This is the second 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.
Kevin McManaman, 31, remembers the first time anyone suggested that he consider priesthood. So unnerved by the question posed to him by his mother while shopping, McManaman quickly responded, “No, Mom, I’ve never thought of that,” and immediately changed the subject.
Yet, weeks after McManaman returned to school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, he couldn’t shake that question which still lingered in his mind.
As McManaman reflected on his faith journey which will culminate in his ordination as a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 21, he admitted he followed an unlikely path, but he looks back on that question from his mother and realizes his family “planted the seeds of faith in him that sprouted later in his life.”
Raised in a Catholic home, the middle child of David and Lynn McManaman’s three children, McManaman spent two years at St. Sylvester School, South Milwaukee, but primarily was educated in Cudahy’s public schools. By the time he graduated from Cudahy High School in 1998, faith played almost no role in his life.
He headed off to UW–Madison and, like many first year students, planned to be a doctor, but switched his major from pre-med to history and anthropology.
‘Les Mis’ sparks interest in faith
Required reading his sophomore year of “Les Misérables,” the French novel that focuses on an ex-convict and his experience of redemption, ignited a desire in McManaman to learn more about his faith.
“I had a need to go to church, a need to come into finding my faith,” he explained. “Reading this book put me in touch in a way that made sense with the themes of forgiveness, and journeying to what comes after and God and Christ, and the need for mercy and all of those kinds of themes that got me thinking.”
With thoughts of mercy, forgiveness and redemption swirling in his head, McManaman started going to Mass in his search for answers. The first Mass he attended was on Palm Sunday, “the longest Mass of the year,” he noted, yet that didn’t deter him. He began attending Mass regularly at the St. Paul’s University Catholic Center on campus and found he enjoyed it.
About that time, he also saw a notice advertising a Catholic Bible study in his dorm and began attending that as well.
A fellow Bible study participant, Nathan Reesman, now Fr. Nathan Reesman, associate pastor of St. Frances Cabrini and Holy Angels parishes, West Bend, recalls the young man who came to the session, searching in much the same way he had done the previous year.
“In a similar way, I reconnected with the church myself, a year or so earlier, and he came into the study looking to learn more about the church and how to be Catholic on a very secular campus, and the challenges that posed. We had a bit of a bond that way,” said Fr. Reesman, recalling that McManaman was a thoughtful participant in the sessions. “Kevin always had really good insights to offer,” he said of the friend he fondly refers to as “the voice of reason.”
Through the St. Paul Center and the Bible study group, McManaman realized that Christians did not fit into the stereotype he had held. Rather, “I realized the church was full of normal people,” he said of the group he had previously thought of as dull and boring.
‘Living faith with fire within’
“They had fun, they joked around, there was lots of laughter in the dorm room,” he said, “and it really opened my mind and I became very interested in the church, in my faith and I started living it with a kind of a fire within.”
Eager to more fully embrace his newfound faith, McManaman was confirmed.
In preparation for his confirmation, McManaman asked his mother to go shopping with him for a suit.
“With a man’s lack of fashion sense, I needed some help and asked my mom to come with me,” he said, adding that as they shopped, she questioned him about the upcoming confirmation, and then asked him the now-prophetic question of whether he himself had considered priesthood.
He pushed the question from his mind, but that summer McManaman said he devoured religious books to learn as much as he could about his newly embraced Catholic faith.
His mother’s question remained on his mind, moving again to the forefront, when at one of the Bible study sessions, Reesman told the group he was considering priesthood.
Shortly after, McManaman, over lunch, told Reesman that he, too, was considering priesthood.
By the end of the summer before his junior year, McManaman more fully investigated a vocation to the priesthood. He met with then-vocations director for the archdiocese, Fr. Robert Stiefvater, and went on a life directions retreat. The summer after graduation, he applied to the seminary.
But as the time neared for him to enter the seminary, he admitted to having second thoughts.
“I had turned in the application, had done the psychological testing, but I thought, maybe I needed to take a break and experience life on my own,” said McManaman. “I called Fr. Bob (Stiefvater) and told him I’m not feeling good about this, and he pulled my application, but told me that if I come in, in the next two years, he would pick up with the process where I left off.”
Pushing aside thoughts of priesthood, McManaman turned his attention to another career calling him: teaching.
