Why Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem., Chose Norbertine Life

By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.

Having grown up in northeastern Wisconsin in the 1970s, I was aware of a religious order of priests and brothers that served our region as high school and college teachers (and as a member of Congress). Church ministry was a dream of mine since early childhood; being able to serve in this context with other like-minded men in these kinds of ministries in northeast Wisconsin seemed like a perfect fit.

Furthermore, I was attracted to religious life because I believed I could lead a more sustainable life style while sharing resources with other men, as opposed to the rampant individualism which I saw in our society.

Church ministry was a dream of mine since early childhood …

—Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.
Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem. (left)
Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem. (left)

In 2015, I was living apart from the Norbertine community in Washington, D.C., while serving the national Church through Catholic Charities USA. I was 900 miles away when my father’s health began to severely deteriorate. My attempt to balance ministry, Norbertine life, and family concerns seemed nearly impossible.

During this time, Norbertine art professor, Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., just happened to be leading a St. Norbert College tour of Washington, D.C., art museums. As a Norbertine confrere, his totally unexpected visit and thoughtful concern for me and my family that April evening was one of the most grace-filled experiences I have ever had as a Norbertine.

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Why Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., Chose Norbertine Life

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

The beauty of the abbey and its liturgical life made an immediate and lasting impression on my heart and mind. That this community should have been so mindful of beauty as an attribute of faith in Christ and a lifestyle dedicated to the Gospel inspired me to believe I could thrive in such an environment of grace and natural revelation.

… This is nothing less than a dream-job and there’s not a day I’m not grateful for this extraordinary opportunity …

—Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., with his art on display.
Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., with his art on display.

The opportunity for life-long learning has been a rich and constant blessing for which I will always be grateful to the Norbertine community. The order has been both affirming and generous in allowing me to continue my personal, spiritual, and professional pursuit of the art, ministry, and vocation of beauty. I have been very fortunate in extending the dream of Abbot Bernard Pennings, O. Praem., by working among and within the St. Norbert College community as a professor of art (this is nothing less than a dream-job and there’s not a day I’m not grateful for this extraordinary opportunity to live and work as a priest-artist-educator).

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Podcast Episode 011: Norbertine Encounter—Drawn by Community

Deacon (now Fr.) Bradley Vanden Branden, O. Praem., on the day of his priestly ordination.

Deacon (now Fr.) Bradley Vanden Branden, O. Praem., on the day of his priestly ordination. Read “Reflections on a Restless Heart” »

Vocational seeds are often planted in the most unexpected or unusual ways. Join our two co-hosts as they reminisce about their journey toward priesthood and how God and the Norbertine community drew them in.

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Colleague + Friend

Lessons on Virtuous Friendship from Dr. Paul Wadell

As seen in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Abbey Magazine (page 10)

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Dr. Paul Wadell (left) and Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Maybe it was his smooth Kentucky accent or the fact that he greeted, by name, every student who walked into class. I immediately knew my time spent with Dr. Paul Wadell as a grad student at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago was going to be as enjoyable as it was instructive.

In a course referencing his own book, Friendship and the Moral Life, Paul’s class was more like an invigorating retreat with a group of friends than a series of lectures in a room of strangers. Exalting the virtues as essential components of true friendship, Paul revealed a glorious truth: Being in right relationship with others, cultivating and maintaining a circle of good friends, is nothing less than the very dream of God for each and every one of us.

He modeled for us in our teacher-student relationship the virtues to espouse in our own friendships:

Friendship and the Moral LifeGenerosity

Paul clearly spent a great deal of time in preparing his classroom lectures. They were always rich in facts, personal insights applicable to everyday life, and wonderfully articulated in the most conversational tone. Our lectures were conversations with and among friends.


Paul received us in an atmosphere that valued spiritual understanding and wisdom. We learned that cultivating genuine and deep friendships facilitates the growth and development of the spirit.


