By Kristen Hannum

Of the Sentinel

MILWAUKIE - Father Michael Johnston felt called to the priesthood even before he converted to Catholicism.

'I felt strongly before I went through RCIA that this was what God had in store for me,' says Father Johnston, 38, who was ordained at St. Mary Cathedral in July.

A slight man who mixes a balanced, dignified attitude with a friendly style, Father Johnston assisted last summer at St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie. He's now back in Rome, studying at the Pontifical University of Saint Anselmo.

Judy Groebner, parish secretary at St. John the Baptist, says Father Johnston is patient, with a good sense of humor. 'We kid him about his baptism by fire here,' she says. 'He had everything happen that could possibly happen during his first couple weeks.'

Those weeks were without the parish's pastor, Father Bruce Brown, who was on vacation. From funerals to St. Vincent de Paul Society clients dropping by at odd hours of the night, Father Johnston scrambled to minister to the 5,000-member congregation.

Not that he didn't slip up here and there.

He had to sheepishly tell Groebner and other staff members that he'd set off the ear-splitting, lights-flashing alarm when he returned to the rectory after a dinner on his fourth or fifth night here. He'd been sure that the police would shoot him as the intruder, for he was dressed in 'civvies' and didn't look much like a priest.

'We've exposed him to everything,' Groebner says with a laugh.

Father Johnston first began attending Catholic Mass with a girlfriend, Sharon Flanagan, when he was a student at Willamette University.

'He took to Catholicism right away,' says Father Johnston's mother, Pearl Kiser, who raised her two sons in Pentecostal, evangelical and Christian churches in and near Beaver, south of Tillamook.

The young couple's discussions of marriage ended when Flanagan was killed in a car accident in El Salvador in her junior year of college.

Her death left Father Johnston with many questions, but the Flanagan family's great Catholic faith also showed him many answers.

'I've never forgotten her,' says Father Johnston. 'I always pray for Sharon. She didn't die so I could become a priest, but she did call me to the priesthood.'

After working several years at U.S. Bancorp, Father Johnston felt he knew for certain what he wanted and what God wanted from him.

He went through the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults (RCIA, the process by which baptized and unbaptized adults come into Communion with the Catholic Church) in 1988 at St. Mary Cathedral, talking with Father David Gutmann about his vocation.

Since then, events have moved so fast that a man less sure of himself might have faltered.

He was welcomed into the church in 1988 and was at Mount Angel Seminary the next year. Former Portland Archbishop William Levada, now Archbishop of San Francisco, gave him the opportunity to continue his studies at either at Mount Angel or in Rome.

After summer's study of Italian at Portland State University, Father Johnston was on a flight to the Eternal City.

By Christmas 1991, he was serving Mass for the Holy Father in St. Peter's Basilica.

'I was in shock at how quickly things were progressing with my vocation,' he says. 'Although now it all seems very natural.'

Father Johnston says that perhaps his age - he was 33 when he went to Rome - helped him there. Although no age is typical at Mount Angel, most of the seminarians at the North American College in Vatican City are younger.

'I wouldn't have been ready in my early 20s,' Father Johnston says. 'It's an impressive place. You live next door to the pope, and there are archbishops and bishops coming to the college all the time. Younger people sometimes get wrapped up in the externals. I think it was easier for me to concentrate on internal formation and preparation.'

Kiser, who at the coast, witnessed her son's ordination to the diaconate at St. Peter's.

'I enjoyed it because Michael was there, but Rome was overwhelming,' she says.

Kiser is philosophical about her son's decision to become a priest. 'He was getting me ready for it for years,' she says. 'He told me that he really felt called to be a priest, to live an unselfish life, and to do something for good.'

Father Johnston's younger brother, Melvin, has wanted to learn more about the church since the ordination. Kiser says it would be fine with her if Melvin also converted.

Father Johnston returned to Oregon for a year during his studies in Rome to work at St. Vincent Parish in Salem.

St. John the Baptist staffer Norma McLeod has heard that parishioners and staff at St. Vincent's hope that Father Johnston will return to work there.

McLeod jokes that it might be a tug-of-war, because she and others at St. John's hope that Father Johnston will return to them. 'He's very capable and universally liked,' she says.

Groeber and St. John's bookkeeper Anna LaGood say that the seniors especially take to Father Johnston - even those who can be a bit cranky.

As for Father Johnston, so many of his 'firsts' came here that he says he'll always remember St. John's. They include hearing his first Sacrament of Reconciliation, his first anointing of the sick, and his first funeral.

'The hospitality and goodness of people has delighted me,' says Father Johnston. 'People are really good. I see it time and again.'

On the other hand, Father Johnston has found being called 'father' by 5,000 people and more somewhat disconcerting.

Wherever he goes, even the grocery store, there's someone there to call out, 'Hi Father!' to him.

He'll survive. Being a priest is a satisfying career, he says. 'Being able to share defining moments in people's lives is a real blessing.'

He's eager to finish this year of study in order to return to parish ministry.

Father Johnston found plenty of surprises in parish ministry at St. John's. 'You never know what's going to happen next - you have to be much more flexible.'

He didn't realize how much time it would take preparing his homilies. Fifty to 100 people attend Mass daily at St. John's, and Father Johnston says that since they make that commitment, so should he. He prepares a homily every day, while also thinking about what his Sunday homily will be.

'They taught us in seminary never to wait until Saturday to read the Sunday scriptures,' says Father Johnston. 'Instead, a priest should read it all week long, and incorporate it into the week. It takes effort.'

He has chosen to emphasize study of the sacraments because the pope has asked Catholics to focus on evangelization, and Father Johnston sees the sacraments being essential to that ministry.

'That's what drew me to the church,' he says. ''That's what people are connected with - baptism, confirmation, marriage - and we want to make sure they're meaningful and attractive.'