Janna Reynolds, The Catholic Virginian

When Father Kevin O’Brien says he considers himself a “lifer,” he isn’t referring just to his 40 years of priesthood, which he will celebrate on Aug. 11.

“Ever since third grade I wanted to be a priest. That was a different time. I was born in 1952, and in the 1950s, all the boys wanted to be priests and all the girls wanted to be nuns,” he explained.

Father O’Brien attended St. John Vianney Minor Seminary in Richmond for four years beginning when he was 14 years old. 

“It helped deepen my understanding of what I believed in my faith. It was faith and friendship and giving 100 percent to whatever you do,” he said.

From there he attended St. Meinrad College seminary before entering seminary at the American College in Leuven, Belgium, in 1975. He was ordained a deacon there in 1978.

It was at the American College that Father O’Brien learned to teach and preach, in part because of the oral exams required of students. 

“It was intense, but it really helped me to think on my feet, which I was not good at. You had to be quick, and that has helped me in ministry to answer questions and things like that,” he said.

English speakers attending American College were asked to give talks at the military bases in Germany. The first one Father O’Brien was asked to do was a six-hour talk on Christology – two hours the first night and four the next day.

“I had 50 pages of notes. Friday night I could tell I was losing them, just reading my notes. I spent all night working on the next part trying to make it better, and I just prayed that God would help me,” he recalled. “I woke up the next day to 10 inches of snow and it was cancelled – so he heard me!”

Father O’Brien said his time in Belgium included “some of the greatest minds of the era” and that some of his professors had worked on documents of the Second Vatican Council.

“It was an exciting time to be in the Church, and especially in Belgium. It was just a wonderful living experience, and it was there that I got a tremendous theological foundation to what I believe,” he said. 

Among those the priest said had an impact upon him were Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, who ordained him in 1979 at Church of the Resurrection, Portsmouth, in 1979, and Msgr. William Pitt.

Dominican Sister Kate Dooley was working on her theology degree at the same time Father O’Brien was in seminary. She helped the priest develop his preaching style of walking up and down the aisles instead of standing at the pulpit — an effort he makes to connect with parishioners. 

He explained that the purpose of his homily is to inspire and challenge the people hearing it to live out the Gospel, an approach he learned from Jesuit Father Jan Lambrecht, his Scripture professor in Leuven. 

“I’m trying to offer the Good News of Jesus’ love and compassion, inspiring but also challenging them,” he said. “That, for me, is the real key to the homily.”

He uses news stories, commercials or TV shows to make his message more interesting to the congregation and to get the message to stay with them. 

“When you were a kid you never really remembered anything from the homily, but I remember once when a priest talked about Snoopy and Charlie Brown. And I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve never heard anyone say anything like that before,’” he said. 

Father O’Brien’s upbringing also helped shape his ministry and preaching style. The priest said his parents influenced him “in very different ways.” 

Though Fr. O’Brien’s mother never drove, she made sure he and his siblings were on buses to Christ the King, Norfolk, each Sunday.

The priest’s father served in the Navy, and he exemplified to his children the importance of hospitality. 

It is in his parish, St. Thérèse, Chesapeake, that Father O’Brien really demonstrates the influence of his parents.

“One of the things for me that is very important is making people feel welcome,” he said. “I love being there on weekends and making people feel welcome when they come to church and as they’re leaving.”

He brings doughnuts for parishioners to enjoy after Mass and spends time talking with them. 

“It builds community and hospitality… Children get to meet kids their age and play and talk. People stick around. They don’t stay for a long time, but they stay,” Father O’Brien said, adding that the parish tries to have one community event each month.

Prior to being assigned to St. Thérèse in 2011, Father O’Brien served as parochial vicar at St. Edward the Confessor, Richmond (2005-2011); pastor at Star of the Sea, Virginia Beach (2002-2005), St. Thomas More, Lynchburg (1994-2002), and Sacred Heart, South Prince George (1984-1987); and as associate pastor at Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach (1982-1984), and St. Paul, Richmond (1979-1982). He has also served as a judge on the tribunal since 1982.

The priest said all the parishes in which he has served have been “life-giving and affirming” for him as a priest by “being hospitable, being inclusive and helping the needy.”

“These 40 years of priesthood remind me that the focus must always be on Christ and how best to live the Gospel,” he said.

Father O’Brien will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his priesthood ordination by preaching at all three liturgies the weekend of August 10-11 and having a small reception following each one.

“I have truly been blessed because of the people of God. I am a better person, a better Christian, a better priest, because of the people I’ve met who have loved and supported me and forgiven me for mistakes in my 40 years of priesthood,” he said. “That is truly the one thing. I want to thank God for his people who have truly blessed me.”