Paul invited us to consider a variety of ideas and insights by way of many voices. His recommended reading list was an introduction to new friends; that is, authors we might never know personally, but would know via their writings. Sharing books, authors, works of art, and artists with new and old friends, with colleagues and students, is a lesson in friendship I practice to this day.

I find a wealth of virtuous friendships at my home, St. Norbert Abbey. As confreres, we share intellectual pursuits, mutual respect, collaboration in liturgical celebrations, and warm and inviting conversations at table. Together we believe God’s triune nature is an experience of mutuality. Therefore, as those created in the image and likeness of God, we enjoy a natural orientation toward being in mutual relationship with others. In our friendships we strive to mirror on earth what we believe is the very reflection of God’s own and true self. Today my professor is my colleague at St. Norbert College. I count him as one of the single most influential educators in my life. And I treasure him as a friend.

Paul Wadell, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College. Read his America magazine article, “Not Settling for Less,” which started as a presentation for The Conrad J. Kratz, O. Praem. Abbey Lecture Series at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality in 2014. He also has contributed to Abbey Magazinesee page 12 of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue for his thoughts on “A Ministry of Mercy.”

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., is a priest, artist, and teacher. He is an assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College. Read more about his varied ministries.

The Stations of the Cross: A Thoroughly Catholic Devotion

As seen in “The Compass”; reprinted with permission

By Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

 The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women, as portrayed at Our Lady of Lourdes, De Pere | Photo by Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.

The Eighth Station: Jesus meets the women, as portrayed at Our Lady of Lourdes, De Pere | Photo by Fr. Tim Shillcox, O. Praem.

The Stations of the Cross, one of our most beloved devotions, chronicles the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ and is a way for the faithful to literally walk with the Lord in prayerful gratitude, wonder, and awe.

Whereas history does not provide us with specific evidence of the very first visual (artistic) articulation of the Stations of the Cross, we might well imagine the origin of this popular devotion occurring as our ancestors in the faith walked along the very “way of the cross” in the streets and roads of Jerusalem and pondered in their hearts the great mystery of the passion and death of Jesus.

I like to imagine that perhaps it was Mary herself, in the company of the unnamed women and children of Jerusalem, the apostles and Simon of Cyrene with his sons, Alexander and Rufus, who, after the crucifixion, walked and rewalked the very steps they took in the company of Jesus on that first Good Friday. I wonder if they didn’t pause, periodically, to recall the memory of that very day and their great love for Jesus—and over time, others joined them along this Via Dolorosa, accompanying them with their own memories and prayers, sharing together a mutual love and affection for the presence of Jesus in their lives—yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Many of our most treasured religious and secular rites and rituals, customs, and traditions, have uncertain origins; but what we most certainly and assuredly know about the Stations of the Cross is that its origin is literally in every step of Jesus en route to the sacrifice upon the cross. The practice of ritually and artistically categorizing the footsteps of Jesus along the way to Calvary is equally obscure and its history is subject to great debate. But we are confident that our current 14 Stations of the Cross have evolved in tandem with the Church’s revelation of the presence of the living Christ in our midst, in our own here-and-now.

The placement in our churches of 14 visual articulations of those final hours in the life of Jesus inclines us to recognize and remember an essential aspect of our Christian faith; namely, that our salvation is linked to the suffering of Christ who, even as he bore the torment of hostility and fear of those who hoped to eradicate his presence on earth, he persevered toward God’s divine will with nobility and courage, with tenderness toward the most marginalized and hopeful reliance on the emerging strength of others.

The placement of 14 images of the last hours of the life of Jesus in (or upon the grounds) of a church or a chapel allows us to sense the magnitude of this sacred narrative and to discern its ongoing relevance in our lives. Without these visual cues, these sacred works of art, we are impoverished and risk forgetting the immensity of God’s great love for the world.

