This is the first in a series of articles introducing you to the four men scheduled to be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 18, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
It was there as a fifth grader. The calm, hushed murmurings to John Paul Mitchell’s heart as he felt God’s love drawing him to the priesthood. He took seriously the catechism lessons that spoke of becoming a witness for the Catholic faith and strived to serve as an example of virtue among his classmates and friends.
“As an altar server, I fell in love with the liturgy during these years and began to spend some time in prayer in the morning when I woke up and at night before I went to bed,” he explained. “I left the idea about being a priest on the backburner during high school, and had a pretty ‘normal’ high school experience, though it was always there in the background.”
The son of Robin and Susan Mitchell, transitional Deacon Mitchell, 29, will be ordained a priest on May 18. The fourth of five siblings, his eldest brother, Peter, is a priest for the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. He has three sisters, Elizabeth and Maria Mitchell and Anne Auger.
After graduating high school at Brookfield Academy, Deacon Mitchell, a member of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, attended The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. Following graduation, he attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
With thoughts of the priesthood pushed to the back of his mind, Deacon Mitchell dated a young woman named Rachel while in college. The two discussed consecrated life often, and were open to discovering God’s will for their lives.
“As I graduated, I knew that I wanted to at least give the seminary a try in order to test this quiet call I kept experiencing in my heart, to surrender my whole life in service of Christ and his church,” he explained. “I still wasn’t sure whether I wanted to enter the diocesan or religious life, so I took a year to do a master’s program at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. That year was providential in many ways, and I decided to enter the diocesan seminary the following fall, in 2007.”
Along with the formation the seminary provided, Deacon Mitchell received spiritual direction. While he was busy discerning God’s call, Rachel was discerning as well and eventually joined the Sisters of Life in New York and changed her name to Sr. Mariae Agnus Dei.
“The reason the Lord chooses anyone to be a priest is always a great mystery,” said Deacon Mitchell. “It touches the depths of your soul. I think the Lord simply loved me for who I was, and gave me a free invitation to accept a great gift that he desired to extend to me.”
The decision to become a priest did not surprise his parents, but Deacon Mitchell expects they wondered if God could really be calling two priests from the same family. Above everything, they wanted their son to have the freedom to know and follow God’s will for his life.
“My friends were also supportive and proud,” said Deacon Mitchell. “It has been a great joy to have friends who have known and supported me along the whole journey to the priesthood.”
While God’s whispers grew stronger, Deacon John Paul faced a challenge that he wasn’t certain would fit with the vocation of priest, and it nearly prevented him from entering the seminary. Stuttering since childhood, he wondered how he would be able to serve as God’s voice, delivering homilies with a problem that is sometimes quite severe.
“I trusted that if God was truly calling me, he would take care of it,” he explained. “Though stuttering is something one is never fully ‘cured’ of, through God’s grace and providence, and steady hard work on my part, I have learned how to manage my stutter quite well. This will be a daily challenge for me to keep on top of in the years ahead, but I am aware that God also uses this weakness of mine to reveal himself.”
Throughout his years in the seminary, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where he will return after ordination to continue his studies for a licentiate in Biblical Theology, Deacon Mitchell has served in various positions of ministry. He devoted a month as a prayer-chaplain at a trauma hospital in Tulsa, Okla., taught grade school and middle school students, and tutored people in inner city Washington, D.C. as they prepared for their GEDs.
“I have served in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and done street evangelization in St. Peter’s Square,” he said. “This year I have been blessed to serve as a deacon at the U.S. Naval Base in Naples, Italy. We serve at the parish there and spend time with the families who generously host us over the weekends we spend at the base.”
When he has spare time, Deacon Mitchell enjoys running, playing tennis and Ultimate.
“During the winter, I enjoy cross country and downhill skiing,” he said, adding, “I also enjoy reading literature as a break from all the theological reading we do in the seminary.”
As a priest, Deacon Mitchell hopes to be a mediator between people and God, helping them to come to know more closely and unpack the ways God is moving and working in their lives.
“I love Scripture and want to help people come to understand and dive more deeply into God’s Word, which is living and true,” he said. “I look forward to leading others into a deeper encounter with Christ, through the sacraments, preaching, teaching and prayer.”
Perhaps it is because he was named after him, but Deacon Mitchell has always felt close to, and considered Blessed John Paul II a great role model.
“He is an inspiring witness of the joy, courage and zeal we should have as believers in the Risen Lord,” he said. “He was a man fully alive, and I pray to him often now to continually grow in the same freedom that he had.”
As ordination nears, Deacon Mitchell admitted to a natural fear and sense of unworthiness.
“The closer I draw to ordination, the more I realize how much ‘he must increase and I must decrease,’ as John the Baptist put it. I look to the disciples to draw hope in the moments I feel the most unworthy of the great gift that is about to be given to me in priestly ordination. They, too, were human – full of fears, blindnesses and missteps; and yet, God called them and equipped them with the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit that they needed to be effective witnesses of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.”
In thinking about his first Mass, and the first time he holds the bread and wine, knowing that it will change into Christ’s Body and Blood, Deacon Mitchell anticipates it to be a humbling experience.
“It will also be a source of deep communion with Christ, who pours himself out so others might be fed,” he said.