Jennifer Sustacek still remembers taking her son Ryan to early childhood family education classes when he was a toddler. During a breakout session, the instructor asked a poignant question, which still resonates with Sustacek today.
“What do you want for your child?”
The mother of Saint John Vianney College Seminary alumnus and current Saint Paul Seminary seminarian Ryan Sustacek did not respond with a particular career in mind. She didn’t think of a specific tax bracket, a certain suburb, or a definitive image of what her son would become.
“I just wanted him to be happy,” she said. “That was it.”
Years later, his prayers—and the prayers of many parents who raised a would-be seminarian—were answered.
“He 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 little, and now he found it in seminary.”
Barb Kratt had a similar prayer for her two sons as they grew up. Both entered the life of the seminary. One, Andrew, discerned a vocation of marriage and now has a wife and son. The other, Will, graduated from SJV in 2019 and is also in training on Summit Avenue at Saint Paul Seminary.
“I firmly believe, almost to the point of bias, that God really does hear moms’ prayers,” Barb Kratt said. “I have prayed that God will always send adult Catholic Christian men into my sons’ lives, who will guide them. This has always been the number 1 prayer for them to choose God and have a way through life. I have to say he got away with it. It chokes me when I think of how he got away with it. The men who came into my sons’ lives are pretty amazing.
This includes Will’s fellow seminarians and formative priests at both SJV and St. Paul’s Seminary.
But it’s not a pure rainbow and butterfly experience. There can be fear of the unknown as a child charts an increasingly counter-cultural path. And discerning a deep spiritual call is not always comfortable.
Parents also carry this cross with their children.
It is known in most Catholic circles as “the story of vocation”.
Every seminarian you meet has one. They all involve an intimate call from the Lord. But they are all unique. Some young people know that they are called to discern from an early age. Some don’t hear God invite them until later. Some hear it and push back. But they all end up responding.
It’s just one angle, though. Each parent also has a vocation story.
Barb Kratt involves sitting down to lunch with other parents of first-year seminarians from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and hearing a talk from Archbishop Bernard Hebda. At this point, Barb felt somewhat isolated. After all, few children of mothers choose to envision a life of celibacy, obedience, and rigorous spiritual development.
“Honestly, there’s this selfish component where I honestly feel so blessed because I’m also growing.”
– Barb Kratt, mother of seminarian Will Kratt
Even some family members had less than commendable comments about her son’s direction. She feared that he would encounter similar negativity throughout his life.
“I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” Barb Kratt said. “But that lunch and the warmth, the welcome and the invitation of all the parents really made me realize that I was not alone.”
“What is it going to look like? What does your day look like? Will I even be able to see you? Kratt remembers asking while Will was thinking about where to go after high school. “Another question in the back of my mind was, ‘How long is this going to last?’ I just had to sit 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 palliative care nurse had shown her too many people doing it. She and her husband Steve admit to not fully understanding what seminary life and the priesthood entail, to the point that Ryan had to convince before allowing her to enroll in 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 reassured.
“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 number of people who came and the amount of love in this church for Father Baer was so evident and so deep, we walked out and I looked at Steve and said, ‘I agree a thousand percent with all that he discerns.’ He has a community in the Church and his fellow seminarians. … It has been so beautiful for him.
Steve said: “All that fear is gone.”
Steve Sustacek works as a data scientist and, like his wife, is a Catholic birthplace. But when Ryan started talking about getting into seminary, Dad realized he had homework to do.
“They give you a book when your son decides to go to seminary,” Sustacek said. “The book spoke a lot about the priests and their joy. It also put some peace in my heart. I could see that the priests are not sitting alone at home praying alone. They live very joyful fulfilling lives, perhaps even more so than married life.
It also helped that the rector of SJV at the time of Ryan’s discernment was Father Michael Becker – who previously served as pastor at St. Michael’s Catholic Church when Ryan was growing up.
“We are now watching what Ryan is doing with his brothers, he is busy,” Jennifer said. “He’s active and he’s happy and he’s cheerful. It’s really, really amazing to see. He makes us want to be better people. I had told someone recently that isn’t that the purpose of a priest?
Ryan said, “Growing up in discernment and throughout seminary, I repeatedly heard the phrase, ‘Ryan, I want you to do God’s will in your life. Whatever it is, it will make us the happiest. As it recalls the words of the Blessed Mother: “Do whatever he tells you” in the Gospel of John.
There is no magic formula for 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 from Ryan’s class to seminary. The Catholic community there participates in an annual family summer camp and organizes dozens of youth ministry activities, including some led by Ryan during his high school years. For Barb, Will always had “great friends” whom she occasionally invited over for pizza so she could get to know them.
- Prayer: The Sustaceks and Kratts had prayer built into their daily routines. From an early age, their sons knew both its importance and how to make it a habitual practice.
- Opening: Steve and Jennifer are kinda kidding themselves about this now. Ryan actually had to set up a meeting with the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis Vocations Director, Father David Blume, to answer some of their questions. “He had to work on his discernment and then work on his parents,” Steve said. They and Barb Kratt mentioned SJV’s biannual Vianney visits for future seminarians as essential both in discerning their sons and in their role as parents.
“In truth, (Will) was so involved in youth groups at church and went to so many [Vianney Visits]it 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 and smooth journey, there’s a lot more for parents than knowing that their child isn’t having the typical “college” experience.
“The amount of discernment that guys put into this is not 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 see them giving themselves, little by little. It helps me. Honestly, there’s this selfish component where I honestly feel so blessed because I’m also growing.