This is the first of three articles introducing you to the three men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 21, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
Patrick Behling had mapped out a pretty clear plan for his life. By junior year of high school, he seemed well on his way to make it happen.
The Whitefish Bay native’s grandmother was close friends with a Shorewood native, the late William Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, 1986-2005, and Deacon Behling saw his life leading him in the same direction, eventually to a position on the highest court in the land.
By junior year at Whitefish Bay High School, he was well on his way to that goal, having already spent two summers in Washington, D.C. as an intern for then-Senator Herb Kohl.
College and law school were part of the plan for the young man who was a voracious reader, part of the high school forensics team, editor of the school newspaper, a volleyball player and cellist in the school orchestra as well as with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.
“I had a whole plan for my life charted out,” he told the Catholic Herald in an interview in early April. “I would go to college, law school, become an attorney, clerk for a federal judge, become a federal judge myself and eventually be named to the Supreme Court.”
But then God stepped in, explained Deacon Behling, who when he is ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki on Saturday, May 21, will, at age 26, become the archdiocese’s youngest priest.
Deacon Behling was home over Holy Week during spring of his junior year in high school and he attended Holy Thursday services at his parish, Holy Family, Whitefish Bay.
Because he had been an altar server for many of the previous years, this was one of the few times when Deacon Behling found himself in the pews during the Triduum at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
When the priest elevated the host during the consecration, Deacon Behling said a thought entered his head — a thought he described as not his own.
“You could do that; you could be a priest,” he felt himself thinking.
“I had never thought that before and it wasn’t necessarily an attractive idea,” he admitted, but he said the thought lingered and wouldn’t go away.
Deacon Behling described the next few years as a time when he and God “arm wrestled.”
“I’d say, ‘I got this plan for life, Lord, why change it?’ I did not really want to go to the seminary, but I decided to give it one year and if it doesn’t work, as I know it won’t … but I know better than to question God.”
The fact that Deacon Behling was drawn to the seminary came as no surprise to those around him, especially his parents, yet they were insistent he earn his college degree before making any commitment.
“Patrick always loved going to church, even as a little kid,” noted his father, Phil Behling, a retirement planner for Empower Retirement. “He knew all the prayers, enjoyed the music and I remember one time when he was maybe 4 years old during Mass, we were singing some particular hymn, it was dramatic and all – and Patrick was singing this hymn at the top of his lungs and when it ended, he let out a huge ‘yeah’ and had his arms up in the air.”
Describing the parenting moment as a mixture of embarrassing, but funny, Phil said maybe that’s the reason he and his wife, Liz, a preschool teacher at St. Sebastian School, Milwaukee, were not surprised when their elder son came to them and said he was interested in priesthood.
Prior to that, however, he, too, confessed he had always envisioned his son on the Supreme Court.
“He does have a very high intellect, a strong interest in law and politics. I never saw him as a politician, but always envisioned him being in the back office of a political person, or maybe a judge; he’d make a good judge,” Phil told the Catholic Herald in a telephone interview.
Yet, when Deacon Behling told them he was considering the seminary, he said he and his wife also readily recognized it was a legitimate career path for him.
“It was very important to Liz and me that Patrick get his degree,” he said, adding they had no problem with him entering the seminary, but wanted their son to earn a degree and have the whole college experience before making that decision.
Deacon Behling attended St. Olaf College, a private liberal arts, Lutheran college in Northfield, Minnesota, about 45 minutes from the Twin Cities.
He majored in philosophy, thinking that would be a good background when he entered law school, but came to find he really enjoyed the academic discipline, and when he got to the seminary and took theology classes, “I found what I love even more is theology,” he admitted.
The Lutheran campus afforded him many opportunities to grow his faith, he said, noting that about 15 percent of St. Olaf’s students are Catholic. They bonded, often carpooling to the nearest parish or gathering to pray the rosary.
He also bonded quickly with a young man in his dorm, a Presbyterian, Benjamin Simmons. The two quickly found they had much in common: a love of classical music, interest in debating intellectual ideals, including philosophy and literature, from a great arts book program.
Deacon Behling’s example and love for his faith is one of the reasons that Simmons entered the Catholic Church through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program about a year and a half after he graduated. Deacon Behling was his sponsor and Simmons noted he received his first Communion from his friend. It was the first Communion distributed by the then recently installed acolyte.
“Patrick’s friendship was instrumental in helping me get there,” said Simmons of his entry into the Catholic Church, describing many intellectual conversations they shared. “He really is a font of knowledge. Patrick is one of the smartest people I have ever met,” he said, adding they enjoyed intellectual sparring.
While Simmons does not recall the moment when Deacon Patrick told him he was considering priesthood, he said it certainly was not a shock.
“I vaguely recall the conversation and while it was unexpected because of the magnitude of making that commitment, a lifelong commitment that is somewhat countercultural, it seems like a logical conclusion of where his heart was,” said Simmons in a telephone interview with the Catholic Herald from his Minnesota home where he works for a tech start-up, Gravie.
Describing Deacon Behling as someone others often went to for advice, Simmons said he is “an amazing counselor, good at listening and very insightful” — qualities he said will help him be a compassionate priest.
“His intellect – he’s incredibly smart and he will be a fantastic leader,” said Simmons, adding, “He’s very compassionate, loves people … and really connects with the congregation.”
Phil described a reflection his son delivered a few years ago that he and Liz attended.
He began the reflection saying, “I hate to take out the trash,” and Phil said he remembered looking at his wife in puzzlement, wondering where their son was going with the thought.
“But he used it as a set-up to correlate taking out the trash with the concept of going to confession, and when he was done, five minutes later, it all made perfect sense,” said Phil, noting that while his son is serious about his faith, he has a good sense of humor and a way of looking at things that will help people in the pews relate to him.
Future parishioners should note that if Phil has his way, homilies will be no longer than eight minute long. He and his son have a running joke that if the future priest goes longer than eight minutes, dad will get up and leave.
Kidding aside, Phil couldn’t contain his pride when he said, “I think people will be very pleased to have him in their midst. His ability to relate to people is really special. He has a gift — that way of being able to communicate and converse with everyone from U.S. senators to a street person.”
Even though his son will begin life as a priest, Phil said he knows they will continue to share family time – with his parents and younger brother, Brien, who is graduating this spring from Drake University with a teaching degree – at Brewer games and in holiday celebrations, including tenderloin dinners on Christmas Eve.
“For Patrick, faith and family, that’s really what it comes down to,” he said.
As he looks forward to ordination, Deacon Behling said he knows as a priest he will be with people during the best and worst moments of their lives.
From the mundane, three-hour finance council meeting to the life and death moments when he administers sacraments, “it is everything from the beauty of preaching and the most mundane details of administration. That’s what makes it difficult, but makes it beautiful. We are present in all the extremes and the unique way the priest gets to bring the Body of Christ to others is extraordinary,” he said.