This is the third 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.Deacon Patrick Burns, pictured inside Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, St. Francis, on Thursday, April 18, will be ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 18. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)

He liked karate and inventing things, so young Patrick Burns thought he had two career choices: He would be a ninja or an inventor.
He had practice in being a ninja and in wearing camouflage when he played with his imaginary friend Uncle Key in the yard, according to his older sister, Meggy Burns.

“Ever since we were young, he had this love of dressing up and being everybody but himself – it was so cute,” she told your Catholic Herald in a phone interview. “He always – he’d put on camouflage gear and go outside and hide … we’d look right past him because he’d be sitting under the trees in his little camouflage gear, fully covered head to toe – it was awesome – playing with Uncle Key.”

Fr. John Burns, 32, associate pastor at Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa ordained in 2010, also remembers his younger brother dressing as a ninja or a knight.

“Sometimes I wonder if his ninja days weren’t the entry point for priestly discernment, all that black,” Fr. John wrote in an email to your Catholic Herald. “Whenever we’d have company, he would disappear, gear up, and then walk right into the middle of whatever was going on in the house and stand there just staring back at everyone, brandishing whatever weapon was closest at hand. A successful afternoon would consist of three or four hours hiding in the bushes with nobody noticing.”

But when Patrick wasn’t dressed in camouflage or as a ninja, Meggy said he was practicing being a priest at home.

On May 18, Deacon Patrick, 26, will be able to celebrate Mass for real when he is ordained for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, along with three other seminarians, including his cousin, Philip Schumaker.

Priests will concelebrate sister’s wedding

“We all kind of knew that he would be either a priest or a monk or something because he just, he had that in him always. He’s just always been so close to God,” said Meggy, 31, second oldest of John and Peggy Burns’ four children.

Meggy looks forward to her October wedding, where their sister Mary, 22, a student at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, will be with her at the altar as her maid of honor, and her brothers will be concelebrating Mass. She also looks forward to Patrick’s ordination.

“He’s going to be an incredible priest, he’s going to give – I mean he just gives everything his all….” she said. “I mean he’s so passionate about life and helping people and just God.”

‘Holy one’ in the family

Meggy and Fr. John described Patrick as the “holy one” in the family.

“I remember one time we were late for a family get-together and Mom asked me to go get Pat so we could leave,” Fr. John wrote. “I ran upstairs and opened the door to his room. I found him on his knees, praying before a statue of the Holy Family. I think he was 9 or 10 years old. He quietly slipped out of prayer, turned to me and asked, ‘Oh, is it time to go now?’ I felt like a real idiot. ‘Uh, I guess. You can finish praying if you want. We’ll just be downstairs,’ (Fr. John answered).”

Bishop Donald J. Hying even called Patrick one of the great “pray-ers” at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis, according to Fr. John.

“Sometimes I wonder if he just hasn’t mastered the skill of sleeping in a prayer-like position in the chapel,” Fr. John wrote about Patrick who he’s always known as the “nap master,” because of his ability to nap anywhere – in closets or curled up under a desk.

“Mom and Dad would panic, constantly thinking their little guy had gotten lost or been kidnapped,” Fr. John wrote. “Always turned out he was just sleeping somewhere we’d not yet thought to look.”

Meggy also remembers Patrick’s Saturday night Mass routine when their parents would pack everyone up and head to St. Eugene Parish, Fox Point.

“We’d grab our usual pew and the minute the priest began the opening prayer, Pat would be out like a light, stretched out along the pew, as though it were the coziest bed ever,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “The priest’s voice was like a lullaby to him, teachers’ voices as well, back in the day. And now he’s going to be a priest.”

Seeds of vocation planted early

Deacon Patrick, who has been involved for four years at his teaching parish – St. Veronica, Milwaukee – said the seeds of his vocation as a priest or a monk were planted at a young age. He remembers telling Meggy when he was 6 or 7 years old that he wanted to celebrate Mass at home – but she said, “only a priest can celebrate Mass.” Meggy remembers this, too, but she also remembers that he used bread or banana slices anyway.

In middle school, personal prayer outside of Mass gained a new emphasis for Patrick.

“I kind of thought, ‘Well, maybe someday, I could go into religious life; it was more than priesthood at that point. I was thinking, maybe I could be a monk someday, have all the time for prayer and silence and everything,” he said. But that changed when he got to high school and began working in the family’s restaurant – Heinemann’s, which closed in 2009.

Deacon Patrick considered working in the restaurant industry, but restaurant management didn’t appeal to him.

He wanted to date and get married, but he was also drawn to religious life.

“If you look at the whole picture of my life I think, thus far, there’s just been a strong desire for God that’s driven me forward through difficulties, and it’s driven me forward to this vocation – this vocation really has its foundation on a desire for God,” Patrick said.

