Fr. Joe O’Connor: Leading Young People to Christ

| January 20, 2010

Fr. Joe O’Connor

By Connie BerryCatholic schools want to provide a strong Catholic identity and what better way to do that than to have a priest walk the halls, eat lunch with the students, play a game of kickball and ask them if they’ve ever considered what God might be calling them to do with their lives.Fr. Joe O’Connor has been doing just that for the past two years. He has traveled all the regions of the diocese speaking to students in all the Catholic schools. He might read “What Does a Priest Do?” or its flipside, “What Does a Nun Do?” to a group of
kindergarteners, or he might play a vocations video with the music of Switchfoot in the background to a group of sophomores. O’Connor has covered all the bases as to how to reach young people. He realizes they may forget a 40-minute presentation, but if he jazzes it up with memorable videos, pictures, skits and props, part of his message just might stay with them.“I have different programs for different grade levels,” O’Connor explained. “Seniors are looking at colleges and picking majors and trying to find out where they fit in. An elementary school student might respond to a word maze or a coloring activity. I give them stickers, so that when they get home, it might start a conversation with their parents.”

O’Connor’s elementary school visits find him playing with the students and seated at the cafeteria table chowing on chicken nuggets with them. He realizes it’s the personal relationship building that opens the conversation and offers the invitation to consider a priestly or religious vocation.

 Sitting with the Lord

A 1995 graduate of Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School, O’Connor spends a full week with each of the Catholic high schools in the diocese. He starts the week off with an assembly and Mass to introduce himself and his mission and teaches all religion classes for every grade level. He meets with educators during free periods and after school to help them develop skills to recognize and promote vocations. Eucharistic adoration takes place in the school chapel at the end of the vocation week. Students spend the week listening to O’Connor talk about vocations and what God is calling them to be, and adoration offers them quiet time to listen to what God might be saying to them.

“Their response to adoration just blew me away,” O’Connor said. “Students come in during study hall, during lunch periods, whenever they can to sit for 20 minutes with the Lord.”

O’Connor leaves a brochure in each chair, so that those who come to adoration will have something to take home or something that might further their interests. And, for more information, O’Connor has enlisted the help of brother priests in developing a web site ( for the Vocations Office.

The role of director of the Office of Vocation Promotion was a part-time enterprise until two years ago when then Bishop James Moynihan asked O’Connor if he might be able to make the position full time. That gave him the ability to explore all the different ways he might bring information to young people and to their parents. Because the current culture is not geared to developing a life of service, much less celibacy, a significant piece of O’Connor’s mission is to help young people discern what God is calling them to, and to help parents realize that a decision to pursue a priestly or religious vocation is a viable option for their children.

The Women’s Commission of the Syracuse Diocese asked what it might do to help. O’Connor told them, “Parents are anxious when kids respond to the presentations. They don’t know what to say or do.” The result was a great pamphlet, “My Son, a Priest?” It offers the voices of parents of priests and their response to their sons’ vocations. It answers some basic questions: Will they miss out on grandchildren? Will parents lose their connection to their son? Will he miss the joy of being a parent? How might he deal with the current image of priests?

One of O’Connor’s favorite stories to tell comes from visiting Catholic high schools.

“I went to a football game at one of the high schools after spending the week there,” O’Connor said. “A father approached me and said, ‘My son is actually thinking about this, and I don’t know what
to do.’ I told him to keep him involved in the school activities, and he’ll form leadership abilities. I told him a vocation to the priesthood doesn’t mean his
son is running away from home. In fact, his home is
a huge part of his formation.”

 Reaching Every Age Group

O’Connor said he may hear from about five percent of the students to whom he reaches out. “That percentage lowers as the age group gets higher,” he explained. But, a new development came from his work with Catholic schools. Now, O’Connor is facilitating a college discernment program.

“Guys who have gone away to college are making the commitment to come back once a month and get together at different rectories to see how a priest lives. We host a holy hour and offer speakers. There are about seven guys right now, but they are making a commitment to the group,” he said.

O’Connor said he can’t begin to express how grateful he is to the Catholic schools of the diocese that have enabled him to plant the seed of vocations.

“I’m extremely grateful to the schools for their openness and the launching pad they’ve given me for this ministry,” he said.

O’Connor’s own vocation has grown even stronger since he has committed himself to furthering vocations within the diocese.

“What I miss in parish life with baptisms, weddings and funerals, I constantly get back by dealing with youth,” he said. “I am talking with young men and women who are trying to embrace God in their lives. I share my life and heart with them and they share back. I’m still leading people to Christ.”

Connie Berry is the editor of The Catholic Sun.

Fr. Joe O’Connor talks about vocations with children at all grade levels.

Category: Catholic Identity, Featured

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