ST. LOUIS — It happened with a rapidity that shocked some of his closest friends.
One day, Chris Johnson was teaching Shanley High School students history, social sciences and the art of pacing oneself at a track meet, and the next, it seemed, he was on his way to becoming a Dominican priest.
Even the former Mr. Johnson — now Brother Johnson — admits the discernment was “quick”; that many who choose religious life ruminate for years.
For him, the decision took six months. “I think some people thought I was running from something, but that wasn’t the case,” he says.
Fellow track coach and friend Jacki Petik says she’d always imagined Johnson getting married and having a big family, because he was so good with kids.
And yet something about Johnson’s decision rang true. “He was very spiritual, and maybe a little more religious than your average Joe. So in that way I wasn’t surprised.”
His mother, Peggy, says growing up the oldest of three boys in the Minneapolis area, Chris was always very kind, considerate and insightful, but she didn’t see it coming.
“He did go through a phase in around fourth grade when he started the martyr syndrome, saying, ‘You don’t have to do that for me,’ that kind of thing,” she says, “but otherwise nothing really sticks out.”
Johnson says though his decision came late and fast, the Dominicans — the order to which he’s now attached — had been an influence earlier on. He just didn’t know it would lead to a vocation.
In college, he heard a Dominican priest give a presentation at a conference. “He was wearing a habit (religious clothing), but seemed the most real of all the speakers,” Johnson says.
While at Shanley a few years later, Wesley Dessonville, another former Shanley teacher who’d become a Dominican friar, visited his old school and drew Johnson’s curiosity, but no divine sparks.
But in 2012, Johnson felt something stir while at Eucharistic adoration — a practice of praying in a chapel before the Eucharistic host.
“I started praying to God that I would be receptive to his plan and that he would reveal it to me,” he says, “and I began getting a sense that God was calling me to something besides marriage.”
Not long after, Johnson was conversing with a math teacher, a Franciscan religious sister, and she stopped abruptly in the middle of their conversation to ask Johnson if he’d ever considered becoming a priest.
Chris Johnson, back row, far right, was a track coach before becoming a Dominican monk. Special to The Forum
Given the timing and nature of her question, Johnson took it as a sign from God.
“I was still new to the idea, resistant to the idea, scared of the idea,” he says. But he knew he needed to learn more, so he got in touch with the Dominican priest he’d met years earlier, and soon, Johnson was traveling to St. Louis to visit the Dominican community where he now lives.
That visit “solidified that this was the life for me,” Johnson says. He was accepted into the community by letter in January 2013.
Despite loving his work at Shanley, Johnson says he felt that “something was missing, that I was somehow incomplete. And I’d always heard that there is an emptiness that only God can fill.”
His colleague, Brother Vincent Davila, calls the Dominicans “monks on the move.”
“Dominicans are deeply steeped in contemplation,” he says, “but we’re not stuck in a monastery. We have a contemplative life that we’re supposed to bring to people.”
In a spiritually hungry world, he adds, the Dominican life “is a radical and encompassing life; we give our lives away, and do it by preaching the gospel.”
The two met in Denver when Johnson was in his novitiate — or first — year, and Davila was a few years ahead. Now, they live in the same community of 30 men who study and do ministry together.
Davila says Johnson possesses many qualities that make him a fitting candidate for the priesthood.
Chris Johnson is installed as a lector, or reader, in February. Special to The Forum
“He’s just a very whole-hearted, good person who has a very genuine heart, and a gentleness, which I appreciate very much,” he says. “There’s a simplicity and a humility about him — it’s very beautiful.”
Johnson spent last summer in Bogota, Colombia, where he brushed up on his Spanish-speaking skills in a project area, helped at Mass by altar-serving, and brought Communion to the homebound.
The experience deepened his faith.
“It was nice to see how excited people were to receive Jesus,” he says. “Here, we take it for granted, but there, Mass is only once a week, and if you miss it, who knows how long before another priest can come to bring Communion.”
Johnson is midway through the process of achieving priesthood, and studying at St. Dominic Priory in St. Louis. This semester, he’s been volunteering at a middle school for underprivileged girls run by several different women’s religious congregations, and this summer, he’ll be doing clinical pastoral education as a hospital chaplain in Chicago.
Johnson misses bumping into people he knows around town, being part of the “electrifying atmosphere” of Bison games, and knoephla soup. “You can’t get that just anywhere,” he says.
But he’s also found his new lifestyle “quite freeing.” Decisions are made in community, simplifying choices that used to plague him, and since physical exercise is encouraged, he still runs regularly.
And his journey falls in perfect line with what Johnson always told his students.
“I encouraged them to explore their faith and be open to what God has called them to be,” he says. “God is a very loving and merciful God, who desires that we all come to know him.”
Petik says she’s been inspired by her friend’s journey and willingness to listen to the voice of God above the din of the world.
“It’s pretty dang gutsy. You talk about the road less traveled. I mean, holy cow, that’s pretty much it right there. He literally had to give up everything,” she says.
“I’d never realized the peace that could be had in religious life until Chris did it,” she adds. “It’s a different kind of freedom, but you really put your life fully in God’s hands.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Feb. 27, 2016.]