Vocations director and sports nut goes against the tide with a faith-filled life
by Bob Hart
Call him a rebel. With a cause.
“In this society, in this age, it’s really a countercultural decision to become a priest,” said Father Mitchel Zimmerman. “The priesthood makes people uncomfortable, but in a good way. It gets them thinking about their faith, as they wonder, ‘Can he really be just a regular guy?’”
Make no mistake: Father Mitchel is a regular guy. He feels no need to tone down his upbeat, outgoing personality, nor his sports fanatic ways, in order to appear more somber.
“People want to be led to God in a very human way,” he said. “If you’re going to be a witness for Christ, he’s going to use your own personality and your own gifts to do that.”
Priests, he pointed out, deal with the same internal struggles — doubt, feelings of inadequacy, fear of the unknown — as everyone else. As vocations director for the archdiocese, it is Father Mitchel’s job to help young people recognize their potential for a calling to the priesthood or religious life. Conversely, he wants them to see in him . . . well, a regular guy, albeit one who’s made peace with many of his youthful struggles.
“I desire what God desires,” he said matter-of-factly. “No more battles.”
Born in Hoxie, in the Salina diocese, Mitchel Zimmerman was the second of six children — five boys and a girl. His father was a diesel mechanic who owned his own shop and gas station. His mother, who passed away in 2001, was a homemaker accustomed to helping out the family business in countless ways. Faith and service to the church were deeply integrated into the Zimmerman family life.
“I was always comfortable around the church,” Father Mitchel recalled. “My family’s faith was as strong as any I’ve ever encountered.”
Although he said his family “saw it coming” with regard to his priestly vocation, “they encouraged by example more than word.”
Still, the decision took some time. After graduation from Hoxie High, he enrolled at the University of Kansas as a pre-med human biology major.
“The first time I recognized Mitchel’s involvement was when he was a freshman, singing in the choir,” recalled Msgr. Vince Krische, director of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at KU at the time. “He was in a fraternity, and a lot of the guys would sleep in on Sunday mornings. But he never did. He was always at Mass.”
Mitchel completed his degree at KU, but opted out of medical school. Instead, he began doing development work full time for the St. Lawrence Center.
“He was wonderful at the job — very successful,” Msgr. Krische said. “He was trying to figure out his vocation in life, and the priesthood was sort of off-and-on for a while. When he finally came to my office one morning to tell me he’d made the decision, I said, ‘You’re creating work for me.
Now I have to hire your replacement!’ But I was thrilled for him. I knew he would be a wonderful priest.”
Despite years of back-and-forth “Should I or shouldn’t I?” with regard to the priesthood, Father Mitchel said the final decision was peaceful and simple.
“The more I looked at the priesthood,” he said, “the more I knew that’s what Jesus wanted for me.”
He was ordained in 2004.
The sporting life
Through his professional assignments — first as associate pastor of St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Leawood, and chaplain at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Overland Park — and, since 2007, as archdiocesan vocations director and associate director of the St. Lawrence Center — Father Mitchel has striven each day to live up to the “priest job description” of his own creation: “To be happy wherever you are, for as long as you’re there.”
One way he keeps the happiness going is by indulging his passion for sports. Any sports.
“If there’s a game going on, I’m in,” he said.
He’s played basketball with his “Runnin’ Revs” teammates since 1999 (“I’m the most selfish player they’ve ever had. . . . I love to shoot!”) and recently went to South Africa with newly ordained Father Scott Wallisch to take in some World Cup soccer, up close.
Not that all sports are created equal; Father Mitchel admits to a special fondness for the Kansas City Royals and anything KU-related.
“I have KU football season tickets and I get there as much as my priestly schedule allows,” he said. “I’m at about 15 Royals games every summer.”
Asked if he’s a fair-weather fan, Father Mitchel said of the Royals: “If it’s possible, I love them more when they’re not winning.
“I’m disappointed, like any fan, but I still love them. . . . I grew up listening to [Royals announcers] Denny [Matthews] and Fred [White] on the radio. I knew George Brett’s stats. I was pretty nerdy.”
To keep in shape, the formerly nerdy 36-year-old does regular cardiovascular workouts, lifts weights and plays golf. How does he find the time, with church offices and campus center demands, not to mention a constant schedule of visits with youth groups and parish ministries?
“I’m up very early for prayers and devotions,” he said. “I like to sit quietly and let God plan my day for me. Somehow, it all gets done.”