This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing readers to the five men who will be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 21.
There were no prominent miracles or revelations in Kevin Barnekow’s childhood. He has great memories of spending time with his family and watching sports, especially football. As a high school student and class valedictorian at West Allis Nathan Hale, he applied to colleges and enrolled at Milwaukee School of Engineering.
His student life was unfolding the way he had planned, but what he didn’t expect was the wisp of God’s breath beckoning him to pray at the nearby Cathedral of St. John during his free moments.
“It was during that time that I began thinking about whether or not I was called to be a priest,” Barnekow said.
After graduating in 2004 with a degree in electrical engineering, the 29-year-old transitional deacon whose home parish is St. Aloysius Parish, West Allis, was accepted into the graduate school program at UW-Madison as a fellowship recipient and research assistant.
“Basically, I got paid to attend UW-Madison so that I didn’t have to work,” he said. “I saw that as an opportunity to seriously discern a priestly vocation.”
During that year, Barnekow began praying the Liturgy of the Hours and attending daily Mass. He joined a discernment group at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and before his first year of graduate school concluded, applied to the seminary.
“While there was no defining moment that led me to pursue a priestly vocation, the will of God seems to show itself most significantly in retrospect,” he said. “That is, the people I met, the experiences I had, and my family life seemed to plot out a trajectory that was leading me to seminary. For me, obedience to God meant that I would have to recognize how he had always been active in my life.”
While his family and friends have occasionally questioned Barnekow’s decision to become a priest, they never questioned God or the value of priestly ministry, but rather if he would be happy in that role.
Happiness, though, has accompanied his call to serve during internship experiences at Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, for the past three summers while working with Fr. Tim Kitzke, Fr. Mike Michalski and Fr. Brian Mason. Additionally, as part of his seminary formation at American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium, and his studies at Catholic University of Louvain, he ministers for several U.S. military chaplaincies in German and Belgium.
“Ministry in a military parish is a very interesting experience because of their desire to have a close-knit community,” Barnekow explained. “Husbands and wives can be deployed at anytime, and so the parish community functions very much as a source of support and community in those circumstances.”
As ordination approaches, Barnekow ponders the humanness of the call to serve the divine, and the feelings of unworthiness that accompany it.
“The greatness of God’s love is shown in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us, the righteous for the unrighteous,” he said. “In point of fact, we do not deserve it. It is the grace of Jesus Christ and his love that makes us holy and brings us into the Trinitarian life. It is Jesus who makes us into new creations and makes us worthy of our vocations. It is his love that makes us lovable.”
Aware of human frailties, Barnekow admitted there are times he has felt inadequate in his vocation, but interspersed through those moments are revelations that he has felt the most entitled to rely on God to see him through it.
“And he always gets us through it by means of his sacraments and his church, that is to say, our family and friends and all the faithful who are from a pilgrim fellowship seeking holiness and life after the pattern of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection,” he said. “My greatest challenge right now is to learn the practical day in and day out details of priestly ministry in a parish and how to pray well. Being a priest requires a healthy prayer life and also experienced, intelligent and wise pastoral art. The Gospel must be applied, (and) come to life in the lives of believers, and that takes skill and discernment.”
While Barnekow anticipates the blessings that accompany each of the sacraments, he is especially drawn toward the ministry of the sacrament of reconciliation and leading the faithful toward a loving and merciful God.
“It is such a great sacrament of healing, but it seems under-utilized by the faithful,” he said. “I have always experienced it powerfully and I look forward to being able to help the Christian faithful experience mercy and healing through that sacrament.”
Most Catholics believe that priests give up their lives in service to Jesus Christ, and while Barnekow admits this is true, he hopes Christians follow suit in their own vocations, whether their lives are consecrated, single or married.
“Anyone who seriously pursues his or her vocation will have to seek to follow God’s will in preference to his or her own,” he said. “This is always difficult. This always involves renunciation and detachment. The season of Lent helps to educate us in penance, detachment and renunciation. But, we do those things so that we may have life. Jesus says that if we lose our lives for his sake, we truly find life. After all, he is the way, the truth and the life. God trains us in faith, hope and love and the other virtues so that one day our wills will be harmonious with his will, but that takes time and work.”
While all are called to holy work, the priest is a special symbol of that for the people of God, but Barnekow believes that it is an image that should bring to mind the obligations and joys of the faithful.
“In the end, the sacrifice of our lives, the gift of our lives, is what true life consists in,” he said. “This is the meaning of St. Paul’s statement, ‘Life is Christ,’ which is also Archbishop (Jerome E.) Listecki’s episcopal motto.”
Barnekow credited his family and friends for supporting him on his journey to priesthood.
“My parents, Bill and Linda Barnekow, two brothers, and my family have all been such great role models for me,” he said. “There are important priests in my life, especially those involved in seminary formation at Saint Francis de Sales and at the American College. These are models of priestly life and ministry, but my family was my first role model. I would never have been able to identify and follow the examples of good priests if I had not been educated in leading a good and honorable life by my family.”