By KAREN HERZOG
Matthew Wanner's mother, Gloria, said that in high school her son was just an all-American football player, "just a normal, regular high school kid."
Still, when in college he decided to change from electrical engineering to study for the priesthood, it wasn't a big shock.
"You kind of sense some things - all mothers do along the way," she said.
She said she and her husband, Tim, just asked their son, whose home parish is the Church of St.Joseph in Mandan, if he was sure, and told him they were behind him.
Matthew Wanner, now 22, has written about his journey to that decision from Rome, where he is studying for the fall semester and where he was one of 10 American seminarians chosen to serve for Pope Benedict XVI during Mass on Nov. 5.
"What a gift, what an opportunity," Gloria Wanner said. Her photo of her son receiving communion from the pope "does something to your heart," she said.
"For him (serving the pope), the magnitude of where you are, who's in front of you - the experience was awesome," she said.
From Rome, via e-mail, Matthew Wanner talked about his vocation story:
Ultimately, his reasons for joining the seminary came down to a heartfelt conviction that God was calling him to the priesthood, he said.
Wanner, a 2003 graduate of Mandan High School and the second-oldest of nine siblings, went to North Dakota State University to study electrical engineering.
"As a freshman in college, I was introduced to the usual temptations and lifestyles prevalent on virtually all college campuses," he said. "Growing up Catholic and wanting to continue my faith life in college, I found my way to St. Paul's Catholic Newman Center, which had a deep impact on my practice of the faith and integration of Catholic teachings in my daily life.
"After engaging the typical college scene and finding it unfulfilling, I was given a true gem in that faith community. This community fostered the seeds of my vocation by providing a subculture of Catholic living amidst the secular environment surrounding the college campus. I was drawn to the witness of Christian virtue amidst a culture of sarcasm, sexual promiscuity and intemperance."
Eventually, he said, he felt drawn to attending daily Mass. Wanting more time in silent prayer, he started reciting the rosary and attending Eucharistic adoration on a regular basis. By the end of his freshman year, he was asked to be a peer minister.
By the summer of 2005, Wanner was riding a beat-up bicycle to Mass in the afternoons and to Eucharistic adoration at the Cathedral of St. Mary in the evening. By the end of summer, thoughts of becoming a priest were constantly in the forefront of his mind, he said. After a July retreat, he knew he had to enter seminary, he said. It was then that he called the Rev. Thomas Richter, the Bismarck diocese's vocations director.
"Studying in Rome has opened my eyes in ways that can't be properly described," Wanner says. "On the first day, we walked to St. Peter's Square. Walking to school every day, I pass significant religious and historical sites. Amidst these colorful expressions of faith, an almost tangible dimension of the communion of saints is present in the city. Praying before the tombs of saints such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and St. Sebastian brings a unique connection with the saint's intercession."
Each November, the pope celebrates Mass in the Vatican Basilica, along with members of the College of Cardinals, for the the cardinals and bishops who died during the year. The 10 American seminarians chosen to serve with him this year, including Wanner, were all from Saint John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
It is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Wanner says.
"If servers are needed from Rome, hundreds of seminarians from various countries are available for service. I am still not quite sure how we were chosen for this opportunity. The only contact we had was a single letter requesting that we serve sometime during the fall semester."
Before practice, seminaries were separated by height and briefed on their specific tasks, he said. Jared Johnson, a third-year seminarian from Williston, and Wanner, taller than most, were assigned to lead the procession. Johnson carried the crucifix and Wanner proceeded on his right with a candle.
"Before the Mass started, we all vested in the South Sacristy (of St. Peter's Basilica, Altar of the Chair). Twenty-three cardinals were piecing together their ruby-red vestments while we silently slid on our cream-colored surplices. Once the procession began, the colorful crowd, clouds of incense and the Chair of St. Peter in the background brought a sense of wonder and amazement. Interestingly, I wasn't nervous in the least. I (just) had to make sure that I kept my focus on the details that we had practiced twice before."
One of Wanner's most memorable experiences took place during communion, as he and Johnson, holding candlesticks, were positioned on either side of the pope.
"'What am I doing here?' kept reverberating through my head as I looked at Jared across from me straining to keep the heavy candleholder off the marble floor," he said.
"Receiving communion from the Holy Father was a moment we will never forget," he said. "Serving for the pope was far more meaningful than merely carrying a candle down an aisle in front of a famous figurehead. The experience strikes much deeper.
"As Catholics, we believe that the celebration of the Mass is a participation in the heavenly banquet. In a real sense, I was united in service with the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ."