As a youngster at St. Charles Borromeo School, Jason Brauninger took part in a special day in which students could attend classes in the career garb of their choice.
Brauninger dressed up as a priest, donning a black shirt and clerical collar lent to him by his parochial vicar, Father Paul Hart.
“I had the whole get-up,” recalled Brauninger, now 30 and in his seventh year of formation in the 11-year road to Jesuit priesthood. “From that point on, I think wanted to be a priest, but of course at the time, I had no idea what that meant.”
Currently assigned to the Jesuit community headquartered at Regis University in Denver, Brauninger spends part of his week in a setting that often surprises the Catholics and non-Catholics in his midst: in the emergency department of St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, Colo.
“It’s an odd career for a priest, because you usually think of somebody in a parish or in a monastery; you don’t think of a priest as someone who works out in the world,” said Brauninger, who earned his nursing degree in 2010. “It’s hard for some people to comprehend someone (in the working world) living out vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. It’s so counter-cultural. So it’s good for me to be able to explain it, that this life is possible and worth living.”
Family, priestly role models
Raised in St. Rose as the third of Claire and Barry Brauninger’s four children, Brauninger credits his family for being the first incubator of his priestly vocation.
“They brought us up in the Catholic faith, and that’s how it was until you could choose on your own,” said Brauninger, who was an altar server, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a member of St. Charles Borromeo’s “Fountain of Youth” group.
Throughout his years at the Destrehan parish, Brauninger looked to the “lively” example of the priesthood modeled by Father Hart.
“He got us involved in the Mass and would always come up and talk to us. He made going to church fun,” said Brauninger, describing how the priest would send forth his young congregants from school Masses with a special chant.
Lure of red trucks and sirens
Despite the strong pull of ecclesiastical life, something else was pulling Brauninger even harder during his teenage and early adult years. At 14, he began training as a “junior fireman” for the St. Rose Volunteer Fire Department.
“As a kid I wanted to be a priest, but in my teenage years I found out about firefighting and girls,” chuckled Brauninger, whose St. Rose neighbor, a fire department lieutenant, invited him to tour the local firehouse.
“I walked in and I immediately loved it,” he said. “Most of it was the excitement of the big red trucks and the sirens. That’s what drew me to it, and I ended up staying with it.”
Initially only permitted to train with the fire crew and accompany his elders on calls, Brauninger began fighting fires as soon as he was legally able – at age 18, his senior year at St. Charles Catholic High. He worked as a fireman during summer breaks from LSU and Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Ky., the school to which Brauninger transferred as a sophomore because of its outstanding program in Fire Science Engineering and Technology.
“My goal was to specialize in fire, arson and explosion investigations,” said Brauninger, who also earned his certification as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and worked for an ambulance service during his years in Kentucky.
Convinced that firefighting would be his life’s work, Brauninger sensed a shift in his vocational direction as a college senior. His peers at EKU’s Catholic parish kept telling him what a great priest he would make.
“I kept getting this calling of, ‘Why don’t you try to be a priest?’ And I would answer, ‘I’m happy to be a fireman, Lord! Lord, I need a sign from you if I’m gonna do this.’”
When his parish priest, who had no idea Brauninger was wrestling with his future, also pulled him aside to urge him to consider the priesthood, he got what he calls his “Hey, stupid!” sign.
“After a lot of nagging from God I said, ‘I’ll give it a try if you just leave me alone,’” Brauninger said. “So that’s what I did.”
At home with the Jesuits
Not wanting to become a parish-based diocesan priest, Brauninger began researching religious orders that had ministries in firefighting and health care. He struck out on the firefighting front but was excited to learn that many Jesuit seminarians and priests were engaged in health professions.
“I found the Jesuits on the Internet and I immediately felt comfortable,” he said. “The Jesuits allow you to use your gifts and your talents, but they are also clear that they’re going to challenge you.”
Brauninger met his first Jesuit priest – Father Marvin Kitten, then-vocation director for the Jesuits’ New Orleans Province in Grand Coteau – and signed up for the next discernment retreat. In August 2005, after fighting his final fire in St. Rose and a brief stint as a Boys Hope New Orleans house parent, he entered St. Charles College’s Jesuit Novitiate in Grand Coteau. In 2007, he attained the status of scholastic after professing perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Following a three-year assignment at St. Louis University to study philosophy and theology, and earn his R.N. in an accelerated program, Brauninger was sent to the Jesuits’ Denver community of 11 priests and found a position as a telemetry nurse in the cardiac unit of St. Anthony Hospital. Last June, with the permission of his Jesuit superiors, the EMT-trained scholastic applied for – and attained – his “dream” ministry: working the graveyard shift in St. Anthony’s emergency department.
There in times of crisis
“I find Christ easily in the sick and injured,” said Brauninger, recalling Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s observation of how Christ sometimes is found in “the disguised.”
“(In the hospital) we see people during a time of great distress, and that’s who Christ came to serve. That’s the Christ you see in the Gospel – he is always with the sick,” he said. “The ministry we strive to carry on is the healing ministry of Christ, and I feel that’s what I do in health care.”
Without prayer and faith in God, Brauninger said he probably would not be able to function amid the suffering that unfolds before him every day in the ER, such as the recent death of a 6-week-old baby.
He makes himself available to his coworkers when they ask for spiritual support and is also bolstered by the examen, the twice-a-day regimen of Ignatian prayer in which the faithful express gratitude for the day’s gifts, ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, listen for Christ’s teachings and talk to Jesus.
“I can do everything perfectly – from pushing the right medications to perfect CPR – but it’s not my call,” said Brauninger said. “If God wants that person to go, that’s it. Once you come to that realization, it’s a lot more freeing.”
Brauninger also spends part of his week teaching accelerated nursing students as an affiliate faculty member at St. Regis. He said his medical training was called on during two recent mission trips – two weeks in Nepal facilitating the medical check-ups of more than 2,000 people; and a fact-finding mission to Haiti, for a project that hopes to add beds to a hospital in Gros Morne, three hours north of Port-au-Prince.
This fall he will ask his Jesuit superiors for permission to pursue the status of theologian and begin his three-year course of studies toward a master of divinity degree. His hoped-for ordination date is 2016.
“I look out of my window and I can see the Rocky Mountains,” said Brauninger, who spends his rare down time driving to scenic spots around the Mile High City. Although he relishes Denver’s 300 days of annual sunshine, he said there are some things only Louisiana can offer.
“I miss the food,” Brauninger said. “I miss jambalaya like no other.”
Brauninger recently wrote an account of his life as an ER nurse and Jesuit scholastic. His article, “Finding God in the Midst of Chaos,” can be found at www.thejesuitpost.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.