Wearing an antique vestment he purchased through a dealer in England, Father Conor Sullivan, who had only been ordained the day before, spoke to the crowd gathered for his First Holy Mass of Thanksgiving Sunday evening, May 25, at Our Lady of Lourdes in Washington about his feelings on a controversial subject that many people question the Catholic Church on today — whether priests should be allowed to marry.
“First, I want to tell everyone how exceedingly happy I am to be a priest,” said Father Sullivan, who grew up in Labadie and graduated from Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School and St. Francis Borgia Regional High School, Class of 2007.
“More and more frequently we hear talk about how people think that priests should be able to get married, that celibacy is an outdated discipline that discourages men from the priesthood.
“Well the truth of the matter is I am indeed married,” Father Sullivan remarked. “I am married to the church, and that’s not just a trite phrase. It’s not just a nice thought. It’s very, very real. My bride is the church, and she is the most lovely and beautiful woman I have ever met in my life.
“For centuries her face has been distorted and obscured by those who fail to represent her adequately,” he said. “Frequently the world is all too eager and keen to throw dirt into her face and neglect the great gift that she is to each of us. But if you wipe away the dust and the dirt from her face . . . if you look at the church and see her as she truly is, you cannot help but fall in love.
“She is our gift, given directly to us — to me in a special way from Christ,” said Father Sullivan. “With her I am deeply in love.”
Speaking with The Missourian last week, Father Sullivan said he remembers one particular meeting in college with the college rector, who asked if celibacy was a gift or is it a sacrifice.
“And the correct answer was both,” said Father Sullivan. “It’s one of those things, even in the married life, people who choose a single spouse are choosing against every other possible spouse.
“It’s definitely a grace, and it’s a special gift from God to be able to live celibately and live with His church, to marry His church and become a groom to the church, so to speak.
“But at the same time a lot of people get so caught up in it they think it’s such a huge sacrifice, but they often don’t see the tremendous gift that it is and how blessed and happy I am to receive it,” said Father Sullivan.
“It’s just an incredibly blessed life,” he remarked. “A popular way to phrase it is, ‘You will never outdo God in generosity, so whatever you give up for Him, he always gives you infinitely more in return.”
Father Sullivan, son of Laura and the late Christopher Sullivan, has made his entire family proud with his ordination Saturday, May 24, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, but none more than his great-grandmother, the late Catherine Smythe, who predicted when he was only 4 or 5 years old that he would go on to become a priest.
“Whenever we’d get together for family things, she would introduce me and say, ‘This is Conor, he’s going to be a priest,’ ” Father Sullivan recalled.
“She had an intuition, I guess.”
The idea slipped away as he grew up, and it wasn’t until he was in high school that he thought of it again. His call from God began with a Kairos retreat he made during his junior year.
The retreat was being led by a Borgia senior who was headed to the seminary.
“I remember being struck by him, by his faith, by his devotion and being impressed by it,” said Father Sullivan.
The two became friends and Sullivan, in need of some Christian service hours, agreed to help at the Kenrick-Glennon Days camp held at the seminary. His mom joked that if he went, he would come home wanting to be a priest.
“I said she was crazy, but mothers generally know better,” said Father Sullivan.
“It turned out that I had such a good time with the seminarians and the priests and experiencing a sense of peace while I was there, that drew me back more and more for retreats,” he said. “So more or less, it was a quiet, ordinary (calling), God pulling me into the situation and me kind of letting Him.”
Father Sullivan picked up an application for the seminary the fall of his senior year in high school and was ready to submit it that spring.
When he began telling family and friends about his decision, he was nervous about their reaction, but he needn’t have been. They saw it as a natural next step for him.
In truth, Father Sullivan said he did not see enrolling at the seminary as a big risk to his future or a gamble. The classes he was taking for the seminary through St. Louis University were the same general education courses he would be taking at any college his first couple of years.
“So there really wasn’t anything to lose,” he remarked.
If he changed his mind about the priesthood, he wouldn’t have lost any time.
“There was no pressure in that regard,” he said. “The seminary did a good job of taking all those little stressors out of the picture and saying, ‘Relax. Figure it out. Take some time to pray and reflect.’ ”
There is some cost involved in attending the seminary, but no man is ever prevented from coming if he can’t pay, said Father Sullivan.
“They do their best to take the pressure off,” he commented.
It can take between six to eight years for a man to complete seminary school. The difference is because some come in having earned college credits at their high school.
Father Sullivan completed the seminary in seven years.
A general day in the seminary was very busy, beginning with holy hour from 6 to 7 a.m. That was followed by prayer at 7 a.m., Mass at 7:30 a.m., breakfast at 8 a.m. and classes at 9 a.m.
“For those taking general ed classes at SLU, they took a shuttle down there with the other seminarians,” said Father Sullivan. “In the afternoons, there was always something — service with the poor, the youth, teaching — then you’d come back together for evening prayer, have a couple of hours for studying and then night prayer.”
