Jennifer Sustacek still remembers taking her son Ryan to Early Childhood Family Education classes when he was a toddler. During one breakout session, the instructor asked a poignant question, one that still resonates with Sustacek today.
“What is it that you want for your child?”
The mother of Saint John Vianney College Seminary alumnus and current Saint Paul Seminary seminarian Ryan Sustacek didn’t answer with a particular career in mind. She didn’t think of a specific income tax bracket, a certain suburb or a definitive image of who her son would become.
“I just wanted him to be happy,” she said. “That was it.”
Years later, her prayers – and the prayers of many a parent who has raised an eventual seminarian – have been answered.
“He has found his joy and his happiness,” said Jennifer, a hospice nurse in St. Michael, Minnesota. “That’s all I wanted for him when he was a little kid, and now he’s found it at the seminary.”
Barb Kratt had a similar prayer for both her sons as they were growing up. Both entered seminary life. One, Andrew, discerned a marriage vocation and now has a wife and a son. The other, Will, graduated from SJV in 2019 and is also in formation across Summit Avenue at The Saint Paul Seminary. Both seminaries are located on the campus of the University of St. Thomas.
“I’m a firm believer, almost to the point of bias, that God really hears the prayers of moms,” Barb Kratt said. “I prayed God would send adult Catholic Christian men into my sons’ lives always, who will guide them. That was always the No. 1 prayer so they would choose God and have ways to get through life. I have to say he’s come through. It chokes me up when I think of how he came through. The men who have entered my sons’ lives are pretty amazing.”
That includes Will’s fellow seminarians and priest formators at both SJV and The Saint Paul Seminary. SJV seminarians are full-time undergraduate students at St. Thomas and live in community on campus.
But this isn’t a purely rainbows-and-butterflies experience. There can be fear of the unknown when a child charts a course that’s increasingly countercultural. And discernment of a deep, spiritual call isn’t always comfortable.
Parents carry that cross with their children, too.
It’s known in most Catholic circles as “the vocation story.”
Every seminarian you’ll ever meet has one. They all involve an intimate call from the Lord. But they’re all unique. Some young men know they’re called to discern from an early age. Some don’t hear God inviting them till later. Some hear it and push back. But they all end up answering.
That’s just one angle, though. Every parent has a vocation story, too.
Barb Kratt’s involves sitting at a luncheon with fellow parents of first-year Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis seminarians and hearing a talk from Archbishop Bernard Hebda. To that point, Barb felt somewhat isolated. After all, not many moms’ kids choose to consider a life of celibacy, obedience and rigorous spiritual development.
“Honestly, there’s this selfish component where I honestly feel so blessed because I’m growing, too.”– Barb Kratt, mother of seminarian Will Kratt
Even some family members had less-than-savory comments about her son’s direction. She worried he’d experience similar negativity throughout the rest of his life.
“I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into,” Barb Kratt said. “But that luncheon and how warm and welcoming and inviting all the parents were really made me realize I’m not alone.”
She also had questions.
“What is this gonna look like? What does your day look like? Will I even get to see you?” Kratt remembers asking as Will considered where to go after high school. “Another question in the back of my mind was, ‘How long is this gonna last?’ I just had to sit back and watch and listen and support and pray.”
Jennifer Sustacek’s fears were even more pronounced.
“I didn’t want him to die alone,” she said.
Her work as a hospice nurse had shown her too many people who do. She and her husband Steve admit not fully understanding what seminary life and the priesthood entails, to the point where Ryan had to do some convincing before they’d allow him to enroll at the seminary.
But after attending the funeral of former SJV rector Father Bill Baer – who married the Sustaceks 25 years ago – in 2018, the hearts and minds of Ryan’s parents were put at ease.
“I remember walking into the cathedral and it was a beautiful, snowy day,” Jennifer said, “and what we witnessed that day was the Holy Spirit speaking to us. The amount of people who came and the amount of love in that church for Father Baer was so evident and so profound, we walked out and I looked at Steve and said, ‘I’m a thousand percent OK with whatever he discerns.’ He has a community in the Church and his seminarian brothers. … That’s been so beautiful for him.”
Said Steve: “All that fear went away.”
Steve Sustacek works as a data scientist and, like his wife, is a cradle Catholic. But when Ryan started talking about entering the seminary, dad realized he had some homework to do.
“They give you a book when your son discerns to go into seminary,” Sustacek said. “The book talked a lot about priests and how joyful they are. That kind of put some peace on my heart, too. I could see priests aren’t sitting home alone praying by themselves. They’re living very joyful fulfilling lives, maybe even more so than married life.”
It also helped that the rector at SJV at the time of Ryan’s discernment was Father Michael Becker – who previously served as pastor at St. Michael Catholic Church when Ryan was growing up.
“We look now at what Ryan does with his brothers, he’s busy,” Jennifer said. “He’s active and he’s happy and he’s joyful. It’s really, really amazing to see. He makes us want to be better people. I had said to someone recently that isn’t that the goal of a priest?”
Said Ryan: “Growing up, in discernment, and throughout seminary, I regularly heard the phrase, ‘Ryan, I want you to do God’s will in your life. Whatever that is will make us the happiest.’ How reminiscent of the Blessed Mother’s words: ‘Do whatever he tells you’ in the Gospel of John.”
There’s no magic formula to raising a young man who has the type of relationship with Jesus that would lead him to consider the priesthood. But conversations with the Sustaceks, Barb Kratt and other parents for this story yielded the following trends:
- Community: The Sustaceks live in St. Michael, a thriving Catholic town northwest of Minneapolis that sent four other men in Ryan’s graduating class to the seminary. The Catholic community there goes to an annual family summer camp and has dozens of youth ministry activities – some of which Ryan led during his high school days. For Barb, Will always had “great friends” that she would have over for pizza occasionally so she could get to know them.
- Prayer: Both the Sustaceks and Kratts had prayer built into their daily routines. From an early age, their sons knew both the importance of it and how to make it a habitual practice.
- Openness: Steve and Jennifer poke a little fun at themselves about it now. Ryan actually had to set up a meeting with Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Director of Vocations Father David Blume to answer some of their questions. “He had to work on his discernment, then work on his parents,” Steve said. Both they and Barb Kratt mentioned SJV’s biannual Vianney Visits for prospective seminarians as pivotal in both their sons’ discernment and their role as parents.
“In truth, (Will) was so involved in youth groups at church and went to so many [Vianney Visits], it just seemed like a logical next step for him to explore God’s will in his life,” Barb said.
And while it’s not always an easy, seamless journey, there’s a lot more in it for parents than just knowing their kid isn’t off having the typical “college” experience.
“The amount of discernment guys put into this isn’t just, willy-nilly, ‘I think I’ll be a priest because dating didn’t work out,’” Barb Kratt said. “They really understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. I get to see them give away themselves, bit by bit. It helps me. Honestly, there’s this selfish component where I honestly feel so blessed because I’m growing, too.”