Get Madison Magazine delivered to your office or home.
Gift subscriptions now available!Subscribe Now
Andrew Showers was studying at a Catholic seminary in Rome in October 2014 when his grandmother died in Wisconsin.
Showers, a 2006 Madison La Follette High School graduate, was scheduled to help serve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican the next day. It’s a big deal—the pope makes a point of meeting all those helping.
“The guys are kind of like 14-year-old girls at a Bieber concert,” Showers says.
When Showers had his moment, he said in the Italian language he was still learning, “Holy Father, my grandmother died yesterday. Will you pray for her?”
“Well, what is her name?” Pope Francis replied.
“I will pray for her by name at Mass today,” the pope said.
As the pope moved on, Showers recalls, one of his classmates whispered, “That was amazing. I almost cried.”
A little more than a year later, in early 2016, Showers was invited to quite a different gathering in Rome.
“Making a Murderer” was on Netflix, and another Wisconsin seminarian in Rome, Stephen Buting, had a direct connection. His father, Jerry, was one of the defense attorneys featured in the true-crime series.
The seminarians put together an event they called “Butingfest.”
“We binge-watched ‘Making a Murderer,’ ” Showers says.
A new generation of millennial priests—called “The God Squad” in an admiring Time magazine article last June—may be comfortable on social media and streaming popular television shows, but an encounter with the pope remains a memory for a lifetime, and the traditions of the church still inspire them.
Showers was one of three millennial priests—along with his friends Jared Holzhuter and Luke Syse—ordained nearly six months ago in a ceremony at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Madison. The church was overflowing the night of June 30. Parking spaces were scarce in Orchard Ridge. Some 80 priests alone were in attendance.
“It was like I was joining this big team of brothers,” recalls Syse, who grew up in Blanchardville.
This is a time of cautious optimism in the Roman Catholic Church, in both Madison and the world. Scars from the child sex-abuse scandal remain, but the number of young men interested in becoming priests has increased.
The Time article noted that in 2016, 1,900 men were enrolled in graduate-level Catholic seminaries, compared to 1,300 in 2005.
In the Madison Diocese, according to the Rev. Greg Ihm, vocation director, 25 men are at varying stages of formation as of fall 2017. When Ihm entered in 2002, he was one of just six.
“We’ve made a major improvement,” Ihm says, while noting that the large number of priests from earlier generations now retiring means their efforts need to continue.
The total number of priests in the U.S., however, has been declining. According to the Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, there were 58,632 U.S. priests in 1965, and in 2016 that number was 37,192. The research center also noted that the number of U.S. parishes without a priest in 2016 was 3,499.
“It’s still true there’s a real need for priests in the diocese and parishes,” Ihm says. “It’s going to take a while for the wave of increase to catch up to the wave of retirement.”
The three new Madison Diocese priests were interviewed in the days leading up to their ordination and again weeks after they became priests.
Ihm—who, in his early 30s, is himself a millennial—also spoke about the process of becoming a priest. The application form is 35 pages. There’s both a psychological and psychiatric evaluation and an in-person interview of an hour or so in front of a formation board. Still ahead for successful applicants is six years of seminary for college graduates (eight for nongraduates).
It is a long journey, and it can be tricky. Holzhuter recalls his early days at a seminary in Detroit: “The first two months I was like, ‘What am I doing here? I’ve made a huge mistake.’ I saw the door closing on other things that I saw myself doing.”
Holzhuter now calls working through his doubts one of the best things about his time at the seminary.
Each of the Madison Diocese’s new priests came to their calling from a different place, but have arrived now in a similar space—energized, excited, eager to lead.
Holzhuter summed it up just a few days before their ordination: “What I get from Pope Francis is how he calls us back to the heart of the gospel. He’s really good about challenging priests and members of the clergy. Just getting back to how you’re not in it for power or ambition—you’re in it for Jesus. To bring people to Christ. That can only bring good.
“I feel lucky,” Holzhuter continued. “The two other guys I’m getting ordained with—we’re of the same mind. We want to go all-in on this, with a real passion for serving the church and spreading the gospel. I do get the sense that there’s a new fervor.”
When Andrew Showers was growing up on Madison’s east side, there was never really a question of what he would do later in life. Showers was going to be an architect.
