This is the second in a series of articles introducing you to the seven men who will be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination for six of them will take place on Saturday, May 19, while the seventh will be ordained later in the year.
Deacon Ryan Pruess’ great-grandmother, Lorraine Endres, always thought he would be a priest.
“She was a very religious person,” said his mother, Sandra Pruess. “And from the time he was very small she had the inkling that he would someday become a priest.”
It would take a while before Deacon Pruess – who will be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on May 19 – would discern the call of which his great-grandmother was always so certain.
“In my heart, I always knew I was called to service,” said Deacon Pruess, 29. “But I was searching for what would be best for me.”
His search took him into sales, marketing, a stint at a collection agency, completing a criminal justice degree, and finally beginning a promising career in law enforcement in his early 20s. But something wasn’t right. He felt what he described as “a constant tug” to something deeper and more meaningful.
Formed by obstacles
“It’s really been four and a half years of preparation, but I always say it’s been 29 years of preparation because I really do believe God does call you from the moment of conception,” Deacon Pruess said. “I’m thrilled to be ordained. I’m nervous. I know the people of God have a lot to share with me. I’m excited that we get to make that journey together.”
While his journey has included detours, he is thankful for his experiences.
“Everything I did in my past has been leading me up to this day today,” he said. “At first glance, yes, some things look like obstacles. But I see it as part of this whole formation.”
As the older of Gary and Sandra Pruess’ two children, growing up in Slinger as a member of St. Peter Parish, Catholicism was the center of everyday life.
“We’re working on quite a few generations up here at St. Peter,” said Sandra, who noted that Ryan’s great-grandmother Lorraine attended school there and now his niece, Evelyn, is in 5K at the same school.
He graduated from Slinger High School in 2001 and pursued a criminal justice degree at Waukesha County Technical College. Later, he enrolled at the college’s law enforcement recruit academy, intending to become a police officer.
Deacon Pruess’ interest in the church waned after high school.
“I was living life for myself,” he said. “We’re almost encouraged to do that in this world – chase your dreams and all – and that’s exactly what I was doing. Church was just not at the top of my priority list.”
But even if the church was not foremost in his mind, he said he always had a “touchstone” in the form of Relevant Radio, his companion on his pre-dawn drive to the recruit academy.
“I would get up at five in the morning and listen to them for an hour straight on the ride in. It was that little bit I needed to keep me connected,” he said.
Discerning the call
The connection began what Deacon Pruess called “a gradual return” to the sacramental life of the church.
“I knew I just wasn’t happy with how things were going in my life. There was that spot in my heart that yearned for God. Even though I feel he was always present to me, I wasn’t always present to him,” he said.
Sandra said she could tell her son was not fulfilled.
“As a mother, I could see that he wasn’t completely happy,” she said.
A major turning point for Deacon Pruess was when he witnessed the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux at Holy Hill in Hubertus.
“I had a friend who brought me out there,” he recalled. “I went to confession on the second level and I came upstairs just as the relics were being processed out of the main church. I just remember this sea of humanity following behind the casket of relics and being in awe of this person whose life was lived in holiness, and how we, as Catholics, lift them up as a beautiful model and example.”
That day not only spawned a strong devotion to St. Therese, but inspired him to contemplate his future.
He contacted Fr. Jim Lobacz, then director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Mileaukee.
“He said I’d have to go back to school for two and a half more years (to attain a religious studies degree before entering the major seminary),” recalled Deacon Pruess. “And in a sense I said, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It took a lot of prayer and quickly I realized this call is not going to go away unless I at least try it. So that’s exactly what I did.”
His family was surprised and “apprehensive” admitted Sandra. His grandmother, who will be 80 this July, was the first to hear about his plans for the priesthood.
“I think he came to Grandma first and ran it past her and told her he kind of thought the law enforcement wasn’t the right fit. He said he was going to start taking classes at Cardinal Stritch. He said he really, really felt that was something he wanted to do,” said Sandra. “So actually, Grandma was the first one who knew about it. And she is so, so looking forward to his ordination.”
‘Relates to everybody’
“It’s so exciting, but it is challenging and difficult to live a life of holiness,” said Deacon Pruess. “To be a young man who went through these difficult times, I want to step forward and hopefully be an example of holiness.”
