Father, son follow calling to become Catholic priests
Andrew Infanger went to Mass every Sunday, studied at parochial schools and spent part of several summers at a camp run by Benedictine monks. He earned his bachelor’s degree in theology at a small Catholic university.
Still, he never really considered himself a model Christian or pious enough to become a member of the clergy. He made other career plans. “I sometimes think I was the last person you would’ve expected to become a priest,” he said.
Yet today, Infanger is less than two months shy of ordination. Sitting in the chapel at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, the deacon is dressed in all black, except for a white clerical collar. Next to him sits his father, Peter. The two have an easy rapport and smile frequently at each other while they speak. When one pauses, the other often finishes the sentence. It’s clear they are close.
And there’s more than that.
Peter Infanger is completing his fourth year at Mundelein Seminary just outside Chicago. In another year, he will be a deacon, and then — “God willing” — he expects to follow his son into the priesthood.
A father and son serving as Catholic priests is not just rare, it’s almost unheard of. In the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church — the predominant rite in the West — priests take a vow of celibacy and do not marry. Exceptions are few and happen on a case-by-case basis, such as a married Episcopal priest converting to Catholicism.
In the Infangers’ case, Peter’s wife Michelle died in 2013 of breast cancer — the same year Andrew, now 30, was accepted into the seminary just south of the Milwaukee border in St. Francis, just off the Lake Michigan shoreline. Peter followed his own discernment process and was accepted in 2014. Now 63, he will become a priest at what traditionally is retirement age.
“It’s not the norm and not what usually happens, but there’s no policy as far as age,” Andrew said. “Generally people his age would be disqualified, but they review it on a case-by-case basis. With him, it’s more if you’re healthy and you can do the studies — those are probably the two biggest things.”
Both men found special meaning during the weeks leading up to this Easter, the most important day of the Christian year.
In his Palm Sunday homily, Andrew spoke of the gospel portrayals of Peter and Judas, two disciples who both betrayed Jesus. Both committed essentially the same sins, Andrew told parishioners. Judas, who turned Jesus over, “feels like he might never be forgiven — like his sin is too great.” He hangs himself. But Peter, who denied knowing Jesus three times, goes off and weeps bitterly. One does not accept that God will forgive him; one does.
“I think it was that Peter, in that moment, becomes the first Christian,” Andrew said. “When he realizes it’s not about what he can do, it’s about what God has done for him.”
For Andrew’s father, this Lenten season has been a time to reflect on the parallels between his life and the message of Easter.
Jesus died on the cross, he said, “But out of it, came our salvation.”
In the same way, “out of the death of my wife, which is one of the worst things that can ever happen — to become a widower or a widow — out of that, God brought (me) a second vocation to help others. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say: ‘Gosh, you’ve been married for 34 years, you really get it, about what it’s like to be married … Can you help me?’”
Andrew graduated from Dominican University in River Forest, Ill. He spent 30 days on a kayaking trip and 40 days on a backpacking trip with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Alaska.
Along the way, he realized that a career in outdoor education was not for him.
“I thought I was going to do that for my whole life,” Andrew said. “After that trip, I decided not to.”
Part of it was being away from where he grew up, in St. Louis. Another part was his lack of access to a church and to the celebration of Mass.
“Being Catholic, going to Mass on Sunday is really important. If you’re working in the outdoors industry, you just can’t do it,” Andrew said. “That was hard for me.”
He moved back home for a bit, and then headed to Wisconsin and began working with kids, leading “less intense” outdoor adventures with Catholic Youth Expeditions in Baileys Harbor. He followed that with a stint as a youth minister in Dousman.
By then, Andrew was feeling a call to join the seminary.
“I didn’t always find living as a Catholic and living according to the church to be easy,” Andrew said. “But I also never had a desire to reject them. … I never felt like I didn’t fit in the church. I just knew I wasn’t perfect.”
He waited until after his application was accepted to tell his family.
“Some guys, even when they’re thinking about it, will tell their parents excitedly,” Andrew said. “I kind of just said, ‘I’m doing this, FYI.’ ”
His family was not particularly surprised. “From an outside perspective,” said his brother, Michael, “it was clear that he was thinking about it.”
Seminarians who arrive with a college degree typically study five or six years, the last as a deacon, before ordination to the priesthood. They go through what’s known as “formation” and are attached to a parish and provided a mentor. For Andrew, that mentor has been Fr. Timothy Kitzke, vicar general of urban ministries as well as co-pastor of multiple parishes in Milwaukee.
“Andrew is an intelligent, but very accessible person who I think speaks to the heart of the message of Jesus in a way that people can relate to and understand,” Kitzke said. “Most important (for priesthood) is love for people and the desire to serve people.”
