Soldier Answers Call to Be a Priest:
One Year to Go for Seminarian

By Kat Bergeron
The Sun Herald [Mississippi]
June 25, 2004

Michael O'Connor had been in the Notre Dame Seminary 13 months when the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal erupted. That was also five months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I knew in the aftermath of 9/11 that I never felt more strongly to be a priest, and when the scandal unfolded I wanted to run away for a bit," said O'Connor. "Some guys did leave the seminary, and I'm sure our enrollment took a hit and people were disillusioned. It was easy to grab it as an excuse to leave."

As a career Air National Guardsman before entering the seminary, O'Connor had an easy out when some in his Mississippi unit were called up for post 9/11 duties.

"I knew being a priest was going to be a difficult life anyway and when the scandal broke it was an eye-opening experience," O'Connor said. "Yes, I was disappointed and discouraged."

The doubts didn't last. After all, he'd already gone through several years of debating with himself about priesthood. He took the option of not being called up and continued with seminary studies.

"I'm very hopeful about the future of the church and the priesthood," O'Connor said. "The problems will not fix themselves overnight. It took time to get into this mess but through God's grace and lessons learned the hard way, things are going to improve.

"I felt a call that I was part of the solution. That is the call that Christ is giving priests today, to be good, holy, chaste men."

On July 3, O'Connor will be ordained as a transitional deaconate who will preach, do pastoral counseling, perform weddings, funerals and baptisms and deliver Communion. Then, after a year he will be ordained as a diocesan priest by Bishop Thomas J. Rodi, the first to be ordained since he took the helm of the 17-county South Mississippi diocese in 2001.

At that point, O'Connor will be able to celebrate Mass but for now his year of internship begins at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Biloxi.

"He is an excellent seminarian, very mature, hard working, dedicated and full of the love of God," said the Rev. Paddy Mockler, Fatima's priest who will teach him the practical matters of running a parish. "Mike has a great desire to serve people."

Visiting the sick, helping the needy, counseling, all this and more are on the day-to-day plate of diocesan priests who take vows of celibacy and on their personal time live a simple life.

At age 38, O'Connor certainly is familiar with secular life. He was born at Keesler Air Force Base when his father, the late Maj. Edwin O'Connor, was stationed in Biloxi, but the family (including mother Marian, three boys and two girls) moved away briefly, then back to Ocean Springs.

Michael Paul O'Connor is typical of those who grow up in South Mississippi, loving Saints football, fishing for speckled trout, boating. Graduation from Ocean Springs High led to a 1987 psychology degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, followed by a commissioning in the Air Force. Later he joined full-time the 255th Air Control Squadron of the Mississippi Air National Guard, and eventually got a private pilot's license.

For 15 years in the military O'Connor traveled to the jungles of Colombia, saw much of Europe, South America, even Korea. He witnessed the drug war and in 1999 spent six months in Kuwait. He dated and attended church on Sundays, as he'd done all of his life, though he had no particular involvement with the Catholic church other than attending Mass.

"My parents were surprised when I told them I would become a priest. Frankly I was surprised." O'Connor said.

What is referred to simply as "The Calling" - a message from God - tugged at him: "When I was first called, I didn't tell anybody. I was rather confident I could wait it out and make it go away."

For several years he debated with himself and had discussions with the Biloxi diocese vocational director, the Rev. Dennis Carver of Pass Christian. The calling was too strong, and he entered Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology and Seminary with oversight and financial support of the Biloxi Diocese.

O'Connor's studies in New Orleans, parish work and personal insights are profound:

"I have changed. The time in seminary has been a time of prayer, a time of learning to appreciate silence and taking a step back from the hustle and bustle of the world. I think I've grown in virtue, and that indicates how much growing I had to do.

"I am truly looking forward to being a priest. Life is a gift, our redemption by Christ is a gift and the priesthood of Jesus Christ is a gift."


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