Msgr. O’Connell: ‘Strike while the spirit is hot”

This past summer, I had a number of grace-filled moments in which my eyes and heart were opened a little bit more to the movement of the Holy Spirit.

I prayed with some of our middle and high school youth at Totus Tuus, our weeklong summer vocational camp. And praying with our seminarians and college students who were involved in our Duc In Altum program, I was able to see and hear firsthand how the Holy Spirit was drawing these young hearts to Jesus.

I was leading our youth at boys’ Totus Tuus this summer and we were praying with the story of blind Bartimaeus (Lk 18:35-43). One of the campers shared with all of us that in prayer he realized, in a new way, that he was made in God’s image and likeness.

I asked how this made him feel and he said, “Happy.” I told him to close his eyes and thank God for this new insight he received in prayer. Another camper shared that he realized God was carrying him in his hands and that everything was going to be alright. 

These are two simple examples of how our young people encountered the presence of God when praying with the Scriptures as a group this summer.

In July, we took three buses of young people and adult leaders to the Steubenville Youth Conference in St. Paul. Again, my eyes and heart were opened a little bit more to the movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our young people.

On our way home from the conference, a number of our youth shared with their peers how they had heard the voice of Jesus speak to their hearts that weekend and how they felt the warmth and abundant love of the Holy Spirit being poured over them.

A number of our young people stepped out in faith when the priest chaplain, Father Agustino Torres, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, invited them to run to the front of the stage if they have thought about being a religious sister, brother or priest. Many of our young people rushed the stage with fervor and joy. To see them was truly a grace-filled moment for me. My heart was truly consoled by the Lord’s presence.

On our way back, several of our young people pulled me aside and said, “Father Mark, when is the next seminary live-in weekend? I really want to go. I felt Jesus in my heart this weekend and the idea surfaced about being a priest.”

When they mentioned this, I could see joy-filled tears welling up in their eyes as they shared this desire rising in their hearts with me. I knew they had experienced the Lord and this desire came from him.

For some of them this was the first time they felt the nudging of the Holy Spirit — the voice of Jesus in their hearts, nudging them to consider priesthood. I asked them what grade they were going to be in this coming fall. They told me ninth grade.

My initial reaction was to say to them, “Call me in two or three years, when you are a junior or senior.” As a vocation director, it has been my custom to only take 11th and 12th graders to the seminary live-in weekend, although in the past I have taken several sophomores on a case-by-case basis.

The more my eyes and heart were open to these grace-filled encounters these young people were having this summer, the more I prayed about opening the live-in weekends to freshmen and sophomores, too. 

I could hear the voice of the late Msgr. William O’Connell saying to me, “Strike when the Spirit’s hot, Fr. Mark.”

These young people have encountered in a real way the presence of Jesus, who is inviting them to pray about priesthood and religious life. This time, I didn’t have the heart to say to them, “Wait! And I will call you in two years,” as I have done in the past. 

My decision was affirmed for me as I read a recent study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Surveying the 481 men ordained to the priesthood in 2019, the CARA study shows that the average age when they first considered a vocation to priesthood was 15 and 16 (typically freshman and sophomores). 

In the past, I have taken three to five young men with me for the Immaculate Heart of Mary live-in weekend. However, this November, by opening the door to freshmen and sophomores, our numbers have almost tripled.

As we continue to build a culture of vocations in our families and in our parishes, it is important to note that the CARA study also highlighted that “three in four (75 percent) responding ordinands participated in eucharistic adoration on a regular basis before entering the seminary.

“More than seven in 10 (73 percent) responding ordinands prayed the rosary, almost half (47 percent) attended prayer group/Bible study, two in five (38 percent) participated in high school retreats or in Lectio Divina (36 percent), and three in 10 participated in college retreats (30 percent).”

My eyes have been opened “a little more” by watching young people experience Jesus in prayer and then acting to support and encourage them to explore what they have experienced. Clearly, the Lord is speaking to large numbers of young men as they spend time with him in adoration. 

Let’s continue to be attentive to what the Lord is doing and celebrate and encourage what happens when one’s eyes and heart are opened a little more.

Fr. Mark McCormick, vocations director, driving a van of students to look at seminary life in 2018. (Front row) Joe Hanson, who now a seminarian. (Second row l-r) Thomas Dillon and Joey Fritz. (Back row) Branko Fistrovic. (File photo)