“My uncle is an architect,” Showers says. “We grew up building tree forts and bike ramps, doing things with our hands.”
His family wasn’t especially religious beyond Mass on Sundays, and Showers’ high school years were filled with school and sports—he played three. Yet he did not ignore his faith. He began wearing a shirt and tie to Mass each Sunday. “I don’t know what spurred it, it just seemed to make sense.” In his senior year, Showers taught ninth grade catechism.
Still, heading for the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, he was zeroing in on architecture.
Once in Milwaukee, Showers began to spend time at the Newman Center, the Catholic ministry on campus, where he encountered peers who talked openly about their faith.
“There was a community of young people,” he says, “and you realize you’re not the only Catholic teenager in the world.”
Most importantly, at the Newman Center, Showers met the Rev. Mark Niehaus, a priest who became a trusted friend and adviser.
Not that Showers was considering changing paths.
“I always tell people I’m a very stubborn man,” Showers says, “and I was pretty darn dead set on becoming an architect.”
Between his sophomore and junior years in college, Showers landed a summer job with one of the top architectural firms in Wisconsin, with an office in downtown Milwaukee.
“I had an awesome job, a gorgeous girlfriend, I was well respected in the architecture school—but there was just something missing,” he says.
“It’s hard to describe,” Showers says. “There’s always going to be a new iPhone. There’s always the chance of a better job. There’s always going to be this or that. But there’s something that the material world can’t fulfill. It kind of hit me. What’s missing?”
Showers spoke about it with Niehaus at the Newman Center, but then the priest was reassigned to Chile. “They took away my rock,” Showers says.
He went on an extended trip to Europe during the fall of his senior year at UW–Milwaukee with 20 students and a faculty adviser, seeing the great buildings of France and Spain. Their final project was designing a hypothetical American cultural center in Madrid. Yet Showers found himself most moved by the venerable churches and religious murals. Something was shifting within.
His prayer life deepened. Back in Madison upon graduating, looking at architecture jobs, Showers would stop to pray at the Schoenstatt Shrine on Cottage Grove Road.
He thought about the story of St. Francis of Assisi being asked by God to rebuild his church. Francis misunderstands; he thinks God means build in a physical sense.
“That was the same for me,” Showers says. “I wanted to build physical churches. And it was God saying in prayer, ‘You have no need for physical churches if there are not the people to build up this church.’ ”
His family was surprised by his decision, though supportive. Showers’ father grew up Lutheran, but he started the RITE of Christian Initiation for Adults during Showers’ first year in seminary and became a Catholic that Easter. Showers saw his father confirmed. “A beautiful experience,” he says.
Showers spent his seminary years—seminarians study philosophy, then theology—first in the Twin Cities, then in Rome, where he met Pope Francis.
He returned to Madison just two weeks prior to the ordination ceremony on June 30.
Showers felt the night went well—he was stunned by the number of priests in attendance—and especially appreciated having Niehaus, who had provided such wise counsel at UW–Milwaukee, as his “vesting minister” at the ceremony.
Just two days later, Showers—now “Father” Showers—celebrated his first Mass of Thanksgiving at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Monona. People traveled from all over to attend. A friend from architecture school who had teased Showers about being “a Bible thumper” came up from Cincinnati. Showers’ great-grandmother told him she’d canceled all appointments and visits in the week leading up so she’d have the strength to attend. She did, and then died in August at 102.
Showers returned to Rome in late September to complete an advanced degree that will allow him to teach. He spent the summer at St. Cecilia’s parish in Wisconsin Dells. The pastor was away for two weeks and Showers soon found himself handling sermons, weddings and confessions.
“I quickly learned that we are called to be the servant of many,” he says.
It was eye-opening. “I find myself grieving and begging God on behalf of those who come to me with struggles,” he says, “and having this profound desire to see them find God in their spiritual lives and come to know His peace in their hearts.”
Less seriously, he’s amused at the number of people who look “a bit shocked” to see such a young man walking around in a cassock.
Friends worried he would become a different person, Showers says. An uncle said to his mom, “I don’t know if I can talk to him anymore.”
Showers chuckles at that. “We’re still human. I love brewing beer, playing hockey and going fishing. It’s just that God called me to something greater than even I know.”
