This is the third in a series of articles introducing readers to the five men who will be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 21.
People may be surprised to learn that Darth Vadar, chief antagonist in the original trilogy, is the favorite “Star Wars” character of one of the archdiocese’s soon-to-be ordained priests.
“People are like, ‘That doesn’t seem like something you would like,’” laughed Christopher Klusman, 34, describing the collection of Darth Vader memorabilia he keeps in his Saint Francis de Sales Seminary room, including a keychain, coffee cup, 6-foot cardboard cutout and mask that, when spoken into, mimics Darth Vader’s low, robotic voice. But there’s a reason.
“His story is really interesting because he’s a good guy and people introduced him (to) and fed him wrong ideas that (make him think) he’s doing a good thing, but then at the very end of the series you see he comes back to the good side, so it’s a beautiful human struggle that people go through on earth,” the Milwaukee native said in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “…I see him as a very genuine human person, very real in the way that he tried to do the best, but things lead him in all different directions.”
Hopes to bridge gap between Deaf, hearing
Klusman understands struggles. He’s encountered plenty growing up Deaf – and hopes to use his experiences to bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing of the Catholic Church.
“I hope that I can open the doors more in a way for Deaf people to come to love God and understand their faith better,” he said.
“It’s been a blessing and a thorn to me,” Klusman said of his Deafness with a capital “D,” which he explained denotes someone like himself, who views Deafness as a vital part of his identity by sharing the primary American Sign Language, experiences, values, social norms, traditions and views that it is a difference, not a disability.
When he was a little more than a year old, Klusman’s parents, Elaine and Elmer, realized their fourth child wasn’t responding to their voices. Elaine, who now provides 24/7 care for her husband since he was diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer three years ago, said they didn’t let it affect the way they raised him. They took him to concerts. When he wanted a boom box, they bought him one.
“We never made him feel like he was any different than any other child, we just always treated him like a hearing person,” Elaine said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald.
Klusman attended Neeskara Elementary and Sholes Middle School, working hard so he could get accepted at St. Thomas More High School where he graduated with honors and was accepted into UW-Madison.
“He never complained,” said Elaine, whose home parish was Sacred Heart in St. Francis before Elmer’s diagnosis. “He always loved school … he read lips the whole time and that’s, they say, that’s like 1 percent of the people that can actually do that.”
The only time Elaine said young Christopher was self-conscious and missed school was when he was hit by a car and suffered a broken arm.
“Amazing, sweet” son
Today, her deacon son brings her Communion whenever he can and visits several times a week since they live just blocks from the seminary.
“He’s amazing and he’s always sweet and never – he never – gets angry,” Elaine said, though she remembers Christopher’s brothers teasing him about his fetishes with the singer Madonna, “the wrong Madonna,” and “Star Wars.”
“They just had that way they’d tease each other, but never in a harmful way,” she said.
Klusman’s Deafness was never something they couldn’t overcome.
“He blended and our family is very, very close and I think that really helped, too,” she said, adding that his nine nieces and nephews are “just wild about him.”
Deafness has also helped Klusman relate to the “marginalized,” he said. “Because of that, it helped me to be very empathetic.… I can see the pain that comes from that experience, so in a way, it really helped me to be very sensitive to other people to make sure they don’t feel that way.”
As education specialist, he traveled state
Klusman was working for the Department of Public Instruction in Madison as an education specialist in American Sign Language and other ways Deaf people communicate, traveling throughout Wisconsin to do his work. He visited schools where he did evaluations, assessments, intervention and provided support for teachers of Deaf and hard of hearing students, interpreters, students, parents and families.
He loved his job, especially being a Deaf role model to the children.
“My mentor would always tell the children and the parents that Deaf people can do anything but hear, so I wanted to inspire them – if they want to be a doctor, go for it. A lawyer, a reporter, a journalist, anything, because many Deaf people, they don’t know if they can accomplish that,” Klusman said, admitting that he’s still surprised of the things he’s accomplished in his life. But one thing he never did, was follow that same advice.
