by Joe Bollig
When you’re a teenager, cool matters. And it mattered to Matthew Schiffelbein while he was growing up in Sacred Heart Parish in Topeka.
Homilies about vocations, given by his parish priest, made him uncomfortable because they hit so close to home. Still, Schiffelbein found it difficult to relate, because the only pastors he’d ever known were elderly — not cool.
Then a new associate pastor came to work with the parish youth group: Father Bill Bruning.
“Generally we all thought that he was pretty cool, because he was young and really buff; he knew a lot about the faith; and he was excited to work with the youth,” said Deacon Schiffelbein. “At that point, priests started to become cool to me.”
Although that little hint about a vocation to the priesthood drifted to the back of Schiffelbein’s mind, the hunger to learn more about — and more actively practice his Catholic faith — did not. He studied music at Washburn University in Topeka, but also spent a lot of time at the Catholic Campus Center there.
“As I look back on it, I noticed a thirst for living out a deeper understanding of the faith,” he said. “It was really a time of searching, and the idea of priesthood kept running around in the back of my mind.”
After Washburn, Schiffelbein studied music at the University of Kansas, and became involved in the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center. He took a lot of classes and hung out with like-minded students.
“Their classes in theology were very helpful in filling that void I felt while at Washburn — wanting to know more, but not knowing where to look,” he said.
“It also helped me establish a more regular practice of prayer,” he continued. “I got to know other people who were discerning their vocation. Discerning a vocation was an acceptable thing to do, and I think it opened some doors.”
Finally, the choice came down to music or the priesthood. Schiffelbein loved music and thought maybe he could live happily ever after as a musician and teacher. Even so, it wasn’t enough.
“[The answer] came while I was making a Holy Hour of adoration at the St. Lawrence Center,” he said. “I was praying over [the] John 10 [passage], about the good shepherd, when it all started to click. Christ was the good shepherd, and priests are shepherds. That’s what I wanted to be: a shepherd, to lead people to God.”
He decided to enter the seminary and put the nagging question to rest, one way or another. Now, on May 23, Deacon Schiffelbein will be ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann at Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa.
Every man seeking a vocation to the priesthood encounters his own challenges and it was no different for Deacon Schiffelbein. One of his was his eyesight. Early-onset macular degeneration has left him legally blind, although he will probably never be totally blind.
“In my studies it took me more time to read with video magnification devices. Or if I could get my hands on them, I really liked to use audio books,” he said. “As I got deeper into theology, those books became harder and harder to find.”
He budgeted his time and developed a very good memory.
“In terms of ministry, there’s a lot I’ve already memorized,” he said. “I’ve memorized Eucharistic Prayer 3, and I’m working on Eucharistic Prayer 1 and 2.”
He uses a portable video magnifier to read the Gospel and for parts of the Mass he hasn’t memorized.
One of the challenges Deacon Schiffelbein will face as a result of his eyesight is transportation. Even here, however, he sees a silver lining. By asking others to provide transportation, he is including them in his ministry.
“It’s one of the bigger challenges, but it’s not insurmountable,” said Deacon Schiffelbein. “As a deacon, I found that people were quite willing to help in any way they could.”