Editor’s note: Bishop Barry C. Knestout will ordain five priests for the Diocese of Richmond on Saturday, June 1, at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. This is the largest priesthood ordination class since Bishop Walter F. Sullivan ordained eight priests on Saturday, May 13, 1989. This week’s Catholic Virginian features three of the men who will be ordained. The other two were featured in the May 5 issue.
Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
From the 40 years Moses and the Israelites roamed there to the 40 days Jesus spent there, the desert has a significant place in salvation history. For Deacon Dan Molochko, the year he spent in the desert is a significant part of his journey toward priesthood.
The younger of Liz and Gerry Molochko’s sons, he was working in Kuwait from February 2012 to February 2013 as a contract paramedic for the Army. There he met Father Lt. Col. Rajmund Kopec, the chaplain at Camp Arifjan, whom he termed “an amazing spiritual director.”
“He was the one that actually brought it up to me without me ever mentioning that I felt called to the priesthood before. He said, ‘Have you ever thought about seminary?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really think it’s for me anymore.’ And he was like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’”
However, according to Deacon Molochko, priesthood was very much on his mind.
“Every time I went to daily Mass, every time I would pray, every time I would do anything, it was just there,” he said. “So for the next eight or nine months while I was in the desert, I was in spiritual direction with him and kept discerning, and finally when I came back in February, he was like, ‘Alright, now it’s time to make the decision. You’ve got to go or you’ve got to leave it alone forever.’”
In March 2013, Deacon Molochko attended a discernment retreat with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA.
“It was there that I really felt God being like, ‘It’s time. You’ve got to enter. You’ve got to do this,’” he said.
He met with Father Michael Boehling, diocesan vocations director, for the first time around Holy Thursday, March 28, and by June 1 had been accepted as a seminarian at St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore.
Parents, parish make impact
While it took a desert experience to help focus Deacon Molochko, 32, on discerning his vocation, the seeds of it were planted years earlier at home — in word and example. His dad was a career Navy SEAL, medically retired in 1990; his mom was an educator. He described them as “big influences” on him.
“My father is wheelchair bound. He’s got Parkinson’s, and he’s had it since I was about 2 or 3 years old. He really exemplifies the life of joy in suffering,” Deacon Molochko said. “My mom, having to be a long-term caregiver, also lives a life of self-sacrificial love and self-denial in care of my father. You can’t have better parents to prepare for this life.”
What he was witnessing at home, he was also learning at the churches the family attended.
“My father’s whole side of the family is Russian Orthodox. My brother and I were baptized in the Orthodox church. And sometime around when I was 7 or 8 we did a profession of faith into the Catholic Church. I didn’t know what that meant. Growing up, we would attend church at both parishes. As a family we would go to the Orthodox church one weekend, and then the next weekend we’d go to the Catholic church and then split back and forth.”
The deciding factor for Deacon Molochko was that Church of the Ascension had a youth group and the Orthodox church did not. That group, led by youth minister Tom Esposito, inspired him to take his faith seriously.
“I really was exposed to what it meant to possibly have a vocation and really started to discern in a small way that maybe that was something I was called to,” he said. “In junior/senior year of high school it really felt like that might be what it was for me.”
During those two years, as a student at Cape Henry Collegiate, Deacon Molochko attended 6:30 Mass every day before school.
“I was feeling that maybe I could be called to (do what the priest was doing),” he said.
Faith formation continues
Since the Diocese of Richmond didn’t place seminarians in college until 2013, Deacon Molochko could seek his vocation at the college of his choice.
“That helped in going to (Franciscan University) Steubenville, (Ohio in 2004), knowing that I’d be able to discern better there than I would probably at a state school,” Deacon Molachko said. “So when I got to Steubenville (priesthood) got put on the backburner because of how many attractive young women there were, and many girlfriends. So it was like, ‘That’s nice, God, but I’ll get to that later. You should check out the plans I have for me.’” (See accompanying story.)
While discernment of a priestly vocation may have been interrupted, when it came to faith formation at Franciscan, “It was 10 times better,” according to Deacon Malochko, than what he had anticipated. He was part of one of the campus “households,” groups that share a similar spirituality.
