College administrator shares personal experience
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Thirty-five years ago on a train ride home from Knock Shrine in County Mayo, Ireland, 18-year-old Conn O’Maoldhomhnaigh received the shock of his life. A woman he didn’t know and had barely spoken to on the train ride asked him: “Would you be a priest some day?” Stunned, the teen-ager didn’t know how to respond. “No one had ever asked me that before.” Then he felt annoyed and embarrassed. Two of his sisters sat opposite of him on the train ride. “I was afraid they’d blab all of this at home.” But they didn’t, recalled the now 53-year-old priest who is completing a presidential fellowship at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
It’s not that he rejected the invitation; he just didn’t want to feel pressured. Fewer young men were considering a vocation to the priesthood in the 1980s in Ireland, certainly not to the extent they did in prior decades. A year or so later, he stopped at a church away from home on a Saturday evening. Once inside, the idea of a vocation “just hit me; got me thinking about it.” The young man wrote to Carlow College in Carlow, Ireland, a long-established seminary, and was accepted.
When he spoke to his parents about his vocation, “they were supportive, but they were saying, ‘You know what, “‘why don’t you wait until you’re 30?’ My father said, ‘I got married at 30. Why don’t you try other things?’ because I wanted to be a teacher.” They assured Conn of their support — whether or not he became a priest. “Our own bishop at the time, Bishop (Laurence) Ryan, was a great man. He said vocations come from communities and families of faith.”
The Catholic Church for centuries played an important role in the lives of the people of Ireland, but its hierarchy began losing influence in the 1960s and onward for a variety of reasons, Fr. Conn said.
“When we were under British rule, people felt a strong attachment to their faith because the church played an important role in somehow protecting people. The religious orders fed the people, educated the people, looked after the people in the hospitals. Some of our priests and bishops were involved in the national movement and priests were kind of iconic figures. And then we got our independence in the 1920s and, as can happen in a system, certainly the church felt it had come into its own (when I say the church I mean the hierarchy) and started behaving arrogantly. If there isn’t magnanimity, then you pay a price for that. So the church was overbearing, overreaching.”
Fr. Conn was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kildare & Leighlin in 1990, a decade that witnessed dramatic changes as well as crises in the church. The Irish people approved a divorce referendum in 1995, despite church opposition. A bishop resigned after admitting he fathered a child. Clergy sexual abuse of children came to light. “A lot of people fell away from the church at that time when all that was going on. … People would say to you, ‘OK, there was awful abuse, but the way it was handled, that was a bigger issue,’” Fr. Conn said. “The lies, the cover-up, the subterfuge was disheartening. I’m ordained 25 years — and really I’ve only known two years where the church wasn’t involved in the crisis over sexual matters. The challenge in all of that is how to keep going … the priests felt very abandoned.”
Good priests didn’t give up, he said. “My own view is if it weren’t for the deep, personal relationship and involvement of the individual priests in the parish, however bad things are now, it would just be scorched earth.”
Following his own ordination, Fr. Conn served as an associate pastor from 1990-94 in Baltinglass before his bishop asked him to begin preparations to become director of seminary formation at Carlow College. He also served as director of vocations, the bishop’s master of ceremonies and taught history, catechetics and homilitics. He was involved in administration as well. By the year 2000, with seminarian enrollment very low, Fr. Conn became more involved in administration and directed the teachers’ program. The college where he studied as a seminarian with 50-60 other men has no seminarians today and serves a student body of about 1,000 lay people, said the priest, now Carlow College’s vice president.
He recalls a pastoral letter that St. John Paul II wrote during his papacy on priestly formation and vocations (1992). The pope said “‘vocations are a sign of the vitality of the local church.’ I think that goes back in a way to what Bishop Ryan said — that vocations come from communities and families of faith. It’s from that kind of seedbed that vocations come. So if every bishop, every priest was to say to himself, if that’s the yardstick that the pope lived by … what’s the state of my church, what’s the state of the local church, what’s the state of the community?”
Fr. Conn says the local church demonstrates vitality with vocations to the priesthood, to marriage, to ministries; all of these are callings from God. Recent developments on several fronts encourage him. In the most recent census in Ireland, “After all we’ve been through something like 89 percent of the people put themselves down as Catholic when they had a whole lot of options they could have chosen on the census form.” Commentators had predicted the census would show fewer people identifying as Catholic. “It was a huge surprise when almost 90 percent said they’re Catholic.”
Another development that gives Fr. Conn hope is “the renewed interest in faith and spirituality I’m encountering with young people. I genuinely believe there’s an interest in the spiritual. I’ve seen it. What’s struck me in the last five years are the number of students, men in particular asking for spiritual direction; people wanting to discover more about their faith, people looking for confession. It’s been a privilege to be a part of all of that and to sit down and talk to people about that.”
He tells of meeting a man in his early 20s who after leaving high school tried various religions, even becoming a Buddhist. Then he came to Carlow College and told Fr. Conn, “I’ve come here to discover my Catholic faith. I can say now I am a Catholic and I know now why I’m Catholic.”