No Matter What, He Always "Acts Like a Priest"

University President Speaks on Divine Providence

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By Father David M. O’Connell, CM

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 3, 2009 ( I wanted to be a priest for as long as I can remember. I think it was my pastor’s visits to my dying grandmother, in particular, that first attracted me.

He was so kind to her and so gentle. He brought her holy Communion and what we called then the sacrament of “extreme unction” during her final illness.

The whole aura surrounding his visits, the mysterious sound of the Latin prayers, and the comfort that he brought her and my family were things that fascinated me.

I went to Catholic school and became an altar boy at an early age — all these experiences strengthened my desire to become a priest.

Often times, I tell people that I heard “the call” on a bus. I say that because I first became acquainted with the Vincentians through some vocation literature left on a bus seat that I found one day.

I had never heard of the Vincentians (Congregation of the Mission) before, or of St. Vincent de Paul, their founder. I liked what I read; I made a visit to the seminary and I was hooked!

My seminary years were happy ones. I loved to study and truly enjoyed the company of the other seminarians and priests.

I had good parents and three brothers of my own, so this was really a multiplication of my own family! And they were wonderful, happy and holy priests who taught us.

I loved the Mass and prayers we said together, the Order of Day, the work and the fun we had.

From the time I entered until the day I was ordained, the seminary truly formed me by exposing me to the very best education and the very best role models in the priesthood: Vincentians who were “other Christs” by following the path of St. Vincent de Paul.

God’s plan

I do not recall any specific ambition as I prepared for ordination, although my superiors seemed to be moving me in the direction of further studies and eventual teaching.

St. Vincent spoke so often to the confreres about “Divine Providence” and I guess I just left it up to the Lord.

To be perfectly honest, I have never asked for any assignment in these more than 27 years of priesthood, and I can truly say that I have always been happy in the work and ministry I have been given.

I surmised my superiors’ intentions accurately. My first assignment as a priest was teaching in an archdiocesan high school in suburban Philadelphia, 15 minutes from my parents’ front door!

I loved every minute! It was demanding work but I learned how to teach.

I still hear from many of the students I taught in the early ’80s — for some I witnessed their marriages, baptized their children, watched their families grow and, in some few cases, officiated at their funerals.

It was great to hear them call me “their priest.”

As a seminarian, an older priest once counseled me always to remain “a man of the Church.”

That phrase has stayed with me through doctoral studies in canon law, seminary teaching, chancery and tribunal work, university teaching and administration.

Going through formation and early priesthood at a time when the Church and attitudes within and outside the Church were changing so rapidly, even radically, I always tried to remain anchored in that wise priest’s advice.

Such an approach earned me the labels “conservative” or “traditional” among my fellow priests, but that never caused me much grief. I really did not care what people said. I still do not. Such words are cheap.

Fast forward to my present assignment as president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. I have served almost a dozen years here and, as with all my other assignments, I have been happy.

To be a priest

I think the common thread running through my life has been the celebration of the Eucharist, personal prayer, the love of family, the company and support of good priests, a clear sense of identity and purpose, the ability to preach and “be” a priest no matter where I have been or what I have been asked to do.

A faculty member once remarked about me, intending to be critical, “No matter what he does, he acts like a priest!” As though I would be anything else? As though I could be? I’ll take such criticism any day.

Last year, I had the privilege to host Pope Benedict XVI on our campus during his U.S. visit.

I had met him several times before and, although we did not have a great deal of private time together during his visit, he drew close to me as we rode in the elevator together and said, “I wish to thank you, Father, for what you have done here.”

I thanked him for his kindness, looked up to the heavens and said, “Take me now — it doesn’t get any better than this!”

How fortunate I have been! How blessed to share in Christ’s priesthood!

I thank God every day for my old pastor, for that bus ride and for all that has happened since! Ad multos annos!

* * *

Vincentian Father David O’Connell has been president of The Catholic University of America since 1998. He is also a consultor for the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, and a national spokesperson on the implementation of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” in Catholic institutions. He was ordained a priest in 1982.

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