Of all the classes he took in his education to be ordained a priest, Father Sullivan said Latin was probably the most challenging. He was required to take three semesters of it.
On the other hand, he felt his philosophy courses were “a huge blessing.” It’s the type of degree many people might want to earn, but won’t because there’s no obvious career path.
Along the way, there were lots of lengthy papers, but nothing out of line with graduate-level college work.
Father Sullivan said his bachelor’s degree in philosophy ended with a capstone paper of 20 to 25 pages, and his theology degree ended with a thesis of 50 to 80 pages.
At age 25, Father Sullivan is a little young to be ordained a priest. Any younger and a seminarian needs permission to be ordained a priest, he noted, explaining seminarians who are 24 need special permission from the Archbishop to be ordained, and those who are 23 need permission from the Pope.
Father Sullivan is one of only a handful of young men from the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish to be ordained a priest.
Father Dale Wunderlich and his brother the late Father Daniel Wunderlich both were members of OLL, along with Father James Finder. Father Eric Kunz also went to school at OLL but moved away before he was ordained.
And next year, another OLL member, Deacon Daniel Kavanagh, will be ordained, and two members of the OLL parish, Jim Carter and Don Elbert, will be ordained permanent deacons this weekend.
His Excellency Bishop Edward Rice, who gave the homily at Father Sullivan’s First Holy Mass of Thanksgiving, said the church is grateful for the parish’s contribution.
“To Father Boehm . . . and to all of the parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes, I offer congratulations,” he said.
“Next to the family, the parish plays such a key role in promoting vocations and supporting vocations . . . there is certainly a culture of vocations here at Our Lady of Lourdes, and whatever you are doing, keep doing it, because we need vocations.”
Father Sullivan also offered his gratitude to the OLL parish.
“People come up to me and say how great it is that I am doing all of this, but I don’t think they realize how much their support has gotten me to where I am, financially, prayerfully, just a kind word, everything,” he said. “I’ve gotten support from all corners, every angle. So thank you is in order.
“I couldn’t have done it without them.”
He personally thanked OLL pastor, the Very Rev. Father Mike Boehm, for his support, and also Sister Marilyn Chall, pastoral minister.
“She is one of the hardest workers I think I’ve ever met,” said Father Sullivan. “Without her, this parish wouldn’t function the way it does. She taught me how to serve, she was with me through my entire time at Our Lady of Lourdes Grade School.”
Looking Forward to Daily Mass
Father Sullivan has been assigned the associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi on Telegraph in Oakville.He will begin his duties June 17.
The parish has about 1,900 families with an active school.
After seven years of schooling to become a priest, Father Sullivan said the things he’s most looking forward to are saying daily Mass and hearing confessions.
“At the end of the day, that’s what I feel like I was ordained for, and a wider view, what I was created for, to cooperate with God’s will in that way,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to life after school.
“This year will be my first Christmas in a very long time where I won’t have finals right before it,” he said, with a smile.
Mass of Thanksgiving
Much like a bride and groom plan all of the details for their wedding ceremony, Father Sullivan selected all of the details for his First Holy Mass of Thanksgiving.
From the program, which he designed with the help of an aunt; to the music or Schola, which was provided by his friends; to the decorations, including a crucifix displayed on the altar that was a gift from several uncles and aunts.
The dalmatics, or vestments worn by the deacons, were new, but made in an antique style.
“For my classmates and me, restoring things used by priests for decades or even centuries was very important to us,” Father Sullivan told The Missourian. “There is so much history!
“The vestments I wore have been worn by many priests before me. The chalice I used had been used by many other priests before me too — it helps me to remember the incredibly vast and vibrant heritage of the Catholic Church.”
In his closing remarks to the crowd at his First Holy Mass of Thanksgiving, Father Sullivan continued a tradition by presenting his mother with a special gift.
“I love my mother, Laura Sullivan, dearly, for her example of faith and complete reliance on God’s providence in her life,” he said. “When I was very young, my father, Christopher Sullivan, for whom I offered this Mass, passed away. It was an incredible loss to us and to our entire family and community.
“One step at a time, day after day, my mother always sought what was best for us, her children. Always relying on the help of God. How else could she do it?
“Today I stand before you a well-adjusted, or at least a reasonably well-adjusted young man with my wonderful siblings who are the kindest, most interesting, most loving people I’ve known, and this is thanks in the largest part to my mother’s reliance on the grace of God to help her through that situation,” said Father Sullivan.
“Mom, you have been a blessing to me and to each of us. Without you I wouldn’t be here, and I would not be a priest And so to thank you, I have a small gift for you.”
It was a small box carved by her brother and Conor’s godfather, David.
“The wood is not stained,” Father Sullivan told her. “This is its natural color. The glass on the top and the plate on the bottom came from discarded pieces during the Kenrick Seminary renovation. So the wood is to remind you of the blood of Christ, the blood which I have been given the great blessing to consecrate at every Mass in my life, and the blood in