Bishop Callahan ordains four men to the priesthood
St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, remarked, “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus. When you see a priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Among hundreds of family and friends and with the community bearing witness, Bishop Callahan laid hands, invoked the Holy Spirit and ordained four men to this priesthood on June 24, 2023.
As these men embark on their priestly journey, allow us to first share a bit of each of their paths to this point. From playing Mass and protecting the Communion wafers as children to celebrating Mass at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial Amphitheater and being joined by random passers-by, their stories are compelling testimonies to the power of prayer, adoration, loving pastors and the Holy Spirit.
Father Jared Clements
Virtus in infirmitate perficitur
“Power is made perfect in weakness”
Father Jared Clements, who grew up in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Holmen, had a passion for the priesthood since he was a child.
“I can remember when I was very young playing Mass. I would have a towel as my chasuble, a cracker as my host and grape juice as my wine,” says Father Clements. “I had a borrowed copy of the parish’s missalette. I would have my sister as one of the readers, and we would practice and play Mass at home.”
Participating in Adventure Camp beginning at age 12, Father Clements was with other young people who wanted to practice their Faith.
“It was the first time I ever encountered eucharistic adoration,” he says. “On Wednesday nights, we had whole camp adoration. It was also the first time I had ever come to realize that it is truly Jesus, and it was the first time I ever asked, ‘If this is you, Lord, in front of me, and you are what you say you are—that you are all good and all loving and you know everything—then you would know what’s best for my life. So, what do you want me to do?’ It was the first time I had ever really asked that question seriously, and I did not get an answer. But I knew that was the right question to ask.”
“Truly, when you come to recognize that you can’t do anything, that’s where God is really able to use you in the best way possible.”
Father Clements experienced another powerful encounter with Christ and his Faith during high school.
“I had the opportunity to go on a trip to Estes Park, Colo., and it was incredible,” remembers Father Clements. “We got to have Mass quite literally everywhere. We took the long way there through South Dakota, and we stopped at Mount Rushmore on the way. We got to have Mass in the amphitheater, which was pretty awesome, but even cooler was that a bunch of random people came and joined us for Mass.”
While helping a woman in Colorado, Father Clements experienced another major event that called him toward the priesthood.
“We were helping her with flood damage, and she so generously offered us the opportunity to hold Mass in her garage,” Father Clements says. “She had left the Church 20 years before this day; it had been a long time since she had been to Mass. By the end of this Mass, she was crying tears of joy and making the sign of the cross for the first time in two decades. Being able to witness her reversion was really powerful to me. As a layperson, you don’t experience such a thing too often, but as a priest, you get to experience it a lot. That’s something I wanted to do.”
That trip was when God finally answered Father Clements’ question of what he should do with his life. God’s answer was for Father Clements to become a priest.
His journey to the priesthood took Father Clements to Rome to study at the Pontifical North American College. The COVID pandemic interrupted his time in seminary there, but God provided much grace and understanding to Father Clements.
“My entire time in seminary, I came to understand the phrase St. Paul mentions in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, ‘Power is made perfect in weakness.’ Truly, when you come to recognize that you can’t do anything, that’s where God is really able to use you in the best way possible,” says Father Clements. “It’s being able to let go of things. The longer you are in seminary, the easier it is to know your weaknesses. The more I’m aware of the need for God’s grace in my daily life, the easier it is to do His will. When I was a younger seminarian, that was not as apparent. When you can ultimately place all the weight of ministry onto the shoulders of Jesus, His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. If you really do walk with Him, your ministry will be more fruitful than if you try to will it alone.”
Beginning his priestly ministry, Father Clements is excited about the life God has guided him to. “I look forward to falling in love with the people I will serve,” he says.
Father Alex Kren
Veritas Liberabit Te
“The truth will set you free”
Father Alex Kren grew up in Neillsville, attending St. Mary Church every Sunday with his family. Life was all about sports, family and being on the farm. Then life changed during Father Kren’s sophomore year in high school when his parents divorced.
The unspoken pain of family loss led Father Kren into a shallow and darker life away from his Catholic Faith. “I like to use the analogy of a car when thinking about my Faith at that time,” he says. “I was in the driver’s seat, all the worldly things were in the passenger seat and my Faith was in the back seat. I had this big wound and didn’t know what to do with it, so I turned to the world and got more involved with the party scene. I wanted to keep numbing that pain.”
Family was key in guiding Father Kren back to God’s light. “My brother and I had many heart-to-heart talks, and a door opened for the Faith,” says Father Kren. “We talked about our struggles and how difficult it was to do the good or right thing.”
