“It was just another ‘yes’ from the Lord. I felt so at peace on the shores and I realized that was another part of me, loving to be near the water, loving to fish. It was so connected with the life of the apostles, that story of them leaving behind their nets and following (Jesus) being called to be fishers of men.
“That story always struck me, and so I see fishing as such a great part of my life that brought me peace, and eventually brought me to discernment and will always be part of what I do leisure-wise,” he said.
Johnny, the oldest of John and Peggy Burns’ four children, was homeschooled by his mother from grade five until freshman year at Homestead High School, Mequon. A lifelong Catholic, he said his family, including sisters Meggy and Mary and brother Patrick, who is also studying for priesthood for the archdiocese, was religious, “but not an over-the-top Catholic family.” Sunday Mass was a given and they also attended daily Mass occasionally, said Johnny, noting his parents were strong role models of the faith.
Following graduation, he attended the University of Notre Dame, earning a degree in business marketing and a minor in theology. He regularly attended Mass on campus and participated in an annual retreat, but his Notre Dame experience was not “extraordinarily Catholic” as he said he was not involved in campus ministry.
On campus, “everybody knew Johnny Burns,” according to his friend, Josh Gentine, 29, a native of Plymouth who became a close friend while they were both at Notre Dame.
“He was so outgoing, just this character. So smart, funny, always in front of people,” said Gentine, describing his friend. “There are so many different groups of people on campus, and he fit into every group, whether it was the studiers, the partiers, the spiritually-minded. He fit into every group.”
Turns down dream job
After college, the two friends seemed destined to follow the path they had laid out for themselves in business. In fact, Johnny, after three rounds of interviewing, was offered his dream position in the corporate training program in the Chicago office of E&J Gallo Winery.
“I was really excited about the company, I really enjoyed (the interviewing process), I got to meet a lot of managers, it seemed perfect,” he recalled of the job offer. But on the eve of his acceptance of the offer, he came down with what he described as “cold feet.”
“At the end, something didn’t click, it didn’t fit into the slot, and I realized there was something else, but I did not know what that something else was,” he said of his decision to turn down the job. “All of a sudden, I realized maybe I didn’t want to work to make money for myself, that somehow I needed to figure out a different way of approaching my future.”
Johnny looked to his friend, Gentine, who had similarly turned down a seemingly dream job offer, and the friends decided to do something they would not have done had they started working. They traveled. After working as a bartender, doing research for an author and other assorted odd jobs for about nine months to raise money for the trip, Johnny and Gentine set off backpacking across southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Mending nets, reading Bible
During their journey, Gentine recalled that the two spent a lot of time discussing their futures, the business world, faith and even the priesthood. Even though they traveled lightly, they both carried a Bible and rosary while backpacking through Asia.
They parted ways in Australia when Johnny ran out of money and took a month-long job on a shrimp boat. Gentine continued to South Africa and worked in a hospital.
While at sea on the shrimp boat, Johnny said he spent much time with the Bible, something that surprised the seven-member crew.
“The crew was surprised to see a Bible out there on the high seas. I did a lot of reading, and I remember a lot of times, mending the nets at night and looking out over the water, thinking about these stories from Scripture where the apostles were doing just that, sitting mending their nets when Christ called them from the Sea of Galilee,” he said, describing the powerful experiences he had on deck, pondering his future as he watched the sun set over the water.
“I had some really poignant moments looking out over the sea and thinking that maybe I had a life for the Lord in a way that maybe I hadn’t been willing to consider,” he said.
When Johnny returned to the United States, he said, he had a slightly clearer vision of his future, but nothing direct. There was an opening at one of his family-owned Heinemann’s Restaurants, and for seven months, he stepped in as an assistant manager.
“There, I realized the restaurant business was not for me,” he said, describing that period of his life as stressful, somewhat unhappy with tension in his heart.
Mom recognized son’s sadness
His mother, Peggy, also recognized the sadness in her son. Describing Johnny as a people-person, she said he appeared unsettled after college, “and I knew he wasn’t happy doing what he was doing.”
A six-day silent retreat at a Trappist Monastery allowed Johnny time to get away from the noise and distractions of life. He now looks upon it as a time when “the Lord was very direct and clear with me, asking me to get to know him and to study theology.”
After the retreat, Johnny said, things rapidly fell into place. He spoke with his then-pastor at Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, Fr. Tom DeVries, who set up an appointment for him with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. Over coffee at the archbishop’s residence, Archbishop Dolan told him clearly, “You need to enter the seminary. It’s very clear, the Lord is calling you.”
With those words, Johnny remembers feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Seminary studies in Washington, D.C.
Because Johnny had accepted a job in Washington, D.C. with the Center for Faith Based Community Initiatives, Archbishop Dolan arranged for him to begin seminary studies in that city at The Catholic University of America. He completed his first three semesters at CUA, studying theology and philosophy, before being asked by Archbishop Dolan to complete his studies for priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Following his ordination, and a summer internship at Christ King Parish, Wauwatosa, Johnny will return to Rome for his final year of schooling.
When Johnny decided to become a priest, Peggy described the change in her son’s outlook as “dramatic.”
“From a mother’s perspective, seeing what really makes him happy and at peace, for that I am so grateful,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be given such a gift from God.”
While Peggy said she would not have predicted that her eldest child would be called to priesthood, she said his ability to identify with people will make him a good priest.
“He likes people, he’s good with them. After working in a restaurant, he’s very people-oriented and attracts people to him. He has a lot of empathy for them, has a lot of patience and is very calm, patient and intelligent,” she said of the son who since college, has never missed sending her a bouquet of flowers on Valentine’s Day – with the exception of once, when he was at sea in Australia.
Love of people evident
Gentine, a member of Three Holy Women, Milwaukee, and an entrepreneur whose most recent venture is the Cholive Company, a chocolate company that specializes in chocolates in the shape of olives, also highlighted Johnny’s love for people.
“He radiates compassion, he truly cares for people, and knowing Johnny from back in college, I think most people would not guess that Johnny would be a priest, but he has a deep spiritual relationship with God,” said Gentine. “While he might not have made his faith outwardly known, he cares about folks, and that truly radiates from him. He’s such a dynamic person and I am so excited that this young, dynamic person will be out there spreading the faith to other people.”
While in the past, Gentine said he and his friend might have shared conversations about school or careers over a beer, their conversations recently have been more spiritual.
“His friendship means the world to me. I am beyond blessed to know (Johnny) as a friend. As a spiritual person, he is a huge blessing,” said Gentine.
Letting go of ‘American dream’
As he looks to his ordination, Johnny said hopes to help others find the joy and freedom in the Lord that he has found.
“I’m most excited to be among the people; that’s the beauty of parish life as priests are invited to the really important moments of people’s lives,” he said. For himself, Johnny said he has found a happiness he never expected, and it only came about when he let God lead him, he said.
“I’ve always been a joyful person and I’ve lived such a blessed life but in these experiences, moments of letting go, letting the Lord lead me and take over, I started to experience a happiness I never had,” he said. “Part of my discernment was the whole letting go of the American dream,” he said of letting go of the thought that to be successful and happy he needed a great job, promotion, car, house. “Those weren’t any longer things that made me happy.
“Once I recognized it, that it was not what the Lord made me for, (material things) were not really that desirable. There never was a time when you say, ‘Oh, darn, I’m not going to be rich,’ rather wealth is really in the people around you and the life you live and the fullness of living that you can’t buy, as the cliché goes.”