By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The National Football League’s loss is the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s gain.
Those were Father Adam Johnson’s two career choices when he was in grade school.
“I talked about wanting to be a priest, but at that age, I also said I would become an NFL quarterback,” said Father Johnson, one of six priests ordained May 19 in the diocese’s largest single priestly ordination in 30 years.
Pardon his family or friends if they didn’t take either young notion too seriously, and even he didn’t fully realize then that he was being called.
“If you were to ask me back then, I would have said there was a higher chance of me being drafted by the NFL than there was of my becoming a priest,” he said.
But the call was there and wouldn’t go away.
“It was not until I was in college that the idea of being a priest entered my mind in a serious way,” he said.
He credits the friends he made and the chaplains he met at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Newman Center for helping him hear and respond to the call to priesthood.
“I had a great group of friends who were passionate about growing in their relationship with Christ,” Father Johnson said. “Those were incredibly important years in my life and in my discernment.”
Father Johnson’s call got so strong that he had to leave those friends and MU behind, and follow it into the seminary in 2005, becoming one of the very first candidates accepted into the seminary by Bishop Robert W. Finn, who succeeded Bishop Raymond J. Boland that spring.
It was also the year that Blessed Pope John Paul II died, ending his long and historic reign.
“To this day, he remains a personal hero of mine,” Father Johnson said.
Father Johnson said earlier that year, he read “Gift and Mystery,” Blessed John Paul’s 1996 memoir of his 50 years as a priest.
“His priestly witness captured and embodied my own desire for the priesthood,” Father Johnson said. “He expressed to the world all the amazing things that can happen when you begin to follow Christ.”
His call was also nurtured by the witness of the priests right in front of him over the years at his home St. Therese Parish in Parkville — Father James Hart, Father Michael Roach, Father Patrick Tobin and Father Joseph Cisetti.
“They are all wonderful pastors,” he said.
During summer assignments in parishes through his seminary years, he learned that those priests weren’t the exception in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. They were the rule.
“Father (Stephen) Cook, Father (Matthew) Rotert, Msgr. (Robert) Gregory, and Msgr. (Bradley) Offutt. Each priest, in his own way, has shown me something unique about the priesthood,” he said. “It has been amazing to observe so many priests cultivating those gifts in service of Christ and the church.”
His last summer assignment before ordination could have been difficult, but it wasn’t. He was assigned to St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, north, just as a new pastor, Father Justin Hoye, was coming to the parish.
“Father Justin was so good about taking time each day to explain to me the various day-to-day aspects of priesthood,” he said. “His love for the people of God is evident in the way he cares for his parishioners.”
But he chose Father Robert Cameron to assist him in vesting at the ordination Mass.
“Over the last many years, Father Cameron has been a close friend and inspiring figure,” Father Johnson said. “He embodies joy and charity, and I believe joy is one of the most important virtues a priest can possess. Where you find authentic joy, the Holy Spirit is present.”
His prayers and thoughts at his ordination also included a priest who wasn’t there, Msgr. William Lyons who recently died. A priest of St. Louis, Msgr. Lyons served in his last years at North American College in Rome where he was spiritual director to several seminarians, including Father Johnson.
“I had gone to him so many times for confession that when it came time for us to practice hearing confessions, I found myself doing an impression of Msgr. Lyons,” Father Johnson said. “His prayerfulness, his tenderness, his great sense of humor were all infectious.”
Still, with all that support, seminary life wasn’t easy, Father Johnson said. He even took one year off to think it over.
“There are guys who knew for years that this is what they wanted to do and who journey through seminary without a doubt in their minds,” he said. “I am not one of those guys.”
During that year off and working at St. Gabriel Parish in Kansas City, Father Johnson also felt the call to have a wife, children and a family.
He knew by that time that there was just one way to find out.
“I brought these desires for a family before God and asked him to let me know if this was God’s way of telling me it was the life he most wanted for me, or if God was asking me to offer to him (to give up) a potential family life in order to serve the church as a priest of Jesus Christ.”
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Father Johnson said through prayer, he found not only the answer, but peace with his decision, and with his commitment to celibacy.
“I firmly believe that celibacy is one of the most beautiful aspects of priesthood, the willingness to come before God and lay down everything before him, holding nothing back,” he said.
That year at St. Gabriel also confirmed to him how important parish priests are to families in the parish, he said.
“The experience helped me put my theological studies into context, bringing a practical reality to what parish priesthood can be like in our diocese,” Father Johnson said. “After that year away, I felt God was inviting me back.”
But not just back to anywhere. Father Johnson finished his last four years of seminary study in Rome.
“My time in Rome has been a truly amazing experience,” he said.
“Having classmates from all over the world has given me a greater insight into just how universal the Catholic faith is,” Father Johnson said. “Daily walking the ancient streets, where so many saints have walked, visiting magnificent churches, living so close to the Holy Father, all these have deepened my love for the church.”
And there was one more experience he had in Rome, as an assigned tour guide for pilgrims through the ancient necropolis beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.
“The tour ends at the gravesite of St. Peter, where the bones of the great apostle remain encased in glass,” Father Johnson said. “The opportunity to visit regularly the bones of St. Peter and to share the story of his great witness has certainly given me a deeper appreciation for one of my favorite apostles who followed Jesus with such passion, and whose humanity is so vividly on display in the Gospels.”
All the saints, living and dead, have been an inspiration to him, but Father Johnson said he wouldn’t be a priest without the example and witness of one particular person — his mother, Diane Johnson.
“When an infant is baptized, the priest will tell the parents, ‘You are the first of teachers. Be the best of teachers,’” Father Johnson said.
“I would not be where I am without the witness of my own mother who raised me in the faith,” he said. “She is the type of person who is always looking out for the needs of others, continually putting them before herself.
“Without her example of charity, the Gospel message would feel abstract and unattainable,” Father Johnson said. “I am truly blessed.”