‘I knocked and I found,’ says Catholic convert Father Wittnebel

| May 30, 2017 | 1 Comment

Father Benjamin Wittnebel processes into the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul on his ordination day May 27. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

What could throw many college students into spiritual confusion, Father Benjamin Wittnebel seized as an opportunity that led him to the Catholic faith and the priesthood.

As a freshman at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Father Wittnebel, 32, took a Scripture class where the professor wanted to explore the Bible as if the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire the sacred text. The professor asked the  students to defend the Bible’s historical accuracy without the divine inspiration.

Father Wittnebel said it “seemed contradictory” to him and realized it challenged God’s promises in the Bible. With a search for answers under way, Father Wittnebel said he “took Jesus at his word” in the journey.

“I knocked and I found,” he said.

He discovered a faith and life he had never encountered while growing up in Burnsville with his two older sisters, a younger brother and his parents, Gary and Kathy. As a Lutheran, Father Wittnebel said he was “insulated from Catholicism.” He took his faith seriously enough to consider becoming a pastor when he chose to major in religion at Luther College.

In searching for truth, Father Wittnebel came upon Catholic TV station Eternal Word Television Network. He found the speakers inspiring and the daily Mass broadcast a regular source of spiritual nourishment.

Those experiences enriched his understanding of Scripture and the Catholic faith. He particularly saw how the books of the Bible fit together as one story of salvation.

An 18-month search for truth soon led to a destination —joining the Church. He began Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults during his sophomore year of college and became Catholic. His final two years at Luther were filled with zeal for the Gospel and the Church.

“I had bright ideas for the whole campus,” Father Wittnebel said, adding that “it was hard in some ways” because the college had few Catholic students.

Joining the Church also meant some challenge with family, but he said they respected his decision.

After graduating from Luther College with a degree in religion, he spent time working in the Twin Cities with Olan Mills and then the Knights of Columbus as an insurance agent. Meanwhile, he went back and forth about priesthood, he said, until he answered “yes.”

Involvement in Cathedral Young Adults at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and adopting St. Joseph in West St. Paul as his home parish helped him become receptive to that call, he said. He found inspiration and direction from Father Michael Creagan, St. Joseph’s pastor, whom Father Wittnebel described as a “rock-solid witness.”

Several men through CYA and St. Paul’s Outreach also supported and encouraged him in considering seminary. One friend who had been in seminary helped Father Wittnebel see it as a possibility, he said.

Meanwhile, he made a habit of walking to the adoration chapel at St. Joseph from home for daily prayer.

If one thing tipped the scale for Father Wittnebel’s discernment, it came about in a conversation with a seminarian friend who stressed the importance of giving one’s all in seminary life. The friend said “if you cut corners” and leave, “you won’t have peace,” Father Wittnebel recalled.

While at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Father Wittnebel served at Holy Spirit in St. Paul for his teaching parish and worked with St. Michael in West St. Paul during a January term. He also did summer evangelization work with St. Matthew in St. Paul and spent the summer of his transitional diaconate at St. Michael in Farmington.

Father Wittnebel said he looks forward to “being with the people” as a priest.

“Christ is my passion,” Father Wittnebel said. “I want people to meet Christ.”

Father Wittnebel will be ministering as parochial vicar of St. Peter in Forest Lake.


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