Nothing fulfilled him as much as active ministry
Bishop Michael Fisher blesses newly ordained priest Father Michael Johnson, during his the June 5 Ordination Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral. Photo by Dan Cappellazzo
From a young age, Michael Johnson surrounded himself with service and ministerial opportunities; mostly with a Catholic base.
Father Johnson, 45, grew up in Cheektowaga, attending Infant of Prague Parish and Cleveland Hill Schools. As a teen he took part in student government, choir, band, drama at school and even wore the costume of the Cleveland Hill Eagle mascot. He also got heavily involved with his parish youth group, spending three years on the diocesan Youth Board. He attended World Youth Day 1993 in Denver and the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.
Thoughts of his vocation was first sparked in seventh grade when his parish took part in the “Called by Name” program. People in his parish suggested his name to the Vocations directors, leading Father Johnson to his first vocations retreat at Wadham’s Hall in Ogdensburg.
“That’s what got the whole ball rolling,” he said. “That has been reaffirmed throughout my life.” And reaffirmed by none other than Pope John Paul II and Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.
He did take a few detours in his education. He began studies at Canisius College, but that didn’t last long.
“I didn’t do well at college right off the bat, so I tried to work a little bit, but went into the United States Air Force,” he said.
He served nearly five years of active duty in South Korea, Oklahoma and the United Kingdom, with deployments to the United Arab Emirates and Sarajevo, Bosnia. He remained in the Air Force reserves for three years, ending his military career in 2003.
In 2000, he reentered the program for priestly formation, but took a leave of absence after a year and a half. He did earn his bachelor’s in philosophy and a minor in religious studies from Buffalo State College.
After being certified as an emergency medical technician, he began working as a dispatcher for Twin City Ambulance, then with Rural Metro. In 2005, he became a public safety dispatcher for the Town of Tonawanda Police and Fire Department.
It was around this time that Bishop Kmiec brought up the idea of priesthood, not knowing about Father Johnson’s history with formation.
In 2005, while speaking with the bishop shortly after the death of family friend Father Richard Sowinski, Bishop Kmiec, hearing about how close they were, said, “Now you have to take his place.”
“That was a very moving and powerful experience that brought me back to my vocational call to priesthood,” Father Johnson said.
He called Father Walter Szczesny, vocation director at the time, and they started up his move to Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora in 2011. The next year, he took another leave for more discernment and to deal with some financial debt. Seminarians are often too busy in study to work outside jobs. During this time, he did some work as coordinator of Spiritual Life for St. John the Baptist in Lockport. Once his bills were taken care of, the diocese welcomed him back into the seminary in 2016.
“My vocation just kept getting reaffirmed throughout my life. Everything I was doing was drawing me back to the priesthood. There were always opportunities for ministry throughout my life, no matter what I was doing,” he said.
Looking back, he blames immaturity for leaving college and the formation program. He wasn’t prepared for the regimented lifestyle that comes with being a seminarian. He said his time away from study, allowed him to work on his human formation, one of four pillars of priestly formation.
“There are different things in your human formation or other areas of formation that sometimes you have to take a leave. You have to step back,” he said. “I think all the experiences in those times made me more well-rounded and ready for ministry.”
Looking back, he realizes that his other jobs, although important services, did not fulfill him as much as active ministry. “That was God telling me, ‘This is what you’re called to do.’”
Father Johnson will serve as parochial vicar at Nativity of Our Lord in Orchard Park.