That there are five traditional Stations of the Cross that depict instances not recorded in sacred Scripture (there is, in fact, no scriptural record of Jesus falling three times along the route to Calvary nor are there exact passages citing the meeting of Jesus with his mother or Veronica) is not a worrisome matter for a devout and sincere Catholic. Rather, those particular stations reveal the extent of the Christian imagination and how it is rooted in the art of logical, poetic, and compassionate inference.

The inclusion of three stations, wherein Jesus falls along the way, reveals many things that we know to be true: the crushing weight of life and all its complexities can cause all of us to stumble along the way and we then rely on others (like Simon) to assist us. The Catholic imagination delights in recognizing how our journey in life is intimately known to Jesus.

That we believe Jesus met Mary along the way to Calvary feels only natural to the believing imagination as we know, from sacred Scripture, she is there later at the foot of the cross; would not any of our own mothers demure from accompanying us along our own way of the cross? Mary’s presence reveals what we know to be true among women who are full of grace: they walk with us and for us, even when we believe we can’t see them.

Of course, Veronica acts as a counterpoint to Simon; as Simon was ordered to assist Jesus, we have a family legend that recalls the power and beauty of freely and naturally offering one’s assistance to someone in need. Veronica recalls for us a beautiful truth; we have all, at one time or another, enjoyed the sweet relief of someone freely and wonderfully coming to our aid, comforting us with a moment of surprising relief.

During the season of Lent, the church invites us to enter more mindfully into the Passion of Jesus, to set aside a bit of time wherein we can more fully recall the courage and conviction of our Lord’s love of us, particularly as this was made manifest on that first Good Friday.

The Stations of the Cross that we find in our cathedral and local churches, act as catalysts to remember the strength and dignity, the resolve and determination, the complete and overwhelming goodness of Jesus, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Whenever we actively pray the Stations of the Cross, either alone or in the company of fellow believers, we extend a great legacy and tradition of the Church, linking our prayers and footsteps with the very prayers and footsteps of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, the apostles and disciples, the saints and the martyrs, and countless generations of faith-filled men, women, and children.

Fr. Neilson is assistant professor of art at St. Norbert College. Learn more about the Stations of the Cross as a popular devotion in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Abbey Magazine (pages 7-10).

More opportunities to celebrate the sacred season of Lent at St. Norbert Abbey »

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Priest-Artist-Teacher Finds Classroom “A Sacred Place”

Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

Ask Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem., when he knew he wanted to be a priest and he will tell you there was no moment “of great revelation or a moment of absolute clarity.” Nevertheless, the call was always there.

He grew up in an extended family that included two uncles who were Jesuit priests. The idea of a religious vocation was “gently promoted and encouraged as a viable opportunity for young men in general, and for me in particular.”

Still, Fr. Neilson’s love for Church is more easily pinpointed than the awareness of priest as a possible life option. Commitments to both evolved from his sensitivity to the visual arts. He loved the color and the beauty within the church environment; he found the aesthetics thrilling and enriching. Such a milieu encouraged Fr. Neilson’s authenticity as a person and drew him toward religious life.

His first awareness of doctrinal truth came through the visual arts. “I knew what ‘light from true light’ meant seeing it filtered through glass, seeing it dramatically understood through architecture that valued the way light played on surfaces and on people, and to see, to truly feel this, ‘one God from one God.’ ” Through such revelation of creedal truth he became a believer.

Fr. Neilson then recognized “priest” as custodian of such an environment. “I thought, ‘That would be a job I would like,’ to be the curator for this beauty.” The aesthetic and spiritual attraction to Church and his own predisposition toward the arts also aroused his interest in teaching. Coming from a family of educators, “it all worked in this very sort of strange mysterious way to reveal God’s truth.”

Born in Springfield, Illinois, Fr. Neilson moved to Chicago when he was seven and to Indianapolis when he was 14. He returned to Chicago to teach fourth grade as a volunteer in the Amate House program before pursuing religious life, and graduated summa cum laude in art education from St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, in 1988.

