Catholic Herald staff
“I didn’t trust God to call me to something that would give me joy. I felt as though I was the one who best knew where my treasure was.”
Fr. Patrick McConnell, parochial administrator for St. Peter the Fisherman Parish in Eagle River, wrote about his vocation as the “pearl of great price” in his bulletin message leading up to an Aug. 6 discernment event for young men.
With fellow priests from the diocese’s east deanery, Fr. McConnell hosted the gathering. The goal was to offer an opportunity for comfortable conversations about the priesthood. Six young men, aged 16 to 38, spent the afternoon with seven priests, Bishop James P. Powers, and seminarian Richard Rhinehart in prayer, discussion and fellowship.
Referring to the need for personal relationships with young men as they journey in faith, Fr. McConnell said, “They really don’t have many people to walk with them.” He was grateful for the bishop’s supportive presence and proud of his brother priests’ efforts and fraternity.
Asked afterward how many had signed up for the seminary, Fr. McConnell clarified, “That wasn’t my goal.” While certainly not afraid to challenge young men to consider the priesthood, he said the question should be about God’s will above all, not ours.
Speaking of the priesthood and discernment of God’s personal call in general, he said, “These are not stupid questions; these are actually healthy questions. Truth is, our young men aren’t having enough of these conversations.”
Fr. McConnell shared an observation he has made since his priestly ordination five years ago.
“There is a stereotype of priests as busy,” he said. He often hears, “Oh Father, you are so busy, such a busy man.”
He doesn’t discount that an effective priest is an active priest, but the perception scares young people; they see it in their own parents.
“Running themselves ragged” is not an inviting prospect, according to the young priest, who noted the examples of St. Pope John Paul II, who spent time enjoying nature, and pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who plays piano in his free time.
Fr. McConnell drew a parallel between marriage and the priesthood. When a person discerns marriage, it entails a marriage to a particular person. In a similar way, a man exploring a call to the priesthood discerns “a call within the call” – religious life or diocesan priesthood.
Referring to them as “the special ops,” Fr. McConnell said religious brothers and priests “discern the specific charism of the order on top of the priesthood. Promises are made first to the order before ordination. Their primary vocation is the charism,” and then specifically how it is lived out.
Fr. McConnell referred to diocesan priests as being “in the trenches.”
“Diocesan priesthood necessarily roots itself in parish life,” he added.
He noted the difference between religious living in community, and the reality that diocesan priests ordained for Superior often live alone.
“In a lot of dioceses, it’s very uncommon, but it is very much the reality in our diocese,” he commented.
He also spoke of the need to be open about that with young men discerning, and the maturity needed to live it out.
Of the 40-some priests ministering in the Diocese of Superior, only 20 have been ordained for the diocese. Of those, almost all are in fraternities which offer intentional fellowship for the men. By deanery or region, they gather monthly for prayer, sharing and socializing. And there are yearly events for all the priests within the diocese to come together, such as the annual retreat and clergy workshop.
Fr. McConnell also said that Bishop Powers is “very hands-on and present with the priests.”
When asked about the perceived shame attached to a man who leaves the seminary, Fr. McConnell emphasized, “Time in the seminary is not wasted.” He spoke of former seminarian friends who are living holy lives and have beautiful marriages and families.
“A big part of it they would attribute to their time in seminary,” he said.
The best way to approach a young man, he believes, is to clarify the goal: To help him seek out his straightest path to heaven and God’s will for him, not ours.
“Yes, there is a shortage of priests. Of course, it hurts when a young man discerns out, but that’s selfish on our part and not wanting what’s best for that man,” he added.
He concluded, “We need to encourage them to seek Christ and seek holiness. The only time a man should feel guilty is if he never did that.”
Statistically, of the men who feel called to enter seminary to discern priesthood, more will leave than will receive Holy Orders. In order to increase the number of priests being ordained for the diocese, the number of those open to and encouraged to discern needs to increase.
Often a young man is able to sense a possible calling because the concept of vocation — general and particular — has been fostered in his family. Fr. McConnell encourages parents, “First and foremost, teach your kids to pray.
“Teach your kids to have intentional lives of prayer and how to pray effectively – don’t just teach them to make time for prayer,” he suggested. Teach them “how you invest in your prayer life, what the types of prayer are, how to have a conversation with the Lord, and how to listen to him.”
Fr. McConnell’s second directive was virtue, masculine virtue. “Our world is trying to de-masculinize our boys,” he said. “You need to be a man to be a priest.”
He knows this might be controversial affirmation, but he strongly believes the priesthood is dependent upon masculine spirituality.
“A Day in the Life of a Superior Priest,” Fr. Samuel Schneider’s recent Youtube video, was mentioned as an example. It shows the needed virtue to center one’s life on Christ, to pour oneself out, and maintain balance, Fr. McConnell said.
He emphasized a priest’s driving desire should be “the total gift of self and radical need to provide” – seeing the Church as one’s bride.
“Young men need to have virtue to be able to do that,” he said.
The superior priest went one step further, speaking of the virtue of chastity. Living in a hyper-sexualized environment, young people can’t imagine a life of celibacy; chastity is hard enough for them to understand and value.
“Both married persons and priests are all called to chastity, lived in different ways,” he explained. “My celibacy is a gift for my ministry, not the foundation of it. It feeds it – the more I am a chaste man, the more I can commit to my ministry as a priest.”
Fr. McConnell admitted to wondering during his own discernment if the fact that he liked girls meant he wasn’t called to celibacy. For a lot of young men, he said, “That’s where they’re at, where the world tells their mind to go.”
But he doesn’t see any incongruity: “They don’t grasp the full gift of sexuality.” As a celibate priest, he feels called to the same total gift of himself as a sexual being, saying “It just manifests itself differently.” Contrary to the idea many have that celibacy is “to be suffered,” Fr. McConnell affirmed his sexuality is not sterile, but “fruitful and very, very fulfilling.” He agreed that, in principle, the chastity he is called to as a priest is no different than what a married couple is called to by living the Church’s teaching on uncontracepted marital love and parenthood – a total and fruitful gift of self.
Conceding that the priesthood does not inherently require celibacy, Fr. McConnell discounted the claim that allowing all priests to marry would solve vocation problems. He iterated the priesthood will never be without celibates.
“The history of the Church has always had celibates, and it will always have celibates in the priesthood. It’s not necessary, but it is a tremendous gift. One of the main purposes of celibacy is to point towards the intimacy of Heaven, the relationship we are all called to with God. We are men that bridge the gap.”
For Fr. McConnell, this confirms the importance of diocesan priests being on the front lines. He holds to the truth, taught to him in seminary, that a diocesan Catholic priest is called to minister to each and every person with the parochial boundary he is assigned to. He sees as his responsibility getting them all to heaven. Every day, “We go into the real world and try to bridge it to the Kingdom of God.”