He does not feel his generation will necessarily push for major changes in the Catholic Church. A big issue—celibacy for priests—is not something even the progressive pope is ready to address. Showers is fine with that.
“I have a lot of really good friends who are married couples. I can see the beauty in their marriage. I have respect for that and they have respect for my vocation as the priest and the celibate. It’s complementary.”
He is passionate about spreading the word.
“We keep looking at numbers and how the church is declining,” Showers says. “But we’re not just trying to build the biggest gang or posse. What we’re trying to get people to do is have a relationship with Christ. Christ more fully reveals man to himself. If I know Christ, that reflects back and I start to know who I’m meant to be.”
Luke Syse started thinking about the priesthood when he was only 12 years old. He just didn’t tell anybody.
“I had this inkling—this sense—that I should pray,” Syse says. “I always had an attraction to reading the Bible and praying.”
It stayed mostly in the back of his mind growing up in Blanchardville, a village roughly 40 miles southwest of Madison.
Syse was the youngest of four children in a home that was religious to the extent that all attended Sunday Mass.
“We didn’t talk a whole lot about it,” he says. “We didn’t say lots of prayers at home or anything. But it was part of our life. We were dairy farmers. I think there was a lot of natural closeness to God and His providence.”
Still, Syse made a point of not serving at Mass. He wasn’t yet comfortable articulating what he felt might be a calling.
“I was a bit skeptical of it even myself,” he says. “Just kind of afraid, really, of what it might mean for my life. But it was there.”
He went to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to study biological systems engineering—what used to be called agricultural engineering—and it was there, at the Saint Paul University Catholic Center, that a like-minded community allowed him a deep breath and chance to think about his faith.
“I was the only male in my communion class [in Blanchardville],” Syse says. “It was me and three girls. I never had an experience in the church of real community. At St. Paul’s on campus, I really found a community. I could let this idea of priesthood come back into my mind.”
Outside of St. Paul’s, Syse had a tough first year in Madison. The sprawling campus was daunting. Syse was hardly the first freshman to feel a little lost.
He spoke with a priest at St. Paul’s, the Rev. Eric Nielsen.
“I’m kind of a mess here,” Syse said. “But I think God might be calling me to the priesthood.”
Nielsen surprised him. “The gospel needs you,” Syse recalls Rev. Nielsen saying.
Nielsen helped Syse establish a more regular prayer life. At some point in his sophomore year, Syse went home to Blanchardville and told his parents he was thinking of becoming a priest.
“They were a little taken aback,” he says. “I hadn’t given much away through the years that perhaps it was there as a calling.”
He finished college, “dating here and there,” he says, still weighing the decision. At the end, there was an attractive job offer. Decision time.
“I took a little retreat,” Syse says, “and called my future employer and said, ‘I’m not going to come [to] work.’ ”
He spent two years in seminary in Detroit, followed by four in Rome.
The night of ordination, Syse says, “So much is happening that you can’t take it all in.” A few things about that late June night stand out: the number of priests in attendance, and that he was vested by his hometown priest, the Rev. Thomas Gillespie, who is nearing retirement.
It might have been the next day, when Syse gave his first Mass of Thanksgiving at the Saint Patrick Church in Hollandale, that it all sank in. Syse had been baptized there. His grandparents were married in that church in 1947 (70 years earlier), and his parents married there in 1977 (40 years ago).
“That church has pretty much seen the most significant events of my life,” he says.
At the end of the July 1 Mass in Hollandale, Syse gave his mom a gift. The night before, moments after the three young priests had been officially ordained, Bishop Robert Morlino had anointed their hands with holy oil (called “sacred chrism”). They walked back to the sacristy and Syse used a hand towel to wipe the oil from his hands. He gave the towel to his mom the next day.
“She’ll be buried with it when she goes on to the next life,” he says.
Syse’s first assignment as a priest brings him full circle, back to St. Paul’s on the UW–Madison campus.
Often he wakes in the morning and listens to the pope’s latest homily on his iPhone—even the Vatican is embracing social media.
“You have to understand Italian,” he says. “But it’s amazing. In a way, we’re more connected to the pope than in the past.”
Syse says he’ll use it as a tool himself. “If I have something good to say, something worth sharing and putting out there. It’s the way we interact. So with careful thought, I think we have to be there.”
Syse says he doesn’t expect to see change in the church, but there will be growth.
