to?

So where else have I served? Your question has a bit of a diocesan bias – which is pretty normal. Wausau is served primarily by priests of the LaCrosse Diocese. Primarily, they serve as parish priests. However there are Capuchins to your west in Marathon City. They are engaged in a variety of different ministries in addition to assistance in the Wausau area parishes. And then there are the priests associated with the Institute of Christ the King who serve at Old Saint Mary’s. They also have priestly responsibilities that extend beyond parish life.

As Norbertines, we “respond to the needs of the Local Church.” Here in this part of Wisconsin, we’ve done that in high schools, our college, at parishes entrusted to Norbertine care, we are missionaries, writers, travelling preachers, retreat directors, scientists, medical doctors, artists… … … Through it all, it is our hope that we use our gifts beyond ourselves, for the good of all.

As far as my past is concerned, before serving in my current roles which I listed above, I taught at Willibrord Catholic High School on the far south side of Chicago, at Abbot Pennings High School on our college campus and at Saint Norbert College. I served at New Saint Joseph Church which would later become Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and I served as Vocation Coordinator for the Order for 12 years – this is a job that allowed me to minister to young men who were considering a vocation to religious life and the priesthood. I also serve on local boards as well as one state-wide board and one national-based board.

What is your family background? Your hometown?

I am the youngest of four children. My Mom and Dad are still living in my childhood home. I have a brother who lives outside of Antigo where he lives with his wife. He has two daughters out of college now. This past weekend I have the joy of baptizing my young grand-nephew.

I have a sister who lives around the corner from my parents. She lives with her husband and her youngest son, my nephew. She has a son who is married and a daughter who is married – my niece also has a young son. My sister has another daughter who lives and works in Antigo.

I have another sister who lives to your north in Minocqua. She has two children, one in high school and another in elementary school.

Like your Mom, I am a native of Antigo – I was born and raised there and much of my family still resides there. As a young kid, my parents would treat us to trips to Wausau – we loved looking forward to riding the tiny merry-go-round at Kmart on Grand Avenue, and in my high school years the Wausau Center Mall opened – I was there the first day the mall opened! So I am a Red Robin at heart; yet I also have enough love in my heart to root for the Newman Cardinals as well, considering several of my students at the college are Newman graduates!

What are your greatest joys? Challenges?

I have many joys and challenges in life. The greatest challenge I can think of is trying to come up with a homily week after week – seriously, that is on my mind every day of the week. That’s a good thing, though, because it keeps the Word of God in my mind every single day – one week at a time. Trying to connect the original disciples’ lives with ours with Christ at our center is a challenge, but also a tremendous blessing when it “connects.” Another tremendous challenge is keeping my calendar in order. I try to balance too many issues – often times my life is “by the hour” which is far from healthy. I’m looking forward to some time running on the trail as soon as the academic year ends. It helps with my physical health as well as my spiritual and psychological well being. I welcome the summer!

My joys are many! I love living at the Priory (the Norbertine Residence on the college campus) where I live with 10 other priests. I love coming home at night – I live with a good group of men – among my closest friends.

I also love going to work and discovering what God will throw at me each day. I truly love looking into the eyes of the people I serve and then see their faces on the way out of my office / confessional / church / chapel as opposed to the looks upon their entry. Sometimes people feel a bit nervous, embarrassed, upset.. .. .. upon their entry. On their way out, they tend to look a bit enlivened or relieved. I’ll chock that up to the work of the Spirit. I just feel so blessed to be with these folks amidst their most difficult and most blessed moments of their lives.

Jared, I look forward to my visit with all of you at Saint Matt’s. I hope that I can offer a little further insight associated with these issues and I look forward to answering any questions you or your classmates may have. Until then, thanks so much for the questions – they were great questions; I hope you find some goodness in the sincerity of my answers. Tell your family I said ‘hello;’ perhaps I can see them also upon my visit to Wausau.

Priesthood is a tremendous gift. I hope you and some of your classmates may find ways to live out your vocation in your very unique way – God will bless you and make your life happy and fulfilled if you can truly say yes to God above all else. It’s what makes single life, married life, a life of ministry so very complete. I offer you these words as one who enjoys life very much – so too will you and your classmates, I pray!

Fraternally Yours,

Father James Baraniak, O. Praem.


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