“I’d always wanted to be a teacher. I love teaching and it was something I always looked forward to in the priesthood,” he said, describing the two-year teaching program he embarked upon after earning his bachelor’s degree. He described his first year of teaching in a Milwaukee Public School classroom as wonderful, but during his second year with MPS middle and secondary students, he said he felt more and more called to the seminary.
“Eventually I went back to the vocations office, and this time talked to Fr. Paul Hartmann (then-vocations director) and when I told him my story, he said if you feel called to be a priest, you should come to the seminary and at least investigate it, because if you don’t and you are called, you will always be wondering,” said McManaman.
For a second time, McManaman applied to the seminary but said, “I felt much more at peace, more than the first time.”
Because more than two years had elapsed since his first application, he had to undergo the psychological testing a second time. He received news of his acceptance on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It’s interesting looking back on the years and I think I needed them in some ways. Living on my own, maybe the messiness of life did make me more aware, more mature,” he said, admitting he gave into some of his fears the first time around. “The first time I applied, it did not feel right at the time, but now it’s that message from John Paul II of ‘be not afraid.’ I repeated that over and over again and I learned important things about myself, and the world.”
Ability to relate to contemporaries
As a priest, McManaman said he most looks forward to celebrating the sacraments and preaching.
“Mass, reconciliation, anointing, as a deacon, I can baptize now, that’s my favorite thing to do,” he said. McManaman estimated that he’s preached on about 60 percent of the weekends this past year.
“I like preaching very much. It’s always been a joy. Really, it’s a motivation on so many levels. I have to keep the Word of God alive in my heart and it’s neat to share that with people, too,” said McManaman, explaining he tries to bring stories and examples from popular culture into his preaching.
At Madison, he developed the reputation as being a movie buff, something he continued at the seminary.
“He’s quite well versed in movies and has an ability to take the movie and relate it in a way that speaks to questions of faith,” according to Jason Godin, a close college friend, who teaches at Blinn College in Texas. “As a priest, I think he’ll be very effective in terms of the church of the early 21st century. The church has had a real struggle with priestly abuse, but he’s an example of what’s right with the church. He’ll especially be a role model for younger Catholics, going back to that ability to relate to that element of contemporary culture.”
Godin, a Pennsylvania native who came to UW-Madison for his undergraduate degree, said he bonded quickly with his fellow resident hall staff member. Not only did he appreciate his love of literature and movies, but he was drawn to Mc Manaman’s dry “Midwestern sense of humor,” something he likened to Bob Newhart or Johnny Carson.
Even though Godin lives across the country with his wife, Megan, and their two young children, Abigail, 3 and Robert, 2, he stays in close touch with his college buddy, speaking or emailing weekly. McManaman was a member of his wedding party and is godfather to Abigail and Robert.
“He’ll send them age-appropriate Catholic books for their birthdays or Christmas and when he’s around, he bears witness to the faith,” said Godin about the man he chose as his children’s godfather.
Godin, who will be in Milwaukee for his friend’s ordination, is confident he’ll make a good priest and thinks he will be particularly effective with young Catholics.
“If he’s assigned to a youthful parish with young families, it will be one of those moments when the Holy Spirit will allow Kevin to flourish. He also has the intellectual tools to appeal to the older Catholic as well,” said Godin, adding, “Kevin’s very bright. Not only does he understand the precepts of the church, but he knows how to relate those precepts to Catholics today.”
Love of Jesus, church
During a visit to the seminary last week, McManaman showed Fr. Reesman his chalice, one that had previously belonged to a priest from one of the Cudahy parishes that merged to become Nativity of the Lord Parish, Cudahy, Mc Manaman’s home parish.
“He was so thrilled to hold it and have it in his hands,” said Fr. Reesman. “It’s always a special moment (receiving the chalice) and it really shows he’s getting to the end of the journey and life as a priest will begin soon. I’m happy to watch him come to realize all that is happening in the next few weeks. It’s been a long journey for him.”
Fr. Reesman said he’s confident McManaman will be a great teacher of the faith.
“Kevin has a real idealistic sense of wanting to do things right, wanting to help other people. He loves Jesus and the church, and he takes a rather realistic view of reality,” said the priest who will preach at Mc Manaman’s Mass of Thanksgiving. “He’s a person who really likes to pass on his knowledge of faith. Kevin will always try and do right by people. He’ll do what is honest and good and he’ll ask questions along the way. He’ll be a good learner, too.”