This is the second in a series of articles introducing you to the six men scheduled to be ordained priests for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 17, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
The great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica towered over Rome’s Oratorio di San Pietro soccer complex as Deacon John Gibson joined fellow seminarians from the Pontifical North American College in battle for the 2012 Clericus Cup title, the papal equivalent of soccer’s World Cup.
How unexpected to be playing soccer, his favorite sport, literally steps from the Vatican in a championship match within a league featuring seminarians from 59 countries and 16 Catholic seminaries in Rome, thought Deacon Gibson.
How unexpected that Deacon Gibson, a Shorewood native who didn’t play competitive soccer in high school or college, scored two of his team’s goals in a 3-0 title win over Pontifical Gregorian University.
Soccer wasn’t in the realm of thought for Deacon Gibson during three years of discerning whether to enter the priesthood.
“Playing soccer was completely outside of my vocational discernment. I truly didn’t know I had talent until I came to seminary in Rome. I think you could say the same about my choice of vocation. I didn’t realize I had the gifts needed to become a priest until later on in my young adulthood,” said Deacon Gibson, 27, one of six men scheduled to be ordained on May 17 as priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Priesthood, soccer go hand in hand
Deacon Gibson, the son of Maureen and Bob Gibson, said he looks forward to carrying his passion for God, the Eucharist and soccer to the pulpit as a parish priest.
“There is certainly a relationship between the priesthood and soccer. In fact, sometimes I find it difficult to separate both,” Deacon Gibson said in an email interview from Rome with the Catholic Herald. “If I can be as passionate about the spiritual life as I am about soccer, God only knows what good could come out of that.”
Imperfection, in sport and the faith, is the key connecting God and soccer, Deacon Gibson said.
“Just like trying to be better at soccer every time I step on the field, I try to be better every day in my spiritual life,” Deacon Gibson said. “Ultimately, in both cases, I find I am imperfect. That helps me to remain humble and trust entirely upon God.”
A 2004 graduate of Shorewood High School, Deacon Gibson recalled as a boy being impressed by the liturgy, the beauty of the Mass and church buildings and the smell of incense.
“I also remember having a deep reverence for the mystery of God, which was instilled in me by my parents, thanks be to God,” Deacon Gibson said. “I can say now the seeds of a vocation to the priesthood were there from my earliest days; however, I never considered myself to be overtly religious. As time went on, my faith became a little stale.”
Priest’s question unexpected
Gibson’s parish priest, Fr. Tim Kitzke, pastor at Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, brought new life to that staleness with a direct question to Gibson in his senior year of high school.
“He asked me if I ever considered becoming a priest. That got me thinking about it, although I was a bithesitant at first. Before that time, I respected the priesthood, but was also very ignorant about what it entailed and who became priests,” Deacon Gibson said. “Growing up, I didn’t know any priests personally, so I imagined it to be a strange, mysterious world priests lived in. But once I got to know priests, real men who were giving their lives in service to Christ and his church, I began to see it in a more positive light. I learned I was drawn to the priesthood. It tugged at me. There was a peace in the prospect of becoming a priest.”
Deacon Gibson received encouragement from Fr. Kitzke during monthly lunch meetings and began getting more involved in church.
Charismatic nature connects with people
Archdiocesan vocations director, Fr. Luke Strand, also encouraged Deacon Gibson to choose a vocation as a parish priest.
“I had the blessing of working with John and found him to be a real man of compassion, commitment and perseverance,” Fr. Strand said. “He’s a very articulate man who holds fast to the desire of his heart, which is to serve God. John has a real charismatic nature that comes alive when he has the opportunity to participate in the lives of people. He will do amazingly well as a parish priest. He really wants to be the presence of Christ for people who impact him.”
Following high school, Deacon Gibson spent three years on an engineering scholarship at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
Camped out with stacks of theology and spiritual books in the school’s engineering students’ lounge, Deacon Gibson explored not engineering, but a full range of religious vocations, from single and married life to entering the priesthood.
