In Your Midst

Fr. James O. Johnson, Jr.

Summer 2000

In This Issue:
The priest is to be the ‘co-worker with the order of bishops… so that the words of the Gospel may reach to the ends of the earth, and the family of nations, made one in Christ, may become God’s one, holy people.’

On June 10, 2000, the day before Pentecost, James O. Johnson, Jr. and Derek Lappe were ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Seattle by Archbishop Alex J. Brunett. In the words of the prayer of consecration, the priest is to be “co-worker with the order of bishops… so that the words of the Gospel may reach to the ends of the earth, and the family of nations, made one in Christ, may become God’s one, holy people.”

Jim Johnson is the first Cathedral parishioner to be ordained to serve as priest in the Archdiocese of Seattle “in living memory,” says Father Michael G. Ryan, and his vocation is one that has been shaped in special ways by St. James – the place and its people. Parenthetically, St. James has been blessed with two other religious vocations this year. Parishioner and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion Victor Blazovich was ordained June 23 for service in the Diocese of Spokane (please click here for details). Former parishioner and Cathedral choir member Jim Wilberding made his solemn vows as Brother Zachary in the Benedictine Order at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, on St. Benedict’s feast day, July 11.

Fr. Jim Johnson
Fr. Jim Johnson, a former Cathedral parishioner, was ordained in St James Cathedral on June 10, 2000 by Archbishop Brunett.

Jim Johnson traces the beginnings of his vocation to 1973, when he attended the priestly ordination of his uncle, Father Bob Russell, at St. James Cathedral. That event had a “tremendous impact” on him in two ways. There was the liturgy, the solemnity of Cathedral processions and the power of the music, especially the singing of the great Ode to Joy. And then there was the sense he had never had before of the larger Church beyond his own home parish. It was one of the last ordinations performed by the aging Archbishop Thomas A. Connolly, and the liturgy made Jim aware for the first time of the bishop’s crucial role as teacher of his people. “Bishops are the prophets among us,” Jim says, “their teaching is an important part of what centers us as Catholics.”

This seed of a vocation lay dormant for many years and not until the untimely death of his uncle in 1989, while Jim was a student at the University of Washington, did he seriously consider the possibility of becoming a priest. When he saw a job listing in the Catholic Northwest Progress for sacristan at St. James Cathedral, Jim put in an application, thinking it would be a good opportunity to ponder his vocation.

And so it was, though not in the manner he expected. “God led him to be in that place at that moment,” says Dr. James Savage, Jim’s supervisor during his years at St. James. “He came to it as a young man who had an appreciation of tradition and a genuine affection for the serving end of the liturgy. But because of his other gifts, including a seemingly infinite capacity for work, his job expanded to include maintenance, facilities, the temporary worship space in ‘St. Gym’ during the 1994 renovation, and aspects of the mechanics of making music.” Not long after he began working at St. James, Father Ryan invited him to stay on through the renovation of the Cathedral — a commitment, Jim thought, of a year-and-a-half, but instead, one which continued for five years. During that time Jim would eventually help rebuild the altar server program and serve as master of ceremonies.

But what Jim calls “the wild, wacky, weird, and wonderful world of the sacristan” proved to be a unique way of testing and confirming his vocation. The sacristan – as the word implies – is the person responsible for maintaining the sacred vessels and vestments, and ensuring all have what they need for the celebration of the Mass. But everything depends on how one interprets need. For Jim, that need was multiple and diverse: “are the sacred vessels prepared? is there toilet paper in the restrooms? do people feel comfortable and at home?” The sacristan is “minister to the ministers: part butler, part host; part liturgy coordinator; part bouncer; part minister to the homeless and mentally ill – and many other parts!”

As sacristan, Jim also saw a close up view of the priesthood. “His years as Cathedral sacristan were their own kind of ‘seminary’ for Jim,” Father Ryan observed. “He witnessed on a daily basis the dizzying demands of a dynamic parish. He also saw priests and lay ministers working closely together to serve God’s people. And through it all, Jim experienced the power of the church’s sacraments to bring about incredible changes in people’s lives and in the life of a community.” Jim is especially grateful for the living witness offered by the priests who served at the Cathedral: “I saw lots of different priests doing good ministries, and I witnessed their joy at celebrating the sacraments with people.” Among the priests who encouraged and helped to shape his vocation were Father Ryan, Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, Father Richard Ward, Father Joseph Tyson, Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy, and others.

Dr. Savage agrees: “Being sacristan allows one to see the ‘Martha’ part of being a priest, the work that’s necessary to celebrate the sacraments. It allows one to see that the modern priest is not like a TV or film version, but rather, someone who is being pulled in many directions: writing a compelling homily, ministering to a homeless person, dealing with plumbing; someone who is expected to be, if not all things to all people, at least many to most.”

Jim’s goals as a priest are clearly shaped by his experience as a minister at St. James Cathedral. “I feel very blessed to have participated in the liturgical life at St. James,” he says. “At the Cathedral the liturgy is celebrated in a way that really makes tangible the mystery of God’s love for us. It takes the best of the old and the new and presents it in a way that moves people. Not every parish has the resources of the Cathedral. But I think every parish is capable of good liturgy, and I hope to share a little of what I have learned in the parishes I serve.”

But the sacraments are paramount: “I am looking forward to celebrating the sacraments with people. The sacraments help us experience the reality of Christ’s power in our lives. I see the priesthood as a ministry of service to the people of God: I think that most of a priest’s efforts should be directed to pointing to Christ – in the Gospel, in the Eucharist, in the poor, in each human being, unborn and elderly, in the sacraments.”

The priests ordained in this Year of Jubilee are well aware that their vocation will not be an easy one. Jim knows that with the “ever shrinking number of priests, it will be challenging to be present to as many as possible.” He prays that St. James Cathedral will continue to encourage vocations. “There is a real need for parishioners and parents to look at the gifts of their sons and daughters and call them to service in the Church as priests and religious,” Father Johnson says. “Lay ministry is a marvelous gift and should be fostered in every way; but there will always be a need for men and women to dedicate themselves exclusively to the service of the Church.”

Corinna Laughlin is Assistant Sacristan and Coordinator for the Jubilee Year at St. James Cathedral.

Back To In Your Midst Page