“I told children and other people that if you put your heart into it, you can be anybody you want to be, but for some weird reason, I saw that I could become anybody, any job except being a priest,” he said.
That was until his UW-Madison college friends introduced him to Msgr. Glenn Nelson, the director of Deaf ministry in the Diocese of Rockford, Ill.
Roadtripping to Illinois for Bible study
They took road trips to Illinois where they would attend Bible studies that left him feeling “on fire,” and made for great conversation on the ride back and late into the night. Klusman remembers not wanting to leave.
“I came up to him and I said, ‘Thank you for the great Bible study session, I loved it,’ and that’s when he popped the question,” said Klusman, who was about 27 or 28 at the time, “He said, ‘Christopher, have you ever thought about the priesthood?’ Wow, that put me on the spot. I felt like a deer stepping on the highway with the lights.”
Klusman shared his concerns – that he didn’t know if it would be possible – but the priest told him that nothing’s impossible with God.
“He was kind enough to offer his time to meet with me once a month to discern…,” Klusman said of what led to him applying for the seminary.
In August of 2005, he resigned from his “dream” job.
“I struggled with leaving my job, but I think, in a way, my job was a blessing, because even though I was very busy, I kind of was like if only I could have a half-an-hour to read a Bible,” Klusman said.
The idea that he could do that all as a priest was inviting.
Priesthood ‘would be good match’
Heather Pudas, 37, a teacher of the Deaf and hard of hearing who has known Klusman since about 2003 when they met at a workshop, said she was surprised when he told her he was applying to the seminary because he hadn’t ever talked about it with her. “However, after we talked about it a little bit, I could really see how that fit him and how it would be a really good match for him,” Pudas said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “I could understand also how important it was to him and in the church, because there are so few people who are able to minister to the Deaf community and so to have a pastor or a priest who is able to connect on that level and be able to use their native language fluently is just a really huge asset and so important.”
Pudas, a non-denominational Christian, also admitted to a twinge of sadness because at the time they weren’t officially dating, but had grown close.
“I told him that I was partly disappointed because that meant that he was off the market and I was sad about that – that was before I met my husband,” said Pudas, who will attend the ordination with her husband.
For Pudas, Klusman inspires her in the way he connects with all people and doesn’t let his limitations stand in his way.
“He finds ways around them and he’s just overcome so many different things, so many challenges and that’s just inspiring to know that he just keeps going and he does it with a happy heart,” she said.
Pudas knows her friend will make a good priest because of the way he comforts people and gains their trust.
“Maybe he won’t be able to solve everything, but he’ll be able to listen and comfort – I know that he’ll definitely give comfort to anybody who comes to him,” she said of Klusman, who she calls her “Deaf-hearing friend, because even though he is Deaf, he can very easily go between the Deaf and the hearing world.”
‘Pastoral, servant mentality’ will serve community
Sue Gudenkauf, Klusman’s interpreter at UW-Madison, said she wasn’t surprised when he announced his decision.
“I knew he was growing in his faith and he was really discerning what God was calling him to do next and so I did know he was thinking about it and encouraged him to talk to other priests and seminarians,” she said in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, sharing in his excitement.
Gudenkauf, who attends St. Dennis Church in Madison, said that Klusman’s pastoral and servant mentality will make a mark on the often underserved Deaf community.
“There are priests that sign that are hearing, but there’s a very small number of priests that are Deaf or who have a hearing loss that use American Sign Language as their primary mode of communication, as their first language, and as priests throughout the world,” Gudenkauf said.
As he looks forward to his ordination, Klusman said he’s most excited to make his parents and family, who have never failed to show him love and support, proud.
“God blessed me with so many things that I want to be able to give back the wonderful blessings that I’ve received to them and that’s what I’m looking forward to doing,” he said.