But with his Jesuit affiliations, why the Norbertines? He explored several religious orders but found the Norbertines especially welcoming and affirming of his previous role as teacher. Fr. Gene Gries, O. Praem., then St. Norbert Abbey’s vocations director, visited Fr. Neilson’s fourth grade classroom, joined him in the cafeteria, and—an educator himself—talked teaching strategies with his recruit. Fr. Neilson’s reaction: “If anybody else is like that in this organization, I want to join them.”

A visit to the abbey reinforced that first impression: “This is a wellspring of interesting and talented people.” He entered in 1985 and was ordained in 1993.

Admission to the order brought a heightened sense of responsibility and accountability. He wanted to do well—to not only to express his gratitude to the order, but also build on the foundation the order represented.

Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.
Priest-artist-teacher Fr. James Neilson, O. Praem.

There were challenges. Nonetheless, “I think the Lord has been extremely generous in cultivating authentic vocation by allowing me to go to art school.” Prior to priestly ordination he earned a master’s degree in divinity, and after ordination he completed his master’s degree in fine arts. Today, he teaches art at St. Norbert College.

“Priest as artist” might be a combination some find mystifying. Within the order, however, the mix follows from the question, “ ‘What is it that gives you life and what can you then return to the Church?’ This is a very Norbertine and very inclusive view of how to be Church and how to celebrate the presence of Christ in the world. Beauty and its understanding—intellectually and spiritually—is a way of doing that.” For Fr. Neilson, practicing the visual arts is both prayer and “catalyst for discerning God’s will.” His combined role of priest, artist, and teacher “is a tripartite vocation—one informs the other. I can’t be one without the other.” The order not only allows such individual expression, but also “encourages us to cultivate the gifts God has given us.”

Fr. Stephen Rossey, O. Praem., a Norbertine mentor who is also an artist, aided Fr. Neilson’s discernment process. A kindred, like-minded spirit, Fr. Rossey was a guide, wisdom figure, and companion on the younger priest’s journey. “[Fr. Rossey] made a huge difference in both my spiritual life and my personal aesthetic. That’s been one of the great gifts of the community, knowing someone like Steve who has been so powerfully influential to me. And I think religious life would be diminished if that possibility [mentorships] were unavailable.”

While art as the essence of his ministry is a given, it is not necessarily in doing or making art that Fr. Neilson is most fulfilled. He has a studio at the abbey but spends little time there. He is at his best in the classroom: “a sacred place where you can experience the divine and the holy. I feel I am as much a priest in the classroom as I am in the church… Christ had roles as a teacher; I feel I am following the footsteps of the person I most admire.”

Within his Norbertine membership, friendship and collegiality score high on the list of pluses. But life within community is not without its challenges. “With any relationship you have, you have to really work at it. It is very easy to let that slide, to dedicate yourself to the institution rather than your family. That is a constant struggle to me.”

So, also, is the desire and need to maintain community. “It’s a precious balancing act between community, which I know is vital, and the demands of apostolate. With the situation of the priesthood today, we are overwhelmed with wonderful opportunities and needs. There is always something to be done for the many within the Church and we can’t always be present as often or to as many as we’d like. It’s a dilemma—a pull that I grapple with every day.”

His abbey affiliation, however, is affirming. People let him know that he is missed, a reminder he needs to review his priorities. “You need to know that you count and that you are needed.”

Within the community, Fr. Neilson enjoys hearing the stories of his confreres and being inspired by their own journeys and talents. He has enjoyed the community’s generosity in supporting the development of his own interests. “The best word to describe the order for me is ‘generosity.’ The order has commissioned me to take seriously my studies for the sake of the order and the Church prizing the order’s rich legacy of teaching.”

Fr. Neilson consciously strives to share his love of art and the Church with others. “I am anxious to perpetuate the artistic legacy of the believing community just as a custodian or a curator might.” It is why he teaches: “so I can preserve and extend the beauty and truth of the faith. I don’t want that legacy to be lost.”