Somehow, it didn’t seem unusual for Brad Berhorst to be drawn into a theological discussion while on the job at Office Depot.
It must have gone well, because his customer, a self-proclaimed Calvinist, interjected, “You’re Catholic? Have you ever thought about being a priest? You should talk to your bishop about that.”
A pattern was developing.
“When random people start telling you things — I’m afraid that’s what God does when you have a really thick skull,” said Mr. Berhorst, who is to be ordained a transitional deacon on Sept. 27 in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
He hopes to be ordained a priest of the Jefferson City diocese next spring.
“Nothing is more subtle than grace,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a while to understand it. And sometimes we never do.”
The younger of two sons born to John and Rosemary Berhorst of St. Martin parish in St. Martins, he grew up near Centertown, learning from Day 1 that faith and family come first.
“Mom and Dad met on a (Teens Encounter Christ) retreat, and that sort of set the tone for their level of involvement in the Church,” said Mr. Berhorst. “We prayed together as a family and always went to Mass on Sunday. And Mom and Dad set a great example for being involved in the parish.”
He went to Catholic schools: St. Martin School, Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City and the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas.
His strongest priestly role model was the only pastor he knew while growing up. Father Edwin Schmidt was assigned to St. Martins shortly after Mr. Berhorst was born, and died there in 2017.
“I have very good memories of him,” said Mr. Berhorst. “He was such a gentle pastor, a very good man, such a witness of fidelity to his people.”
Paths to holiness
Music has always united the Berhorst family and its spiritual pursuits.
Mr. Berhorst’s parents served as accompanists at Mass for many years and invited their sons to join in when they were ready.
Young Brad started helping out at Mass after taking guitar lessons in grade school. That carried over into his participation in high-school youth group, Life Teen and Teens Encounter Christ.
In high school, he went on two Holy Week service trips to Mexico.
Summers brought participation in CHIRSTpower Catholic service retreats in Jefferson City and the Camp Maccabee Catholic summer camp for high-school-age young men.
The latter drew him into the company of Father Bill Peckman and Father David Veit.
“They were some of the first priests I got to know outside of the Mass and sacraments,” Mr. Berhorst recalled. “I think it’s really important to be able to see priests who are happy and fulfilled and joyful in their priestly ministry and get to know them at a human level.”
And like Fr. Schmidt, they weren’t bashful about inviting him to consider the Priesthood.
“I didn’t always want to have anything to do with that,” he noted. “But I did eventually come around.”
Winter of his discernment
After high school, Mr. Berhorst decided to attend the University of Dallas, a relatively small, Catholic, liberal-arts university in the nation’s fourth-most populous metropolitan area.
Double-majoring in math and theology, he reveled in the school’s Catholic identity, “great books” curriculum and challenging philosophy courses.
He spent a semester studying at the university’s campus in Rome. He enjoyed the classes he took and got to know the priest chaplains there.
“Their ministry made a big impression on me,” he said.
Mr. Berhorst realized now that God was drawing him toward the Priesthood at that time, but he wasn’t ready to accept it yet.
He looks back on his senior year in college as a time of “spiritual anguish.”
“I was experiencing such uncertainty and what I felt like I needed was spiritual certainty — which was totally wrong,” he said.
He wanted to teach. He thought about applying for graduate-level theology studies in Europe — something his professors were encouraging him to do. But the otherwise industrious student could not bring himself to apply.
He wanted to serve. He became intent on applying for an international Catholic community of volunteers called Heart’s Home. But after a long conversation, a friend who had served in the program cautioned him, almost as an afterthought, “Don’t do this if you’re running away from something else.”
“That hit me like a ton of bricks,” Mr. Berhorst recalled.
Numerous other random comments of that sort finally convinced him that “it’s time for me to stop thinking about the seminary and do something about it.”
He contacted Father Joseph Corel, who was the diocesan vocation director, who gave him an application.
Mr. Berhorst’s parents were surprised when he told them what he was up to.
“But it didn’t take long for them to see that it kind of made sense, that it kind of fit,” he said.
Most of his college classmates didn’t find out that he was going into the seminary until their senior convocation right before graduation.
“A lot of them were surprised, but a lot of them who knew me best said, ‘Yes, we can see that,’” he said.
Work and pray
Still apprehensive, he entered a two-year program of philosophy studies and priestly formation at Conception Seminary College in Conception.
He was a few years older than most of his fellow seminarians and had an easier time adjusting to life on a secluded, rural campus.
The Benedictine monks there helped awaken in him a deeper appreciation for the Liturgy and for praying with Scripture, a process known as “lectio divina.”
“Conception is where I seriously learned how to pray,” he said.
Much of his formation took place in the context of community.
“Conception is one place where community is not optional,” he noted. “You’re unpacking life’s lessons with people who are bound together in seeking the Lord’s will and clarity in their discernment and in their desire to be priests.”
