From atheist, to husband, to priest, Deacon Eric Johansen’s spiritual journey has been marked by joy and grief. After he’s ordained a priest on June 12, he’s looking forward to walking with people on their own spiritual journey.
“It’s exciting, nerve-wracking. I don’t feel like we’re ever worthy, but God’s plans are perfect,” said Deacon Johansen, who will be one of five seminarians of the Diocese of Nashville to be ordained at 10:30 a.m. Friday, June 12, at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. “I’m ready. I’m excited about it.”
Deacon Johansen grew up in California and moved to Nashville with his parents when his father took a job here. “I wasn’t doing anything important so I came with them. And when they left, I stayed.”
After moving to Nashville, he met and married his wife, Kathy.
“I grew up in a very secular home. When I met my wife … I was a very happy atheist,” Deacon Johansen said.
But his wife, who was raised a Catholic, kept praying and prodding him to go to church. “We started going to a non-denominational church. That started the kindling in me,” Deacon Johansen said.
His wife kept telling him she missed the Catholic Church and wanted to go to Mass. “The first time I went to a Mass was to shut her up,” Deacon Johansen said. “But I found a home there. … It felt right. I really can’t explain it. It was really a feeling … that said, hey, this is where you belong.”
He went through the RCIA process at St. Edward Church and entered the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2000.
But just as he was finding a spiritual home, he was losing the guide who led him there. His wife battled cancer and died in 2003.
“It was inspiring and painful,” Deacon Johansen said. The Church and his faith helped him through it, he said.
He and his wife had talked about doing something in ministry, he said. “It had been gnawing at me for a while.” A few years after her death, “I decided to step out and find out.”
He met with Father Steve Wolf, then the vocations director for the diocese, who gave him an application to become a seminarian. Deacon Johansen put the application in a desk drawer and forgot about it. But about a month or so later Father Wolf called to ask how he was doing on the application.
“That was the kick in my butt I needed,” Deacon Johansen said. He filled out the application and “everything went very smoothly. I thought that is a sign this is where I ought to be.”
He entered Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans in 2006. It hasn’t always been easy, Deacon Johansen admitted. “I stepped away a couple of times. The bishop has been very generous with me.”
He completed his studies this spring; after he is ordained he will begin serving as a chaplain at Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown in Nashville and will be in residence at St. Ann Church.
“I’m excited about where the bishop has put me. I’ve had some really powerful experiences” while working in hospital ministry for his Clinical Pastoral Experience as a seminarian, Deacon Johansen said. “I think it’s a good fit for me.”
“The very first baptism I ever performed in my life was of a 6-year-old girl shot by her 4-year-old brother” in an accident, Deacon Johansen said. “The family’s all there. Everybody’s in tears.” He didn’t say much, Deacon Johansen remembered, but simply sat with the family for about three hours. “It was a just a ministry of presence.”
After the girl died and he was leaving the room, “the Mother gave me a big, huge hug,” Deacon Johansen said. “It’s an honor to be allowed in people’s lives when they’re going through that kind of traumatic experience. It’s powerful to be there.”
Experiences like that have reshaped his understanding of the priesthood. “I didn’t know about being involved in the lives of the people you shepherd. That’s the part I’m excited about,” Deacon Johansen said. “I’m looking forward to getting involved in the lives of people and walking with them and have them walk with me.”
Deacon Johansen will celebrate his first Mass at 12:15 p.m. Sunday, June 14, at St. Edward Church.