“I was looking for someone to just tell me quite clearly what I should do with my life, but it doesn’t quite work that way with God. It is not so black and white,” he said.
No lightning bolt moment
The call to priesthood was not a lightning bolt, Deacon Gibson said.
“The lightning bolt was something I prayed for quite fervently, but, of course, never received,” Deacon Gibson said. “Discernment was a quiet, peaceful journey with a lot of prayer. Through it all, I tried to go where I found peace. I came to understand through discernment that God will always give me the freedom to choose my own path, but he will also never let me do it alone.”
Deciding to enter the seminary was as unexpected as playing soccer in Rome and being a critical factor for his team in the Clericus Cup, Gibson said.
“Yes, my vocation was a bit of a surprise to me. At least I didn’t see it coming,” Deacon Gibson said. “That’s the beauty of soccer as well. Anything can happen on a given day. That’s true about life, too. The only thing eternal and unchangeable is God. Because of original sin our lives are crooked and messy. Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen next.”
Sister is prayer warrior
After making his decision to pursue the priesthood, Deacon Gibson transferred to Loyola University in Chicago, the official college seminary program for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
One of Deacon Gibson’s Loyola classmates was his sister, Madeline.
“I have to say the women in my family presented the greatest religious influence on me over the years. My mom had a very particular role in the years I was discerning my vocation. Now it’s my sister,” Deacon Gibson said. “Madeline is much holier than I am and also someone I can talk to on a spiritual level. That’s something everyone needs.”
Madeline said she was not surprised John, one of three brothers, decided to enter the seminary.
“John is so pastoral, such a caretaker type of person,” said Madeline, the associate director of student ministry at St. Paul University Catholic Center in Madison. “He is concerned with the well-being of not only everyone in our family, but the world.”
Madeline credits John with turning her on to her faith when they attended Loyola.
“I had nothing to do with the Catholic faith; I wasn’t going to Mass, even though John was continually inviting me to attend,” Madeline Gibson said. “I lived across the street from my brother having the time of my life while my brother was on his knees praying for my conversion.”
The siblings are now prayer partners, she said.
“We always joke that like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi we are prayer warriors for each other,” Madeline said. “Being in Rome I miss him a lot, but even though he is far away I know we are united at the altar every Mass. I’ve felt the power of his prayer.”
Madeline Gibson said her brother has a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“We have a lot of conversations about how Our Lady is leading us by hand closer to the cross and closer to Jesus,” Madeline Gibson said.
Invited to North American College
Upon graduation from Loyola, with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan asked John Gibson to attend major seminary at the Pontifical North American College where now-Cardinal Dolan was rector for seven years.
Deacon John Gibson said four years in Rome has had a dramatic impact in his perspective of the universal church and parish life.
“Seeing thousands of people from all over the world gather in St. Peter’s Square around the Holy Father, the successor to Peter, has had a profound spiritual and emotional impact over the years,” Deacon Gibson said.
Although he will be ordained a priest in May, Deacon Gibson will return to Rome for one more year of study for his pontifical degree or license, much like an advanced college degree.
Then he returns to the archdiocese to purse his passion.
“My passion is to be a parish priest quite simply because I feel my personal gifts are best suited to a parish setting,” Deacon Gibson said. “I have a desire to live out my vocation in the world, as opposed to a cloistered setting.”
“The one thing I am looking forward to most is celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Eucharist has been a central part of my life and is also central to the priesthood.”
Deacon Gibson sees his role as a priest to act as a mediator between God and his people.
“I have been given the grace of experiencing, in a very profound way, the love that God has for me. I hope to help each person I come in contact with in the parish know the love God has for them,” Deacon Gibson said.
Soccer will always remain close to his heart, he said.
“I consider myself a Liverpool Football Club fanatic. It’s the way I’m wired,” Deacon Gibson said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself soccer is just a game, but ultimately I am attracted to it because it is beautiful. God is goodness, beauty and truth, so anytime we encounter something that is good, beautiful or true we are encountering God.”