While visiting Conception during Mr. Berhorst’s last semester there, Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos asked him, “Would you like to take your theology studies in Rome?”
Mr. Berhorst pretended to think about it for a couple of seconds, then answered, “Yes, I would.”
He loved the idea of finishing his studies in a city that had already played an important role in bringing his priestly calling to light.
That fall, Mr. Berhorst became a student of the Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome, the house of studies for Catholic seminarians from the United States and Canada.
He had to quickly learn Italian, the language all of his classes would be given in.
Living and learning in Rome has brought him into contact with numerous men and women from all over the world, helping him develop a broader perspective of what it means to “preach the Good News to all nations.”
“It’s given me an experience of the Church beyond the United States, with the understanding that I will come back to serve in the United States but hopefully with a perspective that helps me do that better,” he said.
An enthusiast of many musical genres, he has been learning traditional sacred music of the Church as a member of the North American College choir.
He also gathers with a few classmates to sing selections from The Sacred Harp, a collection of “shape-note singing” hymns and worship songs in the early American folk tradition.
“It’s sort of an American Baptist style of polyphony,” he said. “It includes a lot of old melodies that came from the Scotch-Irish tradition that fermented into the Appalachian music.”
On this mountain
He has spent summers assisting the pastors at St. Clement parish in St. Clement, St. Patrick parish in Laurie and this year at St. Peter parish in Jefferson City — as an acolyte at the latter two.
“Those summer internships have been important for helping me stay connected,” he said.
He also spent a summer teaching English to students, including many Ukrainian Catholic seminarians, at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
“It was a unique opportunity to spend time doing a kind of ministry I would never get to do otherwise,” he said.
He was amazed at the zeal and determination he found there, even among the younger students.
“Ukraine has had kind of a rough go of it for the past ... forever,” he said. “So it was inspiring to meet some of the students who had real hope for their country and the Church there, and a sense of their responsibility to take their education seriously.”
He learned that teaching English in a country he had never visited is hard.
“I also learned that I can do things I never imagined I could do, if it’s what God wants me to do,” he said.
Last Christmas and into the new year, he took part in a seminary pilgrimage to the Holy Land — six days in Galilee, another six in and near Jerusalem.
At each of the holy sites, the Gospel readings are slightly altered to highlight the location.
At the Basilica of the Annunciation: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to THIS town of Galilee called Nazareth.”
At the Mount of the Beatitudes: “When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up THIS mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach them... .”
“There’s no substitute for actually being there and reading the Gospels and saying, ‘This happened here,’” he said. “You can never read the Gospels without remembering that you were there.”
Herald of the Gospel
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will preside at the Sept. 27 Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica, preach the homily and ordain Mr. Berhorst and his classmates transitional deacons.
“This will be the moment when we receive holy orders, when we make the permanent commitment and enter this last phase of our preparation to be priests,” said Mr. Berhorst.
Concelebrants will include Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of the Jefferson City diocese; Monsignor David Cox, pastor of the Kirksville and Novinger parishes; and Father Ignazio Medina, pastor of the Wardsville and Osage Bend parishes.
Msgr. Cox will ceremonially help Mr. Berhorst put on his diaconal vestments during the Mass.
Mr. Berhorst’s parents and his mother’s siblings and their spouses also plan to attend, along with several of his college classmates who now live in Italy.
As Mr. Berhorst prepares to be made a deacon — an order he will carry with him forever, even after priestly ordination — he’s been contemplating Bishop McKnight’s new book, Understanding the Diaconate, which calls on deacons to be mediators within the Church and emissaries to the rest of society, especially people who are marginalized.
Mr. Berhorst’s diaconal ministries in Rome will include proclaiming the Gospel and occasionally preaching at Mass at the NAC and ministering to the community of University of Dallas students who are studying in Rome.
He and another deacon at the seminary will lead holy hours with Exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, facilitate informal discussions about theology and preach homilies at Masses with the students on the University of Dallas’ Rome campus.
Mr. Berhorst recently completed the requirements for a bachelor of sacred theology (STB) degree. Bishop McKnight has directed him to continue his studies toward a licentiate in canon law.
In the meantime, the soon-to-be deacon hasn’t forgotten where he came from or where he’s going.
“I’m just a native son of Missouri seeking the Lord’s will,” he said.
Living, studying and pursuing his calling in a faraway country has helped make him acutely aware of all the people who are making it possible.
“All of us know we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are without all of the support back home, and all of the ways that support manifests itself, especially in people’s prayers for us,” he said.
He was quick to thank his parents, his fellow seminarians, “a lot of great priests,” and Bishops McKnight and Gaydos.
“I’m aware that this is something I could never do on my own,” said Mr. Berhorst. “And I’m sure I’ll never know all of the people who have helped make it possible. But I pray for them and am deeply grateful to them.”