Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
One of the most important things Deacon Kyle O’Connor learned during his sophomore year at William & Mary wasn’t in a textbook or from a class lecture. At the Duc in Altum (“Put out into the deep”) retreat for college men considering discernment of a vocation to the priesthood, Father Michael Boehling, diocesan vocations director, told him men could enter the seminary before finishing college.
“I kind of assumed that I had two and a half years to figure it out, but Father Mike informed me otherwise,” he said of their discussion in November 2010. “When I was talking to him, he mentioned the possibility of going beforehand, which I didn’t know was a thing.”
What the oldest of Steve and Mary O’Connor’s five children was “trying to figure out” was what had occurred a couple of months earlier.
“I was just at Mass one Sunday and I thought, ‘Well maybe I should be a priest.’ It seemed kind of like a random thought,” said the member of St. Andrew Parish, Roanoke. “It didn’t really strike me as significant at the time, but just over the next week or so it hung around a lot and kept popping back up.”
Deacon O’Connor talked about it with friends and with the campus ministry chaplain, Father John David Ramsey, who advised him to “pray about it and see where it takes you.” That led him to look into it further.
“The priesthood became less and less ‘Oh, that would be really scary,’ and more and more exciting,” he said.
Deacon O’Connor, 28, broke up with his girlfriend, whom he had been dating since freshman year, and attended the November retreat.
“That was a pretty intense discernment,” he recalled. “It felt kind of pressing. It was a pretty intense month when I felt that call.”
In fall 2011, Deacon O’Connor began studies and formation at the Theological College at the Catholic University of America. He also was a Basselin fellow, which involves two years of intensive studies in philosophy and a year of post-graduate studies leading to a graduate degree.
Father Ramsey noted that Deacon O’Connor was the first seminarian from Richmond “in decades” to be part of that program.
“It is academically rigorous and quite a distinction to be accepted,” he said of the Basselin fellowship.
Following completion of his college seminary studies, the diocese sent Deacon O’Connor to the prestigious Pontifical North American College (NAC) in Rome to study theology.
“It’s been good. It’s been very different. … It’s a good place, it’s a good seminary,” he said. “There’s obviously a lot of good opportunities with the Catholic Church over there. There are pros and cons. You definitely miss out on a lot being over there, but it’s been good overall.”
He termed the NAC “a different academic system” from seminaries in the United States.
“They have more classes but less work for the classes, basically. What makes the NAC more academic, in a sense, is because there are more classes, you finish the S.T.B., that first degree, in three years instead of four years, so it fast tracks you to a licentiate,” he said.
Degrees from pontifical universities like the NAC are “ecclesiastical” degrees. The S.T.B. is a bachelor’s in sacred theology, which Deacon O’Connor has earned. He will complete studies for a licentiate — a master’s — this fall.
As with seminarians in the United States, ministerial experiences have been part of Deacon O’Connor’s formation.
“I did prison ministry for my first two years over there. You teach catechism and Scripture classes to whomever showed up. It was usually a pretty small group,” he said.
Deacon O’Connor said it was a good experience for him.
“I’d never been in a prison before, and it was good to get to know them, talk to them. It was also good because several of the guys who came didn’t really have much basic catechetical knowledge — sometimes they were Christian, sometimes they weren’t,” he said. “The fact that Jesus was God was very new to some of them. It was really a neat opportunity to have to almost preach the Gospel to people who hadn’t really heard it before.”
For the last couple of years he has also been assisting with Christendom College’s study abroad program. He likened that work to campus ministry.
Help with faith development
It is natural that Deacon O’Connor be involved in an outreach akin to campus ministry, as that was an important part of his time at William & Mary.
“When I went to college, I got involved with the campus ministry. There are a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I was growing in my faith, going to daily Mass more, going to confession more — just doing more Catholic things. … It was like a big parish.”
Deacon O’Connor credited Father Ramsey and others in campus ministry for being a positive influence.
“He was very helpful in helping me grow in my faith and then helping me discern when (priesthood) came up,” he said. “Several of my friends at William & Mary were helpful as well. There were several guys in the group that were really striving for holiness, and you get caught up their wake in a good way. That was a real blessing.”
In listing those who helped in his faith development, Deacon O’Connor emphasized where it started.
“Definitely my family. My parents are good Catholics. The faith was definitely important to them,” he said. “That was clear in how they lived and how they acted. They really made sure to pass that on to all of us. So that was a great blessing.” (See accompanying story.)
Excited about priesthood
Deacon O’Connor is looking forward to being a parish priest, working with young people, families — “the whole experience.”
“I love Christ, I love his Church, I love his people,” he said. “I’m excited to be his instrument and his mediator, bringing him and his love, through his Church, to his people.”
Father Ramsey said Deacon O’Connor will serve the people well.
“He has a first-rate mind, is very humble and easy-going in an authentic way,” the priest said. “He has a great passion for proclaiming the Gospel, for helping people understand the Catholic faith in a beautiful way. He is very gifted in spreading the faith.”
Those hoping to sow the seeds of a vocation to the priesthood among their young sons might want to scatter some “Lives of the Saints” books around the house or keep a supply of videos about saints on hand.
“When I was probably 10, I wanted to be a priest,” Deacon Kyle O’Connor said. “We had several little chapter books about saints in the house, and I liked to read them. I was like, ‘I want to be like these people when I grow up. They’re cool.’”
Among the saints whom he found “cool” was St. John Bosco, patron saint of boys and youth.
“I found his life very attractive. He was basically helping poor and orphaned boys. He did magic tricks and juggled — all sorts of cool things. I don’t do either of those,” Deacon O’Connor said with a laugh.
Another saintly influence was St. Pope John Paul II.
“He was the first pope I knew until I was 14 or so. He was obviously a very powerful figure, too,” he said. “I guess I was more aware of him as he was declining, but you saw the old videos and saw him being such a radiant, joyful person out there and drawing so many people to the Church and to Christ. So he was definitely an influential figure as well.”