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From TV producer to presider

  • Written by Tom Jozwik, Special to your Catholic Herald
  • Category: Vocations

A producer, one might say, is not unlike a parish priest organizing a liturgy for a special occasion.Tony-Dehon-lectureTony Budnick, center with tie and glasses, listens intently along with about 100 fellow seminarians to a reflection titled “Welcoming the Holy Spirit,” delivered by Sacred Heart Fr. Jan de Jong, president-rector of Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners. Fr. de Jong delivered the reflection as part of a daylong Day of Recollection held at Sacred Heart School of Theology on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011. (Submitted photo courtesy Sacred Heart School of Theology)

Before enrolling at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Hales Corners, Tony Budnick spent more than a decade as a television producer – which he recently defined as “someone responsible for coordination and execution” and ever attentive to detail, someone who must “have a vision of what the product’s going to look like ‘on the air.’”

While quick to emphasize the liturgy’s sacred nature – something absent from the typical TV production – Budnick noted that Mass celebrated in a parish church, like a production based in a studio, includes a number of “elements.” As does a producer, a presider works with many others: lectors, musicians, ushers, acolytes. On occasions like the Easter Vigil, the presider, again in common with the producer, will be particularly concerned with such features as lighting.

Budnick, 40, talked to your Catholic Herald by telephone during Christmas week from his home in Knoxville, Tenn. The third-year seminarian, studying to be a priest for the Diocese of Knoxville – where Catholics represent only about 3 percent of the population – spoke of his youth, his broadcasting background and his transition from practicing producer to aspiring clergyman. If all goes according to plan, Budnick will complete his studies at the Hales Corners seminary and be ordained to the priesthood in 2014.

The elder of two children, Budnick was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a youngster he wanted to be either a priest or a pilot.

“I could be closer to God that way,” he cheerfully explained.

Editing his high school yearbook whetted his appetite for journalism and Budnick studied broadcasting at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids.

He was a DJ, reporter and anchor prior to becoming a producer, after concluding that his primary “strength was in budgeting, organization, preplanning.” Budnick worked for NPR and PBS stations, as well as NBC and CBS television affiliates. He moved from Michigan to Knoxville in 1997. 

Producing music and sports features sometimes required Budnick to double as an interviewer at events to which his station was unable to divert a large number of employees. His interview subjects included country singers Dolly Parton, Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift and members of Sugarland. Budnick also stood on the other side of the microphone from football’s Peyton Manning, Chad Pennington and Phil Fulmer and from basketball coaches Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt. He interviewed a Miss America, whose name he’s forgotten, and was involved in a group Q-and-A session with Gen. Colin Powell.

Budnick found the celebrities he encountered to be normal people (“They put on their pants the same way I do”) who tended to treat interviewers respectfully.

“They all have a story to tell,” Budnick noted.Tony-BudnickTony Budnick

Part of a priest’s job, he continued, establishing another parallel, is “listening to people’s stories and helping them through the troubles of their life.”

Budnick had considered the priesthood “at different times in my life,” yet became estranged from the institutional church for a decade while “never really losing my faith.” In Knoxville, he recalled, “I was enjoying my career” despite having to work in 70- to 80-hour weeks. Others shared their sense “that something was missing in my life and I agreed.”

His friend, Rick Russo, sports director at CBS-TV affiliate WVLT, repeatedly invited Budnick to visit his church, St. Albert the Great. In 2002, Budnick accepted Russo’s invitation – and was delighted to find “an all-are-welcome mentality” in which pastor Fr. Chris Michelson preached about listening to God’s call. Budnick became a lector and joined in peace and justice activities at St. Albert.

Parish involvement eventually led him – after he’d read the book “The Collar,” set at the Hales Corners seminary – to Sacred Heart. One of the youngest students at the seminary geared to men pursuing

the priesthood as a second career, Budnick finds that Sacred

Heart is “very challenging”

academically, while providing “a really supportive atmosphere that is true to real life.”

Budnick has been interning at St. Francis of Assisi in inner-city Milwaukee, where he is involved in the parish’s RCIA program, and an initiative to assist people with their taxes. He said he’s “developed a wonderful set of friends” at St. Francis, in a welcoming atmosphere like the one he found at St. Albert. He added that Capuchin Fr. Michael Bertram, the St. Francis pastor, is similar to Knoxville’s Fr. Michelson; both priests are pastoral and “very, very inspirational,” skilled in dealing with people, good liturgists.

“If I could (only) clone them and take on all of their traits,” Budnick mused.

Budnick looks forward to being instructed in Sacred Heart’s reputedly “excellent preaching program” as his studies continue. He’s done videotaping in conjunction with his RCIA efforts and has edited video pieces for his diocese – “a great opportunity to use the skills that I have.”

Budnick is an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction. Despite his sports involvement as a producer, he is far from a rabid fan. He “works out” several times a week.

“I find that aids a ton in maintaining a healthy stress level,” he said.

Budnick’s ideal vacation would involve traveling aboard a cruise ship – with a virtually limitless amount of time to read. He used to take such vacations, but his current schedule (and, presumably, budget) doesn’t accommodate that opportunity.

“I miss it terribly,” he remarked. He visits family in North Carolina several times a year.

In addition to “my pastors and bishop (Richard Stika),” Budnick cited his sister and brother-in-law, Theresa and Shawn Bauer; his aunt and uncle, Marlene and Chuck Budnik, who spell their surname a bit differently than the seminarian spells his; and “very dear friends” and former Milwaukeeans, Fred and Linda Coats, as having been extremely influential “regarding my call to priesthood and my life in general.”

Sometimes a layperson will thank him for being a seminarian, Budnick said. When that happens, Budnick will in turn thank the well-wisher for pursuing his or her own vocation. “I’m no more special than you are,” he explained. “We are all just trying to do our best in listening to God’s call in our life.”

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