Written by Amy E. Rewolinski, Catholic Herald Staff Wednesday, 12 May 2010 12:00
Matthew Widder, 27, may never become used to people calling him “father.”
“That’s an interesting thing, because even now as a deacon – because we wear the collar around – (people) will say ‘father,’” he laughed. “When you have someone who is 70 years-old say ‘father,’ it kind of adds that expectation; it’s what you’re expected to be. It’s a title, but it’s so much more than that.”
Matthew, a transitional deacon who will be ordained a priest May 15 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, never thought that God would choose him to be a priest. Growing up on a small dairy farm in Sheboygan Falls, with his parents and two younger siblings, he admitted that while he first heard the calling during 6th grade at St. Mary Grade School, Sheboygan Falls, he never spent much time considering it.
“It was always there but it was always tucked in the back of my mind,” he described. “I would say there were always the three reasons. First of all, my own prayer life wasn’t as deep as it could have been, especially at that age. Part of it was, we would go to Mass – we grew up on a farm, so Sunday we had to get up extra early – we would always go to the 8 o’clock Mass and I was always dead tired, I was always dozing off and things like that. My own prayer life wasn’t that deep, and I always thought, ‘How could I go into the seminary for four years, or study the Bible, when it just seems boring to me now?’”
In addition to other concerns such as his misconceptions of priests, as well as his assumption that he would someday marry and have children, Matthew graduated from Sheboygan Falls High School and earned a degree in exercise science from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. An avid tennis player, he hoped to be a tennis coach or instructor.
Turning point in faith life
As he adjusted to life on a college campus, he realized how much he relied on his Catholic faith to get him through unfamiliar situations.
“I think it was critical because I really felt like I needed – not knowing anyone – I knew the Eucharist – Christ – that was a connection for me,” he said. “I think that was a turning point in my faith.”
Matthew embraced various roles within the university’s Newman Center, becoming a reader and later volunteering as a chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital, Eau Claire, only a short walk from his dorm. While there, he experienced his first taste of religious life. His calling to the priesthood was reawakened, he said, as he supported families and friends of patients.
The summer before his senior year Matthew took a job as a tennis instructor for Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. It proved to be an amazing opportunity, but not in the way he originally planned.
“We were in the dorms with the campers and there was no TV, no Internet close by, so there were no distractions,” he recalled. “I remember just really delving into the Scriptures and for the first time in my life … as the summer went on and I continued praying about it and reading the Scriptures, by the end of summer I just felt like this was what God (was) calling me to. I got back to Eau Claire then, and it was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to talk to the priest about this.’ I was just scared out of my mind.”
First step is telling family, friends
After talking with his priest at the Newman Center, Matthew prepared for priesthood. The first step, he said, was telling his family and friends.
“At that time, I always felt like it was kind of dorky to be a priest, because I was always kind of into sports and a lot of my friends were Catholic but not the kind that go to Mass, that type of thing,” he admitted. “I just thought, people are going to think I’m just crazy if I tell them that I want to be a priest.”
During winter break, Matthew told his parents and siblings.
“The first thing my dad did was he looked at my sister and said, ‘I expect more grandchildren out of you now!’” He laughed.
Matthew’s sister Sarah, 24, agrees that while his decision to be a priest was unexpected, it wasn’t much of a surprise to her.
“Being the oldest, he was kind of like the protector over all of us,” Sarah said. “There’s a story of my brother Paul, and my mom would tell the story of how when they would get up to go to school, Matt would always make sure that Paul was all ready to go to school, pack his lunch, and set his backpack by the door.
“My mom would always say, ‘He’s not going to know what to do when you’re not here to get it ready for him!’” Sarah laughed.
In addition to making sure anything they did as kids was turned into a fun game, Matthew also assigned nicknames.
“He would always go by Matthew, but yet everybody in our family had different nicknames, and they’re all from him. It was all just a lot of fun,” she added.
While she knows that priesthood is a huge undertaking for her brother, she is supportive of his vocation.
“I’m very, very excited for him. (Being a priest) is a hard thing to do while all your friends are getting married and having a family, and to decide to take on a such an important role in people’s faith … I am very, very happy for him,” she said.
Matthew’s mom, Mary Jo, also wasn’t very surprised that her son decided to become a priest.
“He’s always had a caring soul,” she said. “He would be the one that would see somebody with a sign out, asking for money. He would say, ‘Oh, we have to give him money.’ He always cared more about other people than himself.”
Youth is gift to church
While he knows he has much to learn about running a parish, he believes that – much like his priestly studies and training – everything will come together.
“At this point, I give the church my youth,” he said, discussing his greatest gift to the church. “I’m still young, still energetic, and the big thing is that hopefully through my witness and through my ministry, I will be giving Christ a face. I will hopefully allow other people to see the love of Christ and to embrace that.”
Sarah can attest to that.
“He’s a great listener,” she said. “He’ll listen to what the needs of his parish are, what they need to help grow spiritually. He’ll listen to that and take what his parish family says, and turn it into something that they can grow off of.”
His athletic background will come in handy, according to his sister. While interning at Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, he developed a “Faith and Fitness” program.
“He incorporated his fitness along with faith, so not only were they kind of getting in shape – which is what he loves – he incorporated that as well as the faith of that community. He brought in different aspects of the church and teaching the different Bible passages.
“He’ll be very good at viewing all the needs of his parish and being able to come up with something to try to meet those needs,” said Sarah.
“He’s very compassionate, very caring – very caring – about those in need,” Mary Jo added. “Those who are less fortunate.”
Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is what Matthew hopes to convey to others.
“As a priest, that just blows my mind,” he said. “Being able to celebrate the Eucharist, in a sense you’re kind of feeding the people with Christ, forgiving people their sins and anointing the sick, it’s like all of a sudden you’re there at the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and you’re making Christ present to them.”