He has empathy for people who struggled with staying in touch with their faith as he did, and in his priesthood it will be his special mission to minister to them.
“I think a lot of high schoolers and college students fall away and, unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of them coming back,” he said. “The best we can do is to be welcoming. Be in their lives. I’m not opposed to picking up the phone and inviting myself to dinner at your house if I haven’t seen you in a while. That’s the type of evangelization we need. We need to be out there proclaiming the truth of Christ.”
Close friend and fellow St. Peter parishioner Patti Wirth said Deacon Pruess will bring that attitude to everyone with whom he comes into contact.
“He can relate to everybody. Old, young, all of them. He does a beautiful job relating with any age,” she says. “Our son Sam, who’s 15, is like a brother to him. And if Sam is complaining about school, Ryan will tell him he hated school – and then tell him he has to do it anyway. He just puts it all in perspective.”
“That is not an easy age to keep them involved in our faith and our church,” said Sandra. “He does seem to have a certain way of getting them involved and keeping them interested. Ryan will really do well when it comes to teenagers and younger kids.”
In 2010, Deacon Pruess was co-founder of “The Remnant: Gridiron Spirituality for the Catholic Man,”
a retreat at the Cousins Center for Catholic high school football players that combined spirituality and athleticism. He also led the Milwaukee contingent of World Youth Day participants to Madrid in August 2011.
Blends faith, everyday life
Kara Holther, 21, a member of St. Joseph Parish, Grafton, accompanied Deacon Pruess on the trip and witnessed firsthand the ease with which he blends faith and everyday life.
“He is very enthusiastic and passionate in what he is doing – whether that’s planning a pilgrimage to Spain or arranging a movie night at Saint Francis Seminary,” she said. “He can clearly relate well with us because he’s so down to earth. You can so easily confide in him, whether you want to talk about faith or just talk to him as a friend.
“A guy on the pilgrimage was saying to Ryan once, ‘Man, I don’t know how you can do it, becoming a priest and never getting married,’” she joked. “And Ryan was like, ‘Well, priesthood is my calling. But I can always be your wingman!’”
For Deacon Pruess, that easy rapport is an essential part of his ministry.
“People ask me how I can go from being a collection agent and harassing people for money to being a priest. But I say that I learned the most from that job about needing to be compassionate with people and communicating well with others. You work with people who have no money and you learn to communicate with them and help them through that difficult time. Same with law enforcement – you learn to diffuse tense situations,” he said.
Wirth calls him “another Cardinal Dolan.”
“Everybody loves Ryan,” she said. “He’s just got that sense of humor, and he’s so sincere and warm.”
A family affair
Deacon Pruess’ ordination will, in a sense, be an affirmation of his family’s long-standing devotion to St. Peter Parish.
“We are all very, very proud of him. He’s just such a great example. I get goose bumps thinking about it, how far he’s come,” said Wirth, who along with her husband, Brad, is organizing the party that will follow Deacon Pruess’ Mass of Thanksgiving.
Deacon Pruess’ grandmother and 95-year-old great-aunt, longtime members of St. Peter, will attend his ordination. Several will be physically absent but present in spirit – like Fr. George Jentges, who served as pastor of St. Peter from 1943 to 1968. Deacon Pruess’ deceased great-grandparents Elizabeth and Bernard Katzfey were close personal friends of Fr. Jentges, and his chalice has been re-plated by the parishioners of St. Peter and will be given to Deacon Pruess when he returns there to celebrate his Mass of Thanksgiving.
“It was a complete surprise to me when Fr. Rick Stoffel (St. Peter pastor) offered it to me as a gift for my ordination,” Deacon Pruess said. “I was so excited because of my family’s long history with Fr. Jentges. In fact, my mom just ran across a picture of Fr. Jentges offering a toast at my great-grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary.”
Deacon Pruess’ family and friends think it’s a fitting tribute to him. They still get emotional seeing him on the altar.
“It just brings tears to my eyes,” said Sandra. “I don’t know if it ever goes away – I hope it does! I don’t want to be crying every time I see him celebrate Mass.”
“I get teary,” she said. “It’s incredible how much he has grown. He’s always been spiritual but now it’s like – wow. He’s a man of God. He’s a gift.”