“The one I joined was called Servants of the Savior. Being formed by that group of guys just propelled my spirituality and faith in ways that I never imagined when I thought about going to Steubenville,” he said of the group with whom he is still in contact.
“There was no Greek life to it, but we as a household would gather for morning prayer at 7. We were committed to a daily holy hour,” Deacon Molochko said. “We had to do some service to the poor once a week, so it was a stricter way of life, but that fostered prayer and service.”
Change of plans
At Franciscan, he earned a degree in education, but he never taught.
“I knew that being a teacher was a very specific vocation and I probably didn’t have it, and I was so far along in the degree that it would be silly to change my major during my senior year,” Deacon Molochko said.
His girlfriend at the time was an EMT who encouraged him to consider becoming a firefighter. She advised him that the best way to do that was to become a paramedic and then get hired by a fire department.
“I took my EMT course between my junior and senior year over the summer, and the moment that I did my first chest compressions on a cardiac arrest victim, I was hooked, and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life,” he said of the work he did after completing the two-year paramedic training program at Tidewater Community College.
For the next eight years, he worked for various medical companies, did contract work at Langley Air Force Base, where he learned about opportunities overseas and which eventually took him to the desert where, he said, “I felt confirmed in the knowledge that I was to go to seminary, but not yet confirmed in the knowledge that I was absolutely to be a priest.”
That confirmation would come in 2016-2017, midway through his seminary formation when he did his pastoral year at Our Lady of Lourdes, Richmond.
‘An amazing honor’
“Starting the year I was still 50/50 of whether I was actually called to the priesthood. Ending the year it was absolutely confirmed,” Deacon Molochko said. “I felt that the Lord was calling me and everything in my pastoral experience there confirmed that. So going back to third theology, it was much different than before because I had this strong sense that yes, indeed, the Lord was calling me to the priesthood so to start taking it more seriously.”
Noting that growing up he was influenced by the SEALs’ “core values of hard work and sacrifice and being part of an elite, small group and being a specialist,” he likened those to priesthood.
“I don’t think you can get any more specialized than becoming a Catholic priest. You live a life of sacrifice for the people if you’re doing it right,” Deacon Molochko said. “You’re the one that has a special set of skills that no one else has, and to be able to liberally do the sacraments for people, to be able to help them in their conversion or reconversion, in their best and worst moments, seems like such an amazing honor to be able to walk with them and to help them.”
Dating was part of discernment
Deacon Dan Molochko admits “this might not be the best vocational advice,” but for him dating was part of his vocational discernment.
“I think guys should date and see how that makes them feel, and if they still feel a sense of longing for something more, to know that that might be the priesthood calling,” he said. “You don’t want anyone in this (priestly) life because they didn’t have any other options. You don’t want them to default here because they just couldn’t make it in any other profession.”
Deacon Molochko said the qualities that make for a good husband and father are applicable to a priest.
“In order for a man to be a good priest, he has to have the qualities that would make him an excellent husband and an excellent father,” he said. “So that natural draw, that natural desire, to be a husband and a father definitely has to be there before he can ever consider a call to the priesthood.”
Using himself as an example, Deacon Molochko said that through dating he learned he wanted more than marriage could provide.
“The relationships that I was in were always wonderful. The women that I dated were beautiful, smart, focused, motivated. Even as great as they were, there was something still lacking, something I felt wasn’t there,” he said. “And it wasn’t because they were lacking; I just didn’t feel that fulfillment that I was searching for.”
Deacon Molochko noted that when he started discerning his vocation to the priesthood while in Kuwait in 2013, he was at peace.
“It wasn’t anxious worry about ‘Is this the right girl?’ or ‘Is this the right path?’ It was peaceful fulfillment that this seems like it’s real — more real than anything else,” he said.
Deacon Molochko said there was a “good separation period” between the last girl he dated and when he entered seminary.
“Basically, when I went to the desert I said, ‘Don’t wait for me; I don’t know if I’m ever coming back,’ and I didn’t know that was because I was going to the seminary,” he said.