Fr. John Hemsing, rector of St. Francis de Sales, said the mission of the seminary is to “help a person grow as a human, through character development, spirituality, pastoral development, and the academics that have to take place.”
Both Infangers say the formation process has been essential.
“Some people say a priest is supposed to be…,” Andrew said, trailing off. “…a little more reserved,” said his father, finishing the thought. “Andrew, he’s more playful and gregarious as opposed to being a little more reserved and pious.”
“I’ve learned to grow in that,” Andrew said.
‘Why am I here?’
Peter’s journey began when he was 34 years old and had a spiritual epiphany.
“I wanted to quit my job and do some kind of helping ministry, like Catholic Charities,” Peter said.
At the time, Andrew was about 2 years old and his brother, Michael, was 4. Peter’s wife encouraged him to stay in his marketing job because of family responsibilities, and to explore religious pursuits outside of work.
“So that’s what I did,” Peter said. “I worked as a religion teacher and volunteered at my parish. For 10 years, I worked in Criminal Justice Ministry corresponding with inmates.”
He even conducted Bible study outside the office cafeteria for co-workers who wanted to join in the weekly tradition.
Peter had been at his marketing job for 30 years when his division was bought by another company and his job was moved to the greater Chicago area. As the family was preparing to leave St. Louis, Michelle was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died before the move was complete.
Andrew said that while he thinks most people with loved ones who have died from cancer have an extended “cancer experience,” his mother’s death was too sudden.
Michelle “clearly had cancer for a long time but kept it hidden from people,” her son Michael said. A few weeks before she died, Michelle wasn’t eating and had trouble speaking.
“With cancer, you typically battle, battle, battle and then you hit a cliff,” Michael said. “The cliff is what we saw, but she had probably been fighting it internally for a while.”
“Everything got swept away in an instant,” Peter said. “This whole thing happened over a week-and-a-half, and everything seemed kind of hollow.”
He made the move north. But before long, Peter was let go from his job.
The loss of his wife and his work created a watershed moment.
“I asked myself: Why am I here? Where am I going after this? What does God want me to do?” Peter said.
Andrew, by then a seminarian, encouraged his father to examine what he felt called to do, not just what his next job might be. Did he want to get married again? Did he want to start a new career? The priesthood never occurred to Andrew.
But it wasn’t long before it occurred to his father.
Peter had been single and married. With the death of his wife, he was eligible in the Catholic Church for religious life. He wanted to make sure God was really calling him to the priesthood, and it wasn’t just a reaction to his situation and Andrew being in the seminary.
Then he called Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of the Diocese of Joliet. The bishop gave his approval.
“Peter Infanger is way over the age ordinarily accepted for seminary formation,” Conlon said in a statement. “But the Church operates by God’s grace, and sometimes there are extraordinary circumstances. In Peter’s case, an assessment was made that the Lord was truly calling him to the ministry.”
Both of Peter’s sons, however, were hesitant. They had just lost their mother; this felt like they were losing their father, too.
“At first… I wasn’t super thrilled,” Andrew said. “The church becomes your family.”
In Catholic tradition, priests essentially marry the church and devote themselves fully to their calling. Further, Michael observed, his father tends to do things “full throttle.” Married and planning to have children, Michael was afraid his father would disappear from his family’s life.
“Our concern was that he was going to do this, and just not be involved, that we wouldn’t see him very much or that he wouldn’t be in our lives at all,” Michael said.
Today, all three have become comfortable with each other’s path. They keep in close contact and share philosophical conversations — although Michael is not a regular churchgoer.
Michael and his wife were there when Andrew became a deacon, and the next day when he gave his first homily. Michael’s family — he now has a daughter and a baby on the way — also came to Parents Day at Mundelein Seminary.
“It’s these 24-year-olds and my father, and then it’s my wife, daughter and me sitting at the table with the parents,” Michael recalled, laughing. “They had a fascination talking with me because how often do you get to meet the family of priests?”
To his surprise, Michael has found that his family has more meaningful interaction with his father than they likely would have had if he had stayed on his previous career path. On his day off, Peter might spend the whole day watching his grandchildren.
Peter also has developed a closer relationship with Andrew.
“In some sense, I think what Andrew’s doing is harder than what I’m doing,” Peter said. “I know what it’s like to be married. I know what it’s like to be single. I know what it’s like to work all your life. In the case of Andrew and young men that are 25 when they’re in seminary – they don’t know.”
His late wife, Peter thinks, would have been happy to see the choices he has made.
“When she entered the hospital… one of the first things she said to the nurses, and the nurses told me, was how proud she was that her son, Andrew, was going to be a priest,” Peter said.
“I kind of agree with you,” Andrew said. “But I also think that if you had told her this, you know, 15 years ago…”
Again, Peter finished the sentence.
“Yeah, I don’t think she would have liked the idea,” he said, laughing warmly.