Located a little more than a mile east of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, the church of San Luigi dei Francesi houses a painting entitled “The Calling of St. Matthew” by Caravaggio.
The iconic piece of art depicts Matthew the tax collector on the left, hovering over a pile of coins as he counts them. On the right is Jesus, pointing at Matthew with his right hand in the same exact pose as God reaching out to humanity in Michelangelo’s famous imagery on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
During the spring semester of his sophomore year at the University of St. Thomas, a fun-loving, affable business entrepreneurship major walked into San Luigi dei Francesi’s Contarelli Chapel and spent a good, long while in front of “The Calling,” which he had studied in art history class.
“I saw myself in Matthew — still very much a sinner,” said Deacon Mike Selenski, now in his final year of theology studies at The Saint Paul Seminary. “I just felt Jesus tell me, ‘I know everything you’ve done. I know who you are, and I’m still calling you to a life with me.’
“That planted the seed.”
And to think Selenski was on this study-abroad trip for the purposes of “dinking around,” he says. “I just had some friends who wanted to do the program.”
Yet the seed planted during his days at St. Thomas grew into a journey where Selenski has grown stronger and stronger and gone deeper and deeper in his faith. The next step: ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis planned for the spring of 2022.
Even an introductory conversation with Selenski reveals that just about everything about him is big. His stature, his personality, even his mustache that would make Tom Selleck jealous. Perhaps that is why his fellow seminarians call him “Deacon Big Mike.”
Behind his booming laugh and an approachable demeanor, though, is Selenski’s penchant for always going bigger. After that trip to Rome, he started taking his faith more seriously. After some prodding from a friend, Selenski served as a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) – a Catholic outreach ministry on college campuses – missionary for six years. And after thoughtful discernment and years of seminary formation, he is now prepared to go “all in” as a priest.
“I would describe Deacon Mike as authentically joyful and deeply intentional,” said fellow transitional deacon John Utecht. “He will be a great priest because he is an example of how joyful a life lived for Christ can be.”
Selenski admittedly did not take religion seriously during his younger years.
But his parents did. Their Coon Rapids, Minnesota home had a dedicated prayer room. Both Selenski’s mother and father were actively involved at the Church of Saint Paul in nearby Ham Lake.
It was there that Selenski, the youngest of four boys, met Fr. Timothy Nolan. The late Saint Paul’s pastor was a frequent dinner guest of the Selenskis, including every year on St. Patrick’s Day.
And even though Mike did not embrace Catholicism as fully his own until college — starting that day in Rome — Fr. Nolan’s influence continued to intensify after the priest’s death earlier this year.
“He was always laughing,” Selenski said. “He was normal, he was social, he was jovial.”
So was Selenski as he dove into theology and philosophy courses at St. Thomas. Selenski had a secular job lined up after graduation, but the fourth phone call from his friend – herself a convert to Catholicism – finally convinced him to give FOCUS a try.
What followed paved the way for Selenski’s eventual entrance into The Saint Paul Seminary.
Five years as an on-campus missionary at Drake University, then Harvard. One more as a regional director. Mission trips to China, Russia, Peru, France, Italy and Ireland. Selenski believes his countless interactions with students from all different backgrounds prepared him for the priesthood’s pastoral responsibilities.
“I think the most instrumental part in my own vocational journey was the fact that [I was] reaching out and building relationships with young, struggling, college students who are just trying to find their way, and being able to be an instrument in their lives that could lead them to the Lord, and to lead them to happiness,” Selenski said. “There was nothing more joyful for me to do, and it just resonated with who I was.
“It opened up my mind and my heart to the idea of serving God’s kingdom through the priesthood, that I could see myself actually joyfully laying down my life and giving it to Him in a more radical way.”
Taking the plunge
So what draws a young man with the world at his fingertips to plan on a life of celibacy, simplicity and docility to his local bishop?
For “Deacon Big Mike,” maybe a better question is “who?”
“The short answer would be that I think that the Lord has called me to this life, that he’s made me to actually be a priest,” Selenski said. “And it took me years to really be open to that reality. … But as a young man who has been transformed by the Lord, and has fallen in love with the Church, I think I had to start asking the question, ‘Is God calling me to this life?’
“Eventually, I took the plunge.”
The plunge has included rigorous theological and philosophical study, pastoral training, spiritual growth and overall human development. It has also included a great sense of fraternity with Selenski’s fellow seminarians.
That was only strengthened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the seminary became its own self-contained bubble. A self-professed food junky, Selenski saw his cooking responsibilities increase in the seminary residence, located on the bluffs of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
“It actually strangely opened up a lot of opportunities to try to have fun in ways that you didn’t before,” Selenski said. “So we started utilizing the kitchen a lot more and experimenting with a lot of dinners. And it was a great gift to be able to have other brothers who you were kind of isolated with during that time.”
Selenski even dusted off his piano skills and formed a band with some fellow seminarians.
“When I think of Deacon Big Mike, the image of him prepping food in the kitchen for a big dinner, music blasting, him joyfully belting along, always comes to mind,” said seminarian Deacon Nathan Pacer from the Diocese of Rockford.
Among the favorite items on Selenski’s menu: carbonara, burgers and steaks. As for the tunes blaring in the background, Selenski says he will listen to “just about anything except rap.”
He’s also an avid sports fan, from fantasy football to cheering on the Minnesota Vikings.
Seminarian formators and professors will tell you they have seen countless different personalities and charisms translate into strong, holy priests. But those who know Selenski best point to his conviviality as a strength that will serve him and his parishioners well throughout the rest of his life.
“Deacon Big Mike is a gregarious, fun-loving child of God whose great joy comes from a deep love in Christ and spills over into the lives of all those that encounter him,” Pacer said. “What is most attractive about Mike’s personality is also what will make him a great priest; he’s unassuming, humble, a good listener, and engaging, all traits that lead others, even strangers, to feel at ease in his company.”
The same can be said about Selenski’s old friend and mentor, Fr. Nolan. Selenski served as the emcee at Nolan’s funeral Mass earlier this year.
The same day, he learned Fr. Nolan had left Selenski a gift: the priest’s Eucharistic chalice.
After ordination, Selenski plans to use the same chalice for every liturgy he celebrates.
“I realized how rare he was as a priest,” Selenski said. “Seeing the impact that he had on hundreds, if not thousands, of people was really moving for me as I’m entering my last year into information and about to be ordained a priest in May. And my prayer was really just like, ‘Lord … I hope someday to be a positive example and role model of a priest for other people … in the future.’”