Christian music also captured his attention. “Music really wasn’t a big thing in my life, but Christian music hit a little differently,” Father Kren says. “It hit my soul, and I could relate to many of the lyrics. It opened the door for me to ask my mom, ‘How can I get back into the Faith?’”
“There can be no Eucharist without the priesthood, just as there can be no priesthood without the Eucharist”
The discussion of prayer life in “Rediscovering Catholicism” by Matthew Kelly, given to him by his mother, ignited a spark. He went to St. Mary Church after work to pray.
“The first time I was there, I was there for maybe five minutes, but it seemed like an eternity,” remembers Father Kren. “I had my doubts. There was just a lot of grace to keep trying. Five minutes turned into 10 minutes, 10 minutes turned into 20, and the next thing I knew, I was there for an hour each night. It was really through prayer that I let everything out.”
Those nights led Father Kren to daily Mass and then to regular attendance at adoration, building his relationship with the Father.
“After three months in prayer, I asked, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ That’s when I heard the call to the priesthood,” Father Kren says. “I remember that night like it was yesterday. There was so much joy and peace in that moment. Things made sense for the first time in a long time.”
God continued to lovingly guide Father Kren. “The crazy thing is, about a week after I heard that call to the priesthood, one of my mom’s good friends, Martha Opelt, came up to me and said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about becoming a priest? Here’s the number for the vocation office.’ “God’s timing blows my mind. That evening I called Monsignor Joe Hirsch and set up a meeting.”
Lifted in love, Father Kren said “Yes” to God’s call for him to minister to people without a shepherd because he knows what it is to be lost.
“Brokenness and woundedness don’t have power over me anymore. The old me and the new me—that’s all God’s work,” says Father Kren. “I’m not perfect; I’m still working on things. I don’t have to worry too much with God at my side. When I heard the call to the priesthood, it actually made sense. God creates us for a specific purpose. He can use my woundedness as a gift, and I can relate to people on a deeper level. Many people are stuck, and I can help them get out through the great gift God gave me.”
Father Isaac J. Pecha
Piccoli Passi Possibili
“Small possible steps”
(Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo)
Growing up in a Protestant family, Father Isaac J. Pecha, of St. Paul Parish in Bloomer, heard a call to the priesthood. “One of my early memories is of my mom asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, ‘A priest.’ She replied, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and at some point, shared it with our Protestant pastor, saying, ‘Isaac wants to be a pastor when he grows up.’ I remember thinking, ‘No. You’re not getting me. I want to be a priest.’ Even before becoming Catholic, I was intrigued by the idea that Jesus would establish a visible Church with sacramental ministers to continue His mission.”
“I am overflowing with joy to have found my vocation.”
Attending Marquette University in Milwaukee, three things happened to guide Father Pecha to the Catholic Faith and the priesthood. The first thing was him meeting and questioning a Catholic student who was excited about his Faith. “I realized, ‘Wow, this guy is really living an authentic Christian life,’” Father Pecha remembers.
The second thing happened when he read St. Thomas Aquinas for a class and recognized the intellectual truth of the Faith. Finally, Father Pecha discovered the historical truth in a philosophy class.
“These guys all sound Catholic,” Father Pecha remembers. “That convinced me from the historical angle. These experiences all came together to show me that Catholicism is authentic, reasonable and historical.”
The next step was Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and Father Pecha joining the Catholic Church. But God wanted Father Pecha for more than just sitting in the pew on Sundays.
Discerning a call to the priesthood led Father Pecha to consider the Jesuit Order versus becoming a diocesan priest. “I prayed to feel connected to a place, to a people and recognizing when I go home, ‘These are my people,’” says Father Pecha.
Bishop William P. Callahan opened the door to the priesthood for Father Pecha, and he continues to be grateful for the opportunity. “When I applied for seminary after finishing college in Milwaukee, I had almost no references from within our diocese,” Father Pecha says. “Bishop Callahan could have easily said, ‘No one here knows you; I can’t accept you.’ But through the application process of evaluations, interviews and conversations, he saw and received my desire to serve as a priest for the Diocese of La Crosse.”
During his time in seminary at Mundelein, Ill., and the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) in Rome, Father Pecha enjoyed immersion in the Faith and preparing for a life of service. He also enjoyed the opportunity to continue his work as a rock musician while in Rome.
“I started my first band the summer after middle school,” says Father Pecha. “That group didn’t last long, but I’ve played in rock bands since then, even in Rome. At the PNAC, my band was called ‘PNAC! At the Disco.’”
