Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
(Second in a series of articles featuring the men who will be ordained priests.)
After he was ordained a transitional deacon last year, Deacon James O’Reilly went for a walk — a 62-mile walk — on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) in Spain.
“It was very powerful,” Deacon O’Reilly said of the experience with members of his home parish, St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown. “My feet didn’t like it but my soul did.”
During that eight-day trek, he reflected on the people who have helped him during his life. He also came to terms with a tragedy in his life: a household fire when he was 2-years-old during which he suffered third degree burns to the back of his legs, as well as severe burns to part of his face and forehead.
“For a while, that part of my life was very much hidden,” Deacon O’Reilly, 28, said. “A lot of people didn’t know that.”
He attributes the grace of ordination to the diaconate and the intercession of St. James in giving him the courage to work with a Christian trauma specialist in order to work “in that area of my life.” He also expressed gratitude to the seminary and others for their support as he dealt with that trauma which he said “has a funny way of showing itself years later.”
“Now that I’ve confronted that giant in my life, I can minister to people better in their brokenness because I’ve dealt with mine,” Deacon O’Reilly said. “This year there were a lot of dots that were connected; I felt like a much more integrated person.”
As he searched his soul regarding the accident, he asked himself: “How is this going to fit into my priesthood? How am I going to use this? Is it unnecessary? Or can I use it?” He concluded he could.
Deacon O’Reilly will be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Richmond by Bishop Barry C. Knestout, Saturday, June 2, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.
“As a priest you not only have to know yourself, but you must be able to use all your gifts and talents — even using your crosses, if necessary,” he said. “A lot of people in their brokenness can open up to me; I feel like I’ve walked in their shoes, but not that I know everything (they’ve been through).”
Because his father, Thomas, was an F-15 fighter pilot in the Air Force, the family moved every three years. Deacon O’Reilly was born in North Carolina, lived in Yorktown twice, and in England and Alabama. Since 2012, he has lived in Baltimore, where he is completing his priestly formation at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.
“I was kind of always the token Catholic in public schools,” he said about growing up mostly in the South.
While some might see a negative in being uprooted, Deacon O’Reilly sees it as something he can use in his ministry.
“As members of the Church, we are pilgrims. There’s always a journey,” he said. “It gives me a broader scope of the Church having lived overseas, and in different states. That gave me a great love for evangelization and apologetics, and understanding why the Church teaches what she does.”
College, music and ministry
Deacon O’Reilly has been a musician since early elementary school. He wanted to play guitar; his mother, Teresa, a school teacher, wanted him to play piano. His mother prevailed.
In high school, he played the saxophone, which led him to enroll in Shenandoah University, where he majored in music performance at the school’s conservatory.
Upon arriving in Winchester, Deacon O’Reilly was surprised to learn the university, which is in the Diocese of Arlington, did not have Catholic campus ministry.
“I thought every college had it,” he recalled. “After six months, I thought maybe some other Catholics would do it; when they didn’t, I decided, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”
As a result of what the deacon termed a “collaborative effort” involving a lot of students, a priest from the Arlington Diocese, and some university faculty members, campus ministry became a reality.
“It’s nice that there is an official campus ministry there recognized by the Arlington Diocese,” he said. “I’m glad I was able to contribute what I did.”
In leading the Catholic campus ministry, Deacon O’Reilly said he “saw myself as a shepherd and my desire for priesthood was really growing. It was very good experience for pastoral leadership. I don’t want to be that guy who says, ‘OK, when is someone going to step up and do this?’ I want to do this.”
Divided, then decided
Prior to his senior year, Deacon O’Reilly spent the summer in Winchester discerning, working, and attending daily Mass.
“Going to Mass one night in panhandle West Virginia I was asking, ‘God, what do you want me to do with my life?’ That’s when I got this profound call to enter the seminary. I wrestled with it during the Mass, but I eventually said, ‘Yes,’” he said. “My whole body was tingling; it was a lot of consolation. I knew I was supposed to go to seminary.”
However, while priesthood was calling him, there was also the attraction of a career in music.
“I really looked up to my saxophone teacher and I kind of wanted to be him at some point, but I also very much wanted to be a priest. I felt divided,” the deacon said.