Two priests in family

When he called a monastery his senior year of high school and they said he was too young, Patrick looked at his college options, though he didn’t really enjoy school.

Little did Patrick know that his brother was looking into a vocation to the priesthood at the same time – Fr. John had just talked with the archbishop about the possibility of entering the seminary, and hadn’t told the family.

“One night we sat down at the computer to look at a few options. On one site, (Patrick) clicked a link for more info on the friars who run the university he was looking at. I thought it was a mistake,” Fr. John wrote. “Then he clicked another link, and clicked again, reading and exploring their daily routine and prayer life. I was kind of in awe. I said, ‘Uh, buddy, are you thinking about something like this?’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t really want to just spend my life making money, and I really like praying and the church and stuff, so yeah, I guess so.’ My eyes went wide: ‘Check this out – I think I’m going to enter the seminary and study for the priesthood!’ We actually entered seminary in the same year!”

Patrick studied theology at Cardinal Stritch University for two years, and was one of the last to participate in the “Seminary Without Walls” program that the seminary offered to college-aged men who were at least thinking about the priesthood.

He transferred to the seminary at Loyola University in Chicago, where he graduated with a degree in philosophy in 2009.

“It helped me to see that somebody who has a strong faith can be very relatable, can be very good to be around and it also helped me to see the importance of having an external faith,” Patrick said of his time at Cardinal Stritch, admitting in high school his faith was hidden – while he prayed and went to Mass, he avoided opportunities for religious conversation.

“And my friends, no way would I have told them in high school that I was thinking about the priesthood,” Deacon Patrick said. “I found a great foundation (at Cardinal Stritch), people who really helped me bring my faith more into the light in a sense, where people can really see my faith.”

Unlike his family, when Patrick told his friends from high school after a semester in college that he was thinking about becoming a priest, they were upset.

“That for me was a big turning point because it was when I could say that this was really what’s on my heart and I’m not going to try to be the way that you guys want me to be or whatever,” he said. “And over time, they got more used to the idea.”

‘Willing to try anything’

Emma Janssen, 25, of DePere met Patrick, whom she describes as kind, thoughtful and quirky with a good sense of humor, when she was an incoming Cardinal Stritch freshman in fall 2006. He was the guy who would take as many people as he had seat belts for to student Mass at Marquette University or the UW-Milwaukee Newman Center without accepting a dime for gas.

He’s also someone willing to try anything, she said, sharing a memory of a salsa dancing night she and some friends experienced with Patrick; by the end of the night no one knew how to dance, but everyone had fun and felt comfortable, thanks to him.

“He was attempting to dance with a couple of us ladies, so we could attempt to do this and it was just, it was the best train wreck ever because he would try and we would try to follow…” she said. “It would just end up in us laughing because we couldn’t actually, we couldn’t make it work. Like no one could figure out his rhythm and he couldn’t figure out how to lead and it was just wonderfully, horribly awesome,” she laughed.

Janssen, who will enter religious life with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., in August, credits Patrick with keeping her faith strong during her freshman year of college when her excitement for Catholicism dwindled.

He was always there to go to church with her, and he kept in touch even after transferring to Loyola.

“Occasionally he would call me just out of the blue, and he’d be like, ‘How you doing?’” she said. They never talked faith, but she said they shared a faith connection, because he taught her how to pray and took her to Mass, Janssen said.

He was strong in his faith and prayerful, without being big or proud about it, which had an impact upon Janssen.

“He was just constantly a man that I could look to for a model of prayer and a model of faith, and I think seeing that on a regular basis and knowing that there was someone like that was helpful, so that way as I was wrestling with discernment and things like that it was helpful to know that if I needed to talk to someone about faith stuff, I could call him.”

Helping others is something that Deacon Patrick holds close to his heart – he recalled words that touched him during a high school mission trip to a homeless shelter.

“A guy at the homeless shelter said to us, ‘You’ve all been given so much with your lives, now you have a responsibility to give to others,’ and to me that really moved me in high school because it helped me to see that my faith does need to be something that impacts others,” Deacon Patrick said. “It’s not just about me and God. So, at that point was really when I started asking God, ‘Lord, I want to give my life to you, I don’t know how, but I pray that you help me to do that, that you give me that grace.’”

One of the greatest decisions of his life has been listening to the call and saying “yes” when he was ordained a deacon last year, Patrick said.

“A commitment can be very scary, but when we really commit ourselves to something, to someone, to a particular life, I’ve found at least that it’s a lot more beautiful on the other side than you anticipated,” he said.

As Fr. Patrick, he will serve as associate pastor of St. Charles Parish, Hartland.