This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing you to the six men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 17, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Catholicism was always a part of his life, but not the center of it.
Deacon Justin Lopina considered himself a “casual Catholic” growing up, someone who went to Mass three times a month and took the fourth week off, believing “it’s not even a sin to sleep in,” he said.
“What that meant is when I got to high school, I had no real angers about religion, because it had been a very positive experience for me thus far, but my faith was relatively ‘cool,’” Deacon Lopina, 32, said in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “I was very interested in science, physics and music and I had other interests.”
He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an astronomer.
But he would learn that God had something other than a lab coat in mind for him.
The oldest of Lawrence and Arliss Lopina’s four children had diverse interests, according to Arliss, and he learned everything from ballroom dancing to ballet – they trace the dancing genes to his late maternal grandparents who met on the dance floor, to spinning plates on a stick, to Brazilian martial arts known as Capoeira.
“He’s just not one thing, he’s so well-rounded,” said Arliss, a parishioner at St. Anthony on the Lake Parish, Pewaukee.
Justin’s paternal grandparents, Lawrence and Marion Lopina, “slowly but surely” tried to plant seeds of priesthood in him and his younger brother, Eric. His childhood pastor, Fr. Tony McCarthy at St. Clare Church, now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, in North Lake, made it clear he saw the potential for priesthood in Justin.
Deacon Lopina said he questioned whether staying Catholic was right for him, ironically about a year after his confirmation, but was “convinced” it was by the beginning of his sophomore year at Beloit College, 2001-2002.
“My faith started to grow in college, and there’s no reason for it, aside from the Holy Spirit – I mean, it’s just a process that began one day and I can’t credit myself for that starting,” he said.
Later that year, as Deacon Lopina continued to pursue his physics major with an emphasis in astronomy, and minors in journalism and political science, it hit him: maybe he was being called to priesthood.
“I remember at that moment, I thought I should continue with physics, contribute something to the scientific community, and 15 years from now, if I’m not married, I could do priesthood as a second career option,” Deacon Lopina said. “God liked my plan, but not my timetable.”
He had plenty of time to think about what he wanted in life when he moved to Madison after graduating in 2004, and was working as a night auditor in a hotel. It was when the reality that being a physicist was “very hard work” had sunk in, and he was working a dead-end job just to pay the rent, having trouble making friends and “life wasn’t great” that he began to think about the priesthood again.
But there was one problem.
“I realized that I loved everything about priesthood, except that darn celibacy, and I just wasn’t convinced that I had the strength to do a lifelong, celibate promise,” he said.
Deacon Lopina was used to having female companionship for most of his adult life.
“I’ve always appreciated having someone special in my life, to share my life with, and so dating was a very welcome part of my life, and letting go was a real challenge,” he said.
That’s when he decided to do something he had always wanted to do – join the Peace Corps for a two-year term of service.
While serving as a science teacher in Burkina Faso, West Africa, in the middle of the desert, about halfway through his term, he figured it out: God had been calling him to the priesthood all along. And he would answer it just like his mom answered the call to adopt his youngest sister, Allison, from China 12 years ago.
While he had hinted to his family and friends that priesthood was a possibility if a career in science didn’t work out, Deacon Lopina said no one really took it seriously until he called home from Africa.
Arliss said Deacon Lopina mentioned the priesthood once, but she always visualized him being a research scientist in a lab doing physics or science, or researching a cure for cancer or something like that, “but the calling from God was so much stronger.”
“I think sometimes God calls, but we don’t always answer the phone right away, and God was definitely calling and he just wasn’t sure; was it a true calling or not? And by going into the Peace Corps, that was a good test of time for him, doing that for two years,” Arliss said of Deacon Lopina’s assignment in what she described as a small, desolate town with no electricity or running water. “He’s like, ‘Well, priests live a tough life and being in the Peace Corps is tough, and I want to challenge myself and see if I can do something a lot of people can’t do.’”
She remembered when her son called his dad and told him that he wanted to be a priest, asking him to call Saint Francis de Sales Seminary to get the paperwork he needed to apply.
“We were so happy,” Arliss said. “We felt that Justin had traveled – he had done so many other things first that we knew it was a true calling, because he had done so many other things. His life could have gone in so many other directions and when this came up it was like, no, this is a true calling. You gave everything up and went into the Peace Corps and you were able to handle that and you’ve had a lot of time to reflect on your life.”
Arliss said she has enjoyed watching her son’s life story unfold, from the smart first-grader once nicknamed the “absent-minded professor” by teachers because he constantly misplaced his assignments, to the young man delivering homilies at his teaching parish, St. Francis Borgia, Cedarburg, that “keep people thinking and paying attention,” soon to be ordained.
Arliss said Deacon Lopina is curious, creative, funny, a good writer and speaker, always willing to help when someone needs it and well-rounded.
“I honestly think he’s going to be the most fantastic priest because he’s so diverse and fun,” she said.
Teri Schnuck, senior administrative assistant at St. Francis Borgia Parish, said the deacon has immersed himself in the parish since he began working there four years ago.
He has taught religious education classes, worked with confirmation students, attended parish meetings, visited the ill and gotten involved in all aspects of parish life, she said.
“I don’t think there’s anything that he’s ever said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to do that,’” she said, describing Deacon Lopina as joy-filled, open to sharing, listening and asking questions, and adapting well to different situations.
Schnuck said Deacon Lopina is also entertaining – he performed plate spinning at the parish festival in “wide, crazy pants.”
“Parishioners of all ages have seemed to enjoy him, from the little ones in vacation Bible school to the students,” she said.
Deacon Lopina said he’s looking forward to the new experiences he will have as a priest.
“I’m looking forward to being of real service to other people and the more bizarre or unfamiliar the position the better,” he said. “I have very little experience with inner city parishes, with working with the poor, Hispanic ministry, all of these things I know nothing about, and I’m looking forward to discovering those unique experiences, again, in the context of serving Christ and the church through service to others and making sacrifice manifest – the job of all priests.”