Feeling the call: Paulist Fr. John Behnke
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by Stefani Manowski
February 6, 2017

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in December 2012.

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Paulist Fr. John Behnke

Looking back, the principal at St. John Catholic Academy in Syracuse, NY, probably asked all the young men and women under his tutelage if they wanted to become a priest or nun, recalls Father John Behnke, CSP.

But that nudge wasn’t the only area of reinforcement, as the priesthood and the religious life were always a possibility for the six Behnke children.

“Everybody went to church on Sunday,” Father Behnke said, recalling his days at St. Daniel Church and attending the parish school. “Going to a Catholic school, it was always, always a choice we had. It was always an area of possibility.”

It was during the third grade at St. Daniel that young John Behnke first felt called to the priesthood, a vocation he explored deliberately in his senior year at St. John.

“I wanted to help people,” said Father Behnke, 64, who entered St. Bernard Seminary in the Diocese of Rochester, NY, after his high school graduation.

He was ordained a transitional deacon and worked in a parish for a year, but felt something was missing.

“I was looking for a vision and community living, and a couple of priest friends of mine suggested I would be well-suited for Paulist life,” Father Behnke said. “I liked the idea of living in community and being missionary in my own country.”

Like the twists and turns that can be found in just about every vocations story, Father Behnke was now in an awkward spot. He was already in formation as a diocesan priest, but wanted to pursue the priesthood in the context of a religious order. What to do next?

The answer was to spend the summer of 1969 at St. Paul’s College in Washington, D.C., the Paulist house of formation and at the time the largest Paulist community.

“I needed to get to know as many Paulists as possible,” explained Father Behnke, who then entered a probationary period at the Paulist novitiate, then housed at Mount Paul in Oak Ridge, NJ.

Father Behnke made his final promises in the Paulist community on Jan. 25, 1976, and was ordained on May 15, 1976 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulist mother church in New York.

He spent the next five years in New York as associate pastor at St. Paul’s before a three-year stint at St. Peter Church in Toronto doing Hispanic ministry.

Father Behnke left Canada, and would spend the next 16 years as pastor of St. Patrick Church in Memphis before serving for nine years as pastor/director of the St. Lawrence Church and Newman Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He has served as the director of novices and superior of the house back at St. Paul’s College for the past five years.

“The Paulists formed me, and now I can help form other Paulists,” said Father Behnke. “We take each person as an individual and bring out their potential. The youthfulness, energy, dedication and missionary zeal of the novices and seminarians inspires me.”

Father Behnke said many factors bolster his vocation in the Paulist priesthood, including living in community, being with people who hold a shared sense of vision and a life centered around prayer and Jesus.

“Being a Paulist has given me so many opportunities to reach out to others, people who have in turn touched my life,” he said.