By Rev. Daniel McHale ‘21
Fr. Dan McHale wrote this article while a Deacon about to be ordained to the priesthood. Fr. Dan was ordained in the summer of 2021 and serves in the Diocese of Albany.
In our Second Theology year (prior to the pandemic), men at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary are sent out once a week to health care assignments, focusing on ministering to patients in hospitals and residents in long-term care facilities. A couple of years ago, fellow seminarian Stephen Ondrey and I arrived at our usual time, a few minutes before 9 a.m., to begin another Tuesday shift at St. Patrick's Manor in Framingham.
However, on this particular winter morning, Shirley, the receptionist, was not her cheery self. I immediately knew something was amiss when I caught a glance of the somber look on her face as she hung up the front desk phone. "A resident just died in her room a few minutes ago," she informed us, "Could you two go up and talk with her daughter?" A priest was called but had yet to arrive. At least we were dressed like priests, in any event.
As we climbed the stairs on our way to the room, I was nervous. What should I do? What should I say? I had assisted at wakes and funerals in summer pastoral assignments, but had never been first on the scene, so to speak, following a death.
Upon entering, Stephen and I greeted the grieving daughter. I asked her to tell us about her mother, whose body laid in bed. She replied that her mom loved to travel around the world, even into her early 80s. She told us stories about some of the different places her mother went, and the joy it gave her. We said some prayers together before we departed from the scene, as more family members were on their way.
To be honest, I don't recall the name of the mother or the daughter. But what I do remember is being present to a person in need. The Holy Spirit was at work bringing comfort to this woman in mourning, and to have served as an instrument of God's healing presence is something I will never forget. It reinforced for me that this is what I am called to do.
Looking back on this moment, something Fr. Brian Kiely, our rector at Pope St. John XXIII, preached resonates. He said, "People don't care how much you know. They need to know how much you care." Although academics are one of the dimensions of formation for the men studying at Pope St. John, I believe the special charism of this seminary is preparing men to be priests with the heart of Christ.
One of the distinct challenges for Pope St. John is forming men who have lived full and successful lives. And I can attest—as a middle-aged man—that we can be stubborn and become stuck in our ways! But this doesn't mean we are resistant to formation. In fact, the men I attend class, share laughs, and break bread with are exceedingly committed to becoming, in Sherry Weddell's phraseology, intentional disciples. And Christian discipleship is challenging in an American society that increasingly seeks not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion. Our life experience will help us, as soon-to-be pastors, lead others through these hazardous cultural waters by focusing our eyes, hearts, and minds on the Light that will guide us through the fiercest of storms.
Our English word vocation comes from the Latin term vocare, meaning "to call." Although vocations at Pope St. John XXIII are sometimes referred to as "delayed" or "late," these words have somewhat negative connotations. I prefer "mature." We are mature men seeking to discern God's will in our lives. For many of us, such as myself—in one month's time, God willing—our call is to serve the Church as holy priests. For Jesus, there is no correct timeframe when to answer his call. No vocation is delayed.
A priest back home in the Diocese of Albany, who in the past assisted with vocations, told me one of the unofficial tests for him when he met with a discerner was whether or not he would be comfortable with this man ministering to his own mother on her deathbed. This brings me back to the encounter at St. Patrick's Manor two years ago. What if it were my mother who was dying or had just died, laying in that bed? Would I want a priest trained at Pope St. John XXIII to anoint her or to console me? I can honestly answer, without hesitation, "Yes, to a man!"
Rev. Daniel McHale