That teacher is Dr. Timothy Roberts, chair of the instrumental division of the conservatory.
“James was always very serious, a quiet leader. All the other kids would come to him for advice because of the respect they had for him. He carried self with class; he never said anything bad to anybody,” Roberts said. “What you saw is what you got. That’s how he earned respect. He was a class act in everything he did. And by the way, a great musician to go along with it.”
Roberts, who prepared Deacon O’Reilly to compete in an international saxophone competition in Dinant, Belgium, during his senior year, recalled his student doing fine, but not at the level the young man expected of himself.
“When he came back, I could tell he was disheartened,” the professor recalled. “It took a couple of months for me to realize he was not the same; he was not practicing as hard. He was disenfranchised with music when he came back (from Belgium).”
At the start of Deacon O’Reilly’s final semester, he told his teacher he wanted to serve the Lord.
“I told him, ‘James, we need to find a way; you have an immense talent and we need to find a way to harness that ability and talent you have to serve the Lord,’” Roberts said.
Deacon O’Reilly said he enjoyed the young artists’ events in which he competed, but was feeling “there’s something more I’m supposed to do.” That fall, he entered the seminary.
‘Be Simon of Cyrene’
As he finishes his preparation for ordination, Deacon O’Reilly is excited about priesthood and about service to God and the Church, especially young adults.
“I very much care about the future of the Church. I don’t want a church full of empty pews. I really care about my generation,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do with young adults. We are very spiritual; it’s a matter of directing that hunger for God — what (theologian Jesuit Father Karl) Rahner called ‘hard-wired for God.’ How do we direct that energy?”
Deacon O’Reilly said that when he took a “strength finder test,” he was strongest in the area of empathy.
“I was not surprised at all. I love talking with people. I look forward to hearing confessions, doing spiritual direction,” he said. “A lot of people need someone to journey with them. Life is tough, but sometimes we need to be the Simon of Cyrene and help people carry their crosses.”
Priesthood, music go hand in hand
Two religious medals represent who Deacon James O’Reilly is. One, from his grandmother, is of St. Cecelia, patron saint of Catholic music. The other, from his mother, Teresa, is of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests.
“Priesthood being my vocation and music being my avocation, they go hand in hand. They make me a full person,” he said.
That connection might be rooted in the first time Deacon O’Reilly thought about priesthood.
“I remember when I was 8-years-old, practicing piano and my paternal grandfather came over and said, ‘You know, you’d make a very good priest,’” he said. “That stuck with me. I was very, very close to my grandfather. I buried him several years ago. He was very supportive of my vocation. My first Mass will be for him.”
Deacon O’Reilly recognizes the role music will have in his ministry.
“Music is the universal language. It’s one of the ways to reach out to others,” he said. “I want to use that as a way to introduce people to Gospel.”
For the deacon, music is a form of evangelization.
“One of the pieces I play is ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ from ‘The Mission.’ In that movie, Father Gabriel was playing the oboe, using his talent, evangelizing people. I want to do that as a priest,” he said.
Father Mike Joly, pastor of St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown, who has known Deacon O’Reilly for 11 years, understands the deacon’s music-evangelization connection.
“The reed on his sax is his mouthpiece — he can speak, sing and pray through the sax. The Lord uses the sax as James’ bridge to the people,” the priest said, noting the deacon is a “wonderful preacher of the Word. Theologically, he is very intelligent.”
Deacon O’Reilly called Father Joly “a big influence on my life.”
“He got me involved in lot of the music ministry at the parish which led to youth ministry which led to being open to priesthood. He wrote a recommendation letter for me to the seminary,” he said. “He’ll be vesting me at ordination.”
One of the aspects of ministry Deacon O’Reilly enjoys is preparing and giving homilies.
“Giving homilies is very mystical, just going through the readings and saying, ‘God, what do you want me to tell your people?’ or turning on the news and asking, ‘How does the Gospel fit into this story?’” he said.
Prayer is central to his life and key in his homily preparation.
“I like a lot of meditative prayers. I’ll listen to meditative music on YouTube and pray the rosary,” he said. “I love adoration, which we have every morning at the seminary. I pray with the Scriptures.”
He added, “Putting a homily together is a very powerful experience.”