God and Country
Two Janesville boys devoted their lives to service—one with a gun, the other with a chalice.
(page 1 of 3)They laid a fallen soldier to rest on that sun-drenched summer afternoon. They celebrated his life and mourned his death, and his best friend gave the eulogy. A six-man honor guard took the ﬂag-draped casket out of the church, and the red, white, and blue ﬂew at half-staff throughout Mankato. Hundreds of people lined the procession route with hands over their hearts, and they played “Taps” at the cemetery and ﬁred guns in salute. But before all that, the brothers brought the casket into the church—the four surviving Fasnacht boys of Janesville, separated by 13 years but bonded by grief. They helped carry the cofﬁn, bearing their brother from the silver hearse into the sanctuary.
Twenty-ﬁve-year-old Michael John Fasnacht died where too many American soldiers die these days, in Iraq, on June 8, 2005, killed by a remote-controlled bomb. He was decorated: a Ranger, a basic-training honor graduate, ﬁrst in an ROTC platoon that included 44 cadets. He was a leader: a ﬁrst lieutenant in charge of more than 30 men in Iraq. And he was tough. But he didn’t have a need to prove it, which somehow made him even tougher. Mike looked tough, too. His brown hair, worn in perpetual bed-head style during his days at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton (JWP) High School, had been shaved off. His muscles rippled under his black Army T-shirt. In Iraq, after his death, they even named a gym after him—the Iron Mike Fitness Center. He was a recruiter’s fantasy, the epitome of a warrior.
Photo by Saverio Truglia
But their paths diverged. One Fasnacht boy joined the military, armed with a gun, pledged himself to his country. The other went to seminary, took up a chalice, pledged himself to God. You follow your calling.
Still, being a man of God doesn’t make the pain of death disappear. Yes, he believes in an afterlife. Yes, he believes Mike is in heaven. But Matt mourns like anyone else—like Mike’s young wife, his parents, his five remaining siblings. Even the priest has to live the rest of his life with a gaping hole in his heart.
Matt is sitting in the spacious courtyard at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, where he serves as the chaplain intern. He’s in his early thirties now. His black hair has a few wisps of gray, but he’s nearly as fit as when he wrestled, at 152 pounds, in high school. Only the clothes—all black, except for a conspicuous white collar—hint at the path Matt’s life has taken.
This is the guy who attended his first kegger in seventh grade. He hosted dozens of parties and was the life of countless more. He was the class clown—“Hero is Andrew Dice Clay, favorite pastime is traveling at night, plans to become a professional foosball player,” he penned in his senior yearbook. He chased girls and alcohol with equal intensity. But when he was alone, away from the craziness, he couldn’t find peace.
Now Matt is just months away from completing a six-year journey that has taken him from Janesville to Minneapolis, from Chicago to Rome. A ring adorns his right ring finger, symbolizing his marriage to the Catholic Church. Last year, he was ordained a deacon. This spring, Matt will be ordained a priest at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Winona.
Matt Fasnacht will become Father Matt. People look up to priests, in good times and bad—but especially during the bad times. When tragedy strikes they turn to priests for guidance. They’ll ask Father Matt how a good God could allow so much hurt. Matt will be expected to provide answers.
But now, as he sits on a bench in the St. Mary’s courtyard, he doesn’t have answers, just memories. Memories of Mike, the middle of seven children who idolized his older siblings and protected his younger ones.
The kid worked hard. At 15, he ran a roofing crew—a brutal job with long hours, short tempers, and dangers that included heights, slopes, and triple-digit temperatures. Mike barked orders to grown men, expecting them to do their job and chewing ass if they didn’t.
The kid had courage. Matt remembers when Mike was 13 and the family’s house started on fire when their parents were away. It began in the attic. Matt poked his head up into the room, seeing flames and smoke.
“Mike, you’re small, get up there,” he ordered.
The soldier and the priest. They seem like opposites. At the close of Mass, priests tell their congregation to “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.” Soldiers might bring peace to a region, but they don’t go there in peace. But think about the similarities, too. Both must operate on a higher moral plane, whether on a battlefield or in a confessional.
Increasingly, young men shun both professions. In recent years, the Army has had trouble finding enough recruits, and the priesthood no longer attracts enough men to supply every parish with a full-time priest. The Winona diocese went four years without ordaining a priest, a streak that was broken in 2006 when two made their promises. This year, Matt will be the lone seminarian ordained there.
Mike and Matt grew up in the kind of home the phrase good Catholic family was invented for. In the living room, family portraits hang next to paintings of Jesus. Marny Fasnacht kept her seven children in clean clothes and fed them well. Ray Fasnacht worked at the Faribault post office.