Program #0261 for Tuesday, March 20, 2012: Priest Profile: Fr. Chris O’Connor

March 20, 2012

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Summary of today’s show: With regular Tuesday co-host Fr. Chris O’Connor celebrating his 40th birthday today, it had to be time to do a priest profile of Fr. Chris. Scot Landry talks with Fr. Chris about his childhood growing up in Dorchester’s St. Margaret Parish, attending parochial schools and then Boston College High; going to seminary, including a year in Rome at the Pontifical North American College; and after ordination being selected for further studies and a ministry forming other men for the priesthood at St. John Seminary.

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Today’s host(s): Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor

Today’s topics: Priest Profile: Fr. Chris O’Connor

1st segment: Scot said today is Fr. Chris’s 40th birthday, Scot will never forget it because he was born on the exact same day as Scot’s wife, Ximena. Fr. Chris was born at St. Margaret’s Hospital in Dorchester, which was also located in his parish of St. Margaret’s, which is now Blessed Mother Teresa Parish. Fr. Chris talked about going back as a priest to help in the maternity ward of St. Margaret’s after his ordination. Fr. Chris is the oldest of three with a sister and a brother.

He grew up in St. Margaret’s and Fr. Peter Uglietto, now Bishop Uglietto, was the pastor. Fr. Tom Conway and Fr. Joe Hennessey were also there during his childhood. Fr. Chris said the parish is the central identity of people from Dorchester. When you asked someone they were from Dorchester, you were automatically asked what parish. He said their sports rival was St. Peter’s Parish, although they also competed to see how many priests and religious they would produce.

Fr. Chris remembers that Fr. Conway had brought Mother Teresa to his parish where she prayed for vocations and within a year Fr. Chris was in the college seminary.

They also recalled stories of Fr. Chris’ childhood in the parochial school. He believes part of the decline in the vocations to the priesthood is connected to decline in the number of religious because the sisters in the schools promoted vocations very strongly. Some of the sisters who taught him in school would share stories of heroic priests, would tell boys that they should consider the priesthood. They also taught the faith in ways not seen today: learning the Psalms by heart, for instance. They also taught the importance of the Eucharist. They also had customs like May processions, which formed an important part of the faith.

Fr. Chris said the parish was mainly Irish and Polish, which happened to be his background. There is a whole Polish enclave in Dorchester, with Our Lady of Czestochowa parish in the neighborhood. When he was coming into his adulthood, he also started to see the first influx of families from southeast Asia.

2nd segment: Fr. Chris said both his parents were graduates of Catholic schools and they wanted him to go to Boston College High School. He had many good Jesuits etchers who formed him. Meanwhile, they had moved to Quincy and Sacred Heart Parish, which also produced so many vocations.

Fr. Chris said he was helped to graduate by the underhanded tactics of his teachers in giving him a leg up on tests and the like in their tutoring. He graduated from BC High in 1990 and it was still primarily a Jesuit faculty. He recalls so many characters among the priests there.

Being around so many priests throughout his youth and adolescence made the abuse crisis especially painful because he had so how hard the priests worked and how they were smeared by association with those who faltered. Unfortunately, now priests are far removed from young men these days because of the fallout from the scandal. Getting to know priests as real men helps boys picture themselves in that life, while only seeing them from afar makes them seem like other.

Fr. Chris didn’t become a Jesuit because he didn’t want to end up in a classroom for his whole priesthood, but ironically he ended up teaching at the seminary.

He went to the college seminary and he said there were many pivotal moments of formation there. He was in seminary for 8 or 9 years total. He attended the Pontifical North American College in Rome and at the time it was much more difficult to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was the rector of the seminary at the time, and even then he radiated the joy of the Church. Cardinal Law did allow Fr. Chris to return to Boston to finish his seminary training and he was ordained in 1998.

He had asked to serve in an inner-city parish with a school when he was asked for his preferences. He wound up at St. Mary Parish in Chelmsford, which was not inner city nor had a school, but it was a very large and active parish. It was so far from Dorchester, it was like being back in Rome.

He served there for three years and he helped form a junior youth ministry program to complement the regular youth ministry that had been so successful.

After Chelmsford, he was selected for further studies in philosophy at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He earned a Licentiate in philosophy in three years. He lived in an active suburban parish there while studying. He’d studied philosophy in the minor seminary and he was fairly successful in returning to it. He was happy to have had several years of parish experience seeing questions and wonder in people’s lives so he could explore those questions in the classroom through a philosophical lens.

Scot asked what it was like to study at Catholic University in DC, where there are so many religious orders, the US bishops conference, the National Basilica, and more. Fr. Chris said there were many prominent scholars at CUA, plus elected Catholic officials who would come to speak very often. They would have visiting priests come in to lecture as well as prestigious professors. Fr. Chris said very often the secular study of philosophy attacks the faith, but at Catholic University, faith and reason are presented as compatible. He said young people going to study philosophy need to make sure their school is open to the honest pursuit of truth.

Speaking of favorite philosophers, Fr. Chris said St. Augustine is at the top of his list. His thesis, however, was on the philosopher John Rawls. He examined Rawls’ assertion that people of faith should not bring that faith into their actions in the public square.

Scot said the last four years in seminary is major seminary where you get a Master’s in theology. Before that they need a bachelor’s degree and study pre-theology. This course includes metaphysics, which considers the big questions of life. They also study ethics, epistemology (study of how we know), ecclesiology (the study of the Church). He also teaches that at the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization, which forms lay people. Fr. Chris has become vice-rector at the seminary, which added administrative responsibilities to his workload.

The request that Fr. Chris study theology, especially ecclesiology, came from the current rector, Bishop Arthur Kennedy. Scot and Fr. Chris discussed what ecclesiology is. Fr. Chris is working toward his doctorate in theology. He is thinking of writing his dissertation on the role of the bishop as the principle of communion in the diocese.

On the topic, he talked about how the coming pastoral collaborative in the Archdiocese will affect our understanding of what a parish is and the nature of the Church.

Scot said Fr. Chris’s favorite questions for guests is who are their favorite saints. Fr. Chris said one of his favorites is St. Maximilian Kolbe. In the Franciscan church where Kolbe was a priest before being deported to Auschwitz is a painting of the saint. Nearby is a plaque that says Pope John Paul II prayed there often when he was archbishop of Krakow.

Scot asked Fr. Chris was the 40th birthday means to him. Fr. Chris said he has reflected on his own mortality, which good Catholics should do on occasion. In another sense, it’s just another day. He considers that as wonderful as this life is, there is a greater life to come in heaven. He said people worry that priesthood is a lonely life, but he’s never been lonely. He’s open to the many people that Christ brings into his life.

Fr. Chris gives thanks to God for his family, who love him at his highest moments and weakest moments. He gives thanks for so many good lay friends, who challenge and encourage him. He appreciates the seminary faculty, nine solid priests who are all on the same page and supportive. He’s thankful for the seminarians. He wishes he had been as good as a seminarian as they are today. He wishes they could all be serving in parishes today as priests. He is also thankful for The Good Catholic Life, although he had at first been hesitant to take on another responsibility.

Fr. Chris said one of his favorite shows was when they interviewed Fr. Joseph Fessio on Pope Benedict’s book last Lent. It was very cerebral and exhilarating. Fr. Fessio gave insight into how then-Fr. Ratzinger was like as a professor.

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