Life after seminary has also been a joy for Father Pecha. “Being back in Wisconsin, getting into Spanish-language ministry, teaching about God and witnessing and celebrating the sacraments—all of these are chances to give thanks to God for the love He has shown me, and assist others in experiencing God’s love for them,” Father Pecha says.
Inspiration for his priestly life has come from many people, most especially Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo.
“She was an Italian mother who chose to endure much suffering for her children. Eventually, she gave her life for them,” says Father Pecha. “Her story shows the logic of love, responsibility and sacrifice. She reflects Christ’s offering for us and exemplifies how we can imitate Christ in our vocations, whether as lay people, religious brothers or sisters or priests.”
Father Pecha appreciates the warm welcome he received from the Diocese of La Crosse.
“Thank you for supporting seminarians,” he says. “The universality of our Catholic Faith is seen when parishes support seminarians, not because they think the seminarians will serve their specific parish as priests, but because they believe in the Catholic mission in every place. I am overflowing with joy to have found my vocation. I pray that any young man from St. Paul Church or St. Matthew Church, who is called to the priesthood, will experience this same joy made possible by support from parishioners across our diocese.”
Father John Zweber
Illum Oportet Crescere
“He must increase” (Jn 3:30)
Since childhood, the priesthood has been a light in Father John Zweber’s life. He grew up in Menomonie and attended St. Joseph Parish with his parents and five siblings. Family life was exemplified for him in the relationship between the priest and his parishioners.
“The first thing that attracted me to the priesthood was just the joy that radiated from our parish priest,” Father Zweber says. “For me, it was easy to see the connection between the priesthood and spiritual fatherhood, and I admired the fatherly capacity of the priests I knew.”
His own family also supported and guided him through years of discernment. “One of my relatives bought me a play Mass kit,” remembers Father Zweber. “My sister tells me that I was always very protective of the Communion wafers that came with it. I would only give my siblings a tiny piece until the wafers became so old and stale that no one would want to eat one.”
Homeschooled with his siblings, he and his friends spent time together in Faith-building activities like retreats and Catholic youth programs in Chippewa Falls.
“The first thing that attracted me to the priesthood was just the joy that radiated from our parish priest.”
“A few of my friends even entered seminary before I did, and they definitely helped pave the way,” Father John says. “I am also very grateful to Deacon Thomas Kinnick. He put on many youth programs and was always enthusiastic and passionate about the Faith. Additionally, he was not shy about promoting vocations!”
In high school, marriage and family were still on Father Zweber’s mind. “When I came to my junior and senior years in high school, I certainly wasn’t sold on the idea of the priesthood,” says Father Zweber. “The idea of giving up marriage and a family seemed pretty daunting. What helped me overcome my fear of the priesthood was eucharistic adoration. In adoration, I could feel my deep desire to be with the Lord and His desire to be with me. Adoration helped me to see that the priest is never alone—the priesthood is lived out in an incredible closeness to our eucharistic Lord. Adoration is where I felt our Lord’s gentle and exciting invitation: ‘Come follow me.’”
Once in seminary at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Winona, Father John received more reassurance he was on the right path.
“My first summer assignment in a parish also significantly influenced my discernment. In 2018, I went to Chippewa Falls and lived with Father Jesse Burish,” he says. “I really loved living with Father Burish, and it was good to see how he ministered. I especially remember going with him to anoint a dying woman. That was the first time I witnessed an anointing of the sick, and I remember thinking that it was almost like watching a father tuck his child into bed as he prepared her for eternal life.”
Guidance from older priests was another reminder for Father Zweber of the richness of the priesthood.
“I have also been very inspired by the senior clergy in our diocese. There is something beautiful about seeing a priest who poured himself out in ministry for many years and still has not lost his joy, enthusiasm, and zeal,” says Father Zweber. “There are so many faithful priests who demonstrate that a life totally given to Christ only enlivens us and fills us with joy. A few years ago, I received a letter from Father Charles Hiebl about a year before he died. Although he didn’t know me, he just wanted to send me a few words of encouragement, advice and memories from his priesthood. I was very touched that this priest, who could no longer care for himself, still hadn’t given up on his desire to build others up in Christ.”
Father Zweber is ready and excited for his life as a Father. “There are so many deep connections that are formed when you are there for people’s joys and sorrows,” he says. “It is very fulfilling when you can see grace at work in people’s lives and notice how the gospel starts to transform the way we live.”
Story by Mary Kay McPartlin
Published in the September/October 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine
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