Ever since he was little, Michael Neeland knew God placed him on earth to help others, but he wasn’t quite sure what that meant. The youngest of four children, his first thought of the priesthood in high school was fleeting, and pushed aside while he made way for post-high school plans.
The 35-year-old member of the Society of the Divine Savior was ordained a priest on Saturday, May 27 at St. Pius X Parish in Wauwatosa.
In trying to respond to the call to help others, Fr. Neeland earned a degree in social work from Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t think God was calling me to that particular juncture, but I kept discerning,” he said. “I avoided a vocation, and had more life experience.”
Following graduation, Fr. Neeland worked as a social worker in Buffalo, NY, and served as a volunteer firefighter/EMT for 10 years in his hometown.
“I fought the priesthood for a long time, but continued to feel called to help others,” he said. “I was happy to be there to help people as an EMT, entering people’s lives in a time of need and trying to live out the Gospel by helping others.”
There were many instances that Fr. Neeland said he tried to please God by considering the vocation to religious life. He spent a summer in Chicago working with at-risk youth. While there, he participated in a program called, “Catholics On Call.”
“It was like a week-long retreat or program focusing on vocations, whether lay or religious,” he explained. “I met a lot of religious communities there, but realized that I needed to live more and do more and needed more time to discern what I was called to do.”
Before he discerned life as a Salvatorian priest, Fr. Neeland lived in a L’Arche Community in Tacoma, Washington.
“One of the best things I did was to move there,” he said. “I spent two years with the international community, started by Jean Vanier, for people with and without developmental disabilities. They live according to The Beatitudes, and working with them is a big part of where I am today.”
L’Arche communities in the U.S. provide homes and workplaces for those with and without intellectual disabilities to live and work together as peers.
In spending more time in social work, Fr. Neeland realized God was calling him to a different vocation.
“I decided after fighting the vocation for so many years, to give in to the pressure and listen to God,” he said, adding, “God is persistent and keeps knocking at the door. I opened it a crack, and the door stayed open, and here I am. In discerning, I realized that God was not calling me to become a diocesan priest, but to that of a religious. I felt called to live out what the apostles and disciples did and knew it was time to trust God and enter religious life.”
Though Fr. Neeland discerned the religious life, he was not sure of a particular order to explore. Using an online vocations tool called Vision Vocation Network, he took a survey and noticed that the Salvatorians were at the top of the list that matched his personality and desires.
“I liked that the Salvatorians fit well with my degree in social work, and I liked that the Salvatorians are called to be apostles for our times,” he said. “I made arrangements to visit for a day or two, and I immediately felt at home and knew that this was where God was calling me to be a priest.”
Making the decision to enter the Salvatorians was one thing; telling his family and friends was quite another. After overcoming a learning disability to graduate college, those closest to Fr. Neeland had concerns about the challenges ahead.
“They were in shock, but supportive that this was where I was being led to and those who journeyed with me these past six years came on board,” he said. “My father became Catholic, which doesn’t have anything to do with me entering the Order, but it came from him seeing my relationship with God. I had a nice core group of campus ministry friends who came in from all over the country for
Throughout his formation with the Salvatorians, Fr. Neeland served as a Chaplain volunteer at the Veterans Administration, the Salvatorian Center, Social Justice Youth Minister at St. Mary’s in Hales Corners, confirmation prep instructor, summer camp counselor, Catholic Chaplain at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and more.
On June 25, he begins a new position as associate campus minister, at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida.
“I am really excited for this new position and I can’t wait to share the joy and gifts of the Holy Spirit and the joy that I have as a priest,” he said.
“My vocation is my calling to fullness,” he said. “Being called to do something like this in today’s society is something not too many people do. I am called to be an apostle and be a disciple for all to see and a good witness.”