ST. PAUL — Alone in his seminary dorm room on a recent afternoon, Chris Gernetzke imagined he was standing before a flock of the Catholic faithful.
He cleared off his computer desk, the one with the mini-fridge underneath, and placed a wine chalice on the makeshift altar.
For the next hour, he rehearsed the prayers, blessings and rites that constitute the Roman Catholic Mass, something he does every day.
“There’s a spiritual aspect to it, of course,” said Gernetzke, 26, who is in his final semester at The St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota. “But there’s also just the mechanics of it that you have to get down.”
Gernetzke is one of 33 men studying to be priests in the Madison Catholic Diocese and one of five who will graduate this spring and return to the diocese for a parish assignment. They are part of a wave of new recruits since Bishop Robert Morlino arrived in 2003 and made vocations — or discerning a call to the priesthood — a priority.
In just a few months, the diocese will ordain Gernetzke. He will then be entrusted with all of the authority, responsibility and sacred duties of a priest.
When he consecrates communion bread and wine, it will become, as Catholicism teaches, the very body and blood of Jesus Christ. He will hear intimate confessions, baptize babies, console the distraught, bless the dying.
“In some sense, you try not to think about the gravity of what you’ll be doing, because it’s sacred work and we’re unworthy of it in and of ourselves,” said Gernetzke, who grew up in Evansville, about 20 miles south of Madison. “But the Lord calls the unworthy and gives us the grace to make it possible by working through him.”
Gernetzke, an Eagle Scout and Ultimate Frisbee player, said he first felt a pull toward the priesthood in seventh grade while serving as an altar boy at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Evansville.
The parish priest at the time, the Rev. Eric Nielsen, ministered with such joy that it inspired the 13-year-old boy. But it wasn’t cool to discuss the priesthood in middle school, Gernetzke said, so he suppressed the idea. Also, he saw himself marrying one day.
He went to college at Viterbo University in La Crosse, where he studied nursing and dated. While assisting at a funeral Mass on campus, a priest asked him if he’d ever thought about the priesthood. Gernetzke had a ready answer: “Father, I like girls too much.”
The priest responded, “Getting married is giving up all girls but one; becoming a priest is just giving up one more girl.”
Something about the way the priest framed the issue jolted Gernetzke. It was like a switch flipped.
“That was my last defense to really seriously considering the priesthood,” he said.
He prayed for guidance, and one evening during his sophomore year, alone in the campus chapel, he said he heard God’s voice: “Go to the seminary.” It wasn’t an audible voice, but one “that speaks to you in the depths of your heart,” Gernetzke said.
Not every seminarian hears such a distinct voice when discerning a call, nor is it necessary to, said Monsignor James Bartylla, the diocese’s second-in-command. But it is not uncommon, he said.
Bartylla likens the voice to “an extremely clear thought that comes from the outside,” one that is “very succinct and persuasive” and “followed by great peace.”
Gernetzke applied to the diocese to become a seminarian. The lengthy process includes a psychological exam of several hundred questions, written essays, an extensive background check, and interviews and evaluations by a psychiatrist and psychologist. A panel of priests and lay people conducts a final interview before making a recommendation to the bishop.
Gernetzke left Viterbo after his sophomore year and enrolled at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, where he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy, a diocesan requirement.
He is now completing his master’s degree in divinity — also a diocesan requirement — at St. Paul Seminary, on the campus of the University of St. Thomas. Four other seminarians from the Madison diocese also attend there.
In Gernetzke’s dorm room, a Green Bay Packers sweatshirt drapes over a chair near what he calls his “Wall of Popes,” photos of all of the pontiffs since he was born: John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis.
His freshman year at the seminary, he began wearing the priestly collar, as is expected of graduate-level seminarians. It was another milestone, one that came with an awesome responsibility to represent the church at all times.
He jokes that it’s like having a “Bother Me” sign on one’s back, but in a good way. He once prayed with a woman in a grocery store checkout lane after she unburdened herself about a relationship problem.
“It’s humbling, because people look to you and expect to encounter Christ in some way through you,” Gernetzke said.
His habits have changed. He listens to Christian music now instead of Kesha. He no longer tweets or plays video games. There’s nothing wrong with those activities, he said, he just needs to spend his time judiciously.
Seminary is not unlike any college, in that classes and homework consume much of the week. This final semester — Gernetzke’s ninth consecutive year of higher education — he has a tinge of senioritis and a light load of 12 credits.
His courses include “American Church History,” “Biomedical Morality,” a practicum on marriage preparation, and a class in which students respond to hypothetical confessions.
Last month, during the first week back from Christmas break, Monsignor Aloysius Callaghan, the seminary’s rector, called together all 94 seminarians for a lecture to set the tone for the semester ahead.
“You must open your minds, not be narrow-minded,” he told them. “Try to understand all the different approaches to proclaiming the gospel. Use language people will understand to bring them closer to God and not alienate them.”
Pointing to his head, Callaghan said, “You can have it all here, but people won’t see it if you don’t touch their lives, their hearts.”
Where a Catholic seminary diverges from other colleges is in its mission. A seminary’s goal is to address not only academics, but also a man’s human, spiritual and pastoral formation. Many hours are spent each week in prayer, worship and contemplation.
On a recent evening after classes, Gernetzke and a fellow seminarian, Adam Laski of the Superior Catholic Diocese, bundled themselves against the winter chill and trudged across campus, rosaries in hand, to a favorite statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” they prayed, kneeling in the snow before the statue.
It has become a nightly ritual for Gernetzke, this solemn walk as darkness falls. Gernetzke likes that it makes him visible to students on the broader campus, so that they might be reminded of the importance of their own faith.
The seminary is serious business but not without levity. Once or twice each semester, dorm floors take turns hosting themed house parties that sometimes include talent shows. At the “Northwoods Camping House Party,” they raced goldfish.
More frequently, a seminarian will cook a communal meal for some guys on a weekend. “We eat, drink beer, have a good time,” Gernetzke said.
He is to be ordained June 26 by Madison Bishop Robert Morlino. He will likely serve as an associate pastor for a couple of years before moving on to a solo assignment.