By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Think that high school teachers don’t mold lives?
Just talk to Deacon Andrew Mattingly about Nathan Lewis, his religion teacher at Bishop LeBlond High School in St. Joseph.
Or parish youth ministers? Deacon Mattingly will tell you all about Ellen Simon and the mission trip she arranged to the inner city of Chicago for Mattingly and other youth from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, a trip that changed his life.
Neither one of them told Deacon Mattingly that he should be a priest. But each one of them, by their Christian witness, turned a typical teenager into a man who could hear and respond to God’s call.
Before taking his seat in Lewis’ classroom, Deacon Mattingly said he was like most high schoolers, biding his time Monday through Friday until the weekend rolled around.
“Obviously, before the consideration of a specific vocation to the priesthood, it’s necessary to fully embrace the faith, to fall in love with Christ and his church. That’s what his (Lewis’) witness helped me to do,” Deacon Mattingly said.
“I had never met anyone in my life before who so embodied Christ. The faith exuded from his bones, in everything he said, in all his actions. It gave him this joy that I’d never witnessed before in anyone else, a joy that was constant from day to day,” he said.
“It was really a prime example of what makes Christianity attractive in every age in history — the extraordinary witness of a truly Christian life lived out by a few exemplary people.”
Enter Ellen Simon, “full of energy and joy,” Deacon Mattingly said.
“The summer before my sophomore year, we travelled to inner-city Chicago and I spent the week hanging out and playing sports with poor kids in a summer school program,” he said.
“It had been the best week of my life,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t know why, but later I realized it was the longest duration in my life (five days in a row) in which every day I was living for others, not myself.
“I had experienced the fundamental truth that we’re not happy when living for ourselves, but only when living for others. Each summer after that during high school, I went on the mission trip organized by Ellen,” Deacon Mattingly said.
That spiritual awakening made him easy pickings for Lewis.
One day, Lewis offered his class extra credit if they would write an essay about one aspect of the Catholic faith that they considered important.
Deacon Mattingly said he chose the Eucharist. And he got a “rude awakening.”
“When I got to the end of the essay, I concluded with something like, ‘And that’s why the Eucharist is important to me, blah, blah, blah,’” he said.
“Then I stopped and asked myself, ‘Is the Eucharist really important to me? Is it actually important when I’m waiting in line to go and receive the Eucharist?’ And in a moment of grace-filled clarity, the answer was clearly, ‘No!’” he said.
“And then a key idea arose which was an important moment of grace for which I am thankful,” he said.
“If I actually do believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, then every time I receive the Eucharist is the most important moment of my life,” Deacon Mattingly said.
He realized he couldn’t play the “illogical middle-ground” any more. Either it was Jesus Christ, or it was only a piece of unleavened bread.
“The attitude that I would receive him on Sundays but without really believing that I was receiving Jesus was an attitude that I suddenly realized didn’t make any sense at all,” Deacon Mattingly said.
“I had to pick a side,” he said. “With God’s grace, I began to approach my reception of the Eucharist on Sundays as the most important moment of the week, the time when I would meet the Lord in the most intense way possible.”
By the time he finished high school, Deacon Mattingly knew he had to enter the seminary. He began the application process and after a semester at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., he enrolled at Conception Seminary College.
And he had the full blessing of his parents, Leonard and Leslie.
Deacon Mattingly remembered broaching the subject at dinner during his final year of high school.
“I recall them taking a few moments to process what I was saying, probably for several reasons — one being simply I wasn’t prone to bring up topics for discussion at dinner,” Deacon Mattingly said.
“After asking a few simple questions and a little more discussion, they expressed support of this possibility of becoming a priest, and they have remained firm in their support ever since,” he said.
“Just as a man who gets engaged would hope for his parents to take an interest to learn more about his future wife and the family of his future wife, in the same way, my parents took an interest in my decision to enter seminary be learning more about seminary life, the priesthood and various aspects of our faith connected to that,” Deacon Mattingly said.
“I hoped that my parents would accept and approve of my decisions, which they did from the first moment I mentioned it to them,” he said.
“There isn’t anything more I could have asked from my parents,” Deacon Mattingly said.