“Each generation brings new growth to the church,” he says. “The gospel is ever ancient, ever new. The church has seen all of history for 2,000 years, and the church has endured and grown.”
There was a moment during his first Mass of Thanksgiving, last July in Janesville, when the Rev. Jared Holzhuter—a priest for less than 24 hours—almost lost it.
A family friend, the Rev. Randy Timmerman, gave a homily during the service and mentioned Holzhuter’s late grandmother.
“It took all I had to hold the tears back,” Holzhuter says.
When he was growing up in Janesville, it was his grandmother who first got Holzhuter thinking about the priesthood.
He’d prayed for her when, as an eighth grader, he learned she had stage four cancer and was given six months to live.
“She got better and was around for two and a half years after her diagnosis,” Holzhuter says.
“The experience of praying for her—it was like a realization that God is real. He cares for me. It really got the ball rolling for me thinking about the priesthood.”
By the time he’d graduated from Janesville Craig High School and enrolled at UW–Madison as an English major, becoming a priest was a consideration, but only one of several.
“In college,” Holzhuter says, “you vacillate between a number of different dreams.”
His senior year, after discussions with priests at St. Paul’s on the Madison campus, he decided to give it a try.
“I was like, ‘You can’t decide if this is for you other than by diving in.’ So after college, I joined the seminary.”
Holzhuter attended Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and it was an adjustment.
“You’re so idealistic when you join,” he says, “thinking, ‘It’s going to be great. I’m going to give my life to God. I just love what a priest does.’ Then all of a sudden you realize there’s a lot of sacrifice involved. You’re in a new place, away from your family, living with 100 of your closest friends.”
Regular meetings with a spiritual director helped Holzhuter work past his doubts. “Facing those things head-on is part of the process,” he says. “That was really the best part. Just working through it all.”
The study of philosophy and theology at the seminary includes some practical applications for the priesthood, including a class on hearing confession.
“They bring in people to role-play,” Holzhuter says. “It’s really something. When you go through it in class it’s like, ‘Holy cow, people are going to bring me—me, I’m 28!—they’re going to bring me their problems.’ There’s kind of a holy fear you’re filled with.”
During Holzhuter’s third year in the seminary, his class attended a 30-day silent retreat in South Dakota: no internet, TV, phone or communication. It wasn’t truly silent; there was a 30-minute exchange with a priest or spiritual director each day. But there were also hours of silent prayer, walking and exercise, reading and reflection.
“It was kind of cleansing,” Holzhuter says. “You’re so used to things like checking email every spare moment.”
Holzhuter is leery of social media as a tool for the priesthood, saying, “I guess I’m skeptical. It’s hard to have civil discussions on social media. But it does get it out there.”
Of his generation and the celibacy requirement, Holzhuter says, “I don’t see priests in our generation wanting to change that. We want to commit ourselves to something. Celibacy is a real gift. It’s how you’re giving yourself to Christ, uniting yourself with Him. What you give up, the joy of family life and marriage, they drive you into Christ. They make your prayer more fervent and your vocation more real.”
Holzhuter’s first assignment as a priest is at Saint Joseph Parish in Baraboo and Camp Gray, a summer camp and retreat in Reedsburg.
Reflecting on his first months after ordination, he says it took a while to “feel” like a priest. He would say Mass for 200 on a Sunday morning, and while watching a golf tournament on TV that afternoon suddenly think, “Wait, I’m a priest.”
“I don’t know how else to describe it,” Holzhuter says. “The mind has to catch up to what God has made possible.”
He was especially nervous hearing confessions. “Would I know what to say? Would I know how to handle the tough theological questions that sin inevitably raises?”
Holzhuter says, to his surprise, hearing confession has brought consolation.
“It’s humbling to see how God works in this sacrament,” he says. “I found myself speaking words that were much too clearsighted to have come from me. You just know yourself to be an instrument of God in those moments, which is cool to see.”
Like the friends he was ordained with, Holzhuter is now called “Father” by people decades his senior. And that’s just the beginning.
“Do people treat me differently?” he says. “Yes, of course. They treat me far better than I deserve, but that’s only because they can see through me, in a sense; and instead of seeing me, they see the priesthood and the office I do my best to live out, but will never fully live up to.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine.