Mothers are the beating heart of a family and the backbone of society. They are also the reason for our priests in more ways than one. Catholic Times Editor Andrew Hansen spoke with two mothers of young priests in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois about what it’s like being the parent of a priest, what they saw in them at a young age, and advice they have for other mothers with young boys.
Patty Johnson is the mother of Father Rob Johnson, 32, parochial vicar at St. Boniface Parish in Edwardsville and chaplain at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She is married to Doug and has three other children: Amber (Jason) Jensen, Jennifer (Justin) Moffitt, and Ross (Julie) and seven grandchildren. They belong to Resurrection Parish in Illiopolis.
Jil Tracy is the mother of Father Mark Tracy, 29, parochial vicar at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Effingham and Annunciation Parish in Shumway. She is married to Jim and has three other children: Rob (Natalie), Ben (Annie), and Kelsey and three grand-children. They belong to Holy Family Parish in Mt. Sterling and St. Peter Parish in Quincy.
How did you raise your family in the Catholic faith?
Patty: I feel like we are an ordinary Catholic family. We tried to teach our children the importance of going to and participating in weekly Mass and taking time to pray and reflect on our blessings and serving others. Our children attended parish CCD, and coming from a small parish, we always felt involved in parish activities and had a tight knit parish family.
Jil: Our family attended weekly Sunday Mass and holy days at Holy Family Church in Mt. Sterling. We were fortunate to have an excellent Catholic grade school, St. Mary’s, also in Mt. Sterling where Mark attended from preschool through eighth grade. He also had great Catholic youth group sponsors, and he attended several Catholic HEART Workcamps. He dated some lovely young women along the way as well.
When did you first notice your son was interested in the priesthood?
Patty: We noticed him becoming more involved in college. He attended the University of Illinois where they have a wonderful Catholic Newman Center. During this time, we watched his knowledge and interest in our faith growing exponentially. He was attending Mass regularly, starting Bible studies, and had a wonderful group of friends. After college, he became a missionary with FOCUS and served at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Newman Center and was doing amazing work. Doug and I really felt like this life was what was making him happy.
Jil: Mark and his younger sister Kelsey are nearly 11 months apart in age. As Mark was preparing for his first Communion, he would suggest to his sister that they “play” Communion. I would give them pieces of bread and grape juice. He also suggested to Kelsey that he was going to be a priest, and she was going to be a nun. Kelsey protested that she didn’t think that would work because she had her heart set on being a mom someday.
What was your reaction to him wanting to enter the seminary?
Patty: When Rob decided to go to seminary, we were not surprised at all. We had watched him grow so much in his faith and as a man and a leader. We were very supportive of his decision and excited to see him take this step. When he first entered, he was not sure if it was for him. He (and our family) really viewed it as a time of discernment.
Jil: Our diocese is very methodical when a young man expresses an interest in the priesthood. They nurture, but they also encourage continual discernment. By Mark’s junior year in college at Illinois, Msgr. (Greg) Ketcham of the Newman Center encouraged Mark to attend a Catholic youth rally in Nashville. Mark had participated in the Crossroads Pro-Life event where he walked across the country twice in support of the pro-life movement. So, my husband Jim and I knew Mark was being called for a special purpose in the Catholic Church. When Mark announced his decision to us on Christmas Eve, 2011, we weren’t surprised. Our whole family was excited, but as a mother, I had mixed emotions as I knew his vocation choice would be very challenging and tough but extremely rewarding. I knew Mark would devote his all to being a priest.
What is your advice for parents who may see a priestly vocation in their son?
Patty: Father (Msgr. Jim) O’Shea always would tell me, “Patty, just pray. Just pray.” Father O’Shea has such a calming and gentle presence and has become a wonderful friend of our family. Those simple words helped me so much as we watched Rob go through seminary and discernment. We also told our children to love what they’re doing and be good at it. We prayed for this for all our children and tried to offer support and encouragement in the paths they chose.
Jil: I’ve attended Mass in other dioceses, and I’m impressed that some have a family take home a symbol of the priesthood each week to pray for vocations. I think this special acknowledgement each Sunday highlights the need and unique experience to be called to a vocation.
Patty: I still often get emotional when Rob celebrates Mass because I feel in total awe that this is his life’s work. It is still a little bit unbelievable. He chose to give his life to Jesus. For this, we are so thankful.
Jil: My husband Jim and I attended Mark’s Christmas Eve Mass in Effingham this past year. Our hearts welled with pride at his special gift from God to explain the Scriptures. Plus, every time we hear him give a homily, we thank his mentors and teachers at St. Meinrad and Kenrick Seminary who develop our seminarians to each individual’s greatest capabilities. There is a committed nun music director who even teaches the men to sing well beyond their perceived capabilities.
What is it like having your son serve as a priest?
Patty: Having Rob be a priest is amazing. Of all he could have chosen in his life, he chose to become a priest and we are proud and excited for him. We are a close family, and so I really feel like this process has involved all of us. We’ve all learned so much and met many people. We love the example it sets for our grandchildren. They will grow up watching him and being close to a man who has so much faith and knowledge to share with them. I still get tears in my eyes a lot of days when I think about all it means. What a blessing we have in our family.
Jil: As a family, we’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed by the good wishes for Mark in choosing the priesthood. We became close with Mark’s fellow seminarians and their families over the course of his six years of study. Some left for other careers, some left and later married. Mark and his fellow seminarians stayed close and attended weddings and baptisms. For the core of those who were ordained, whether from our diocese or elsewhere, they are wonderful, dedicated, spiritual, normal, fun-loving men, committed to our faith. I’m so delighted the seminary numbers are up and growing. Our church has been tested and has persevered, but there are going to be years of priest shortages. But, as I like to say, I have seen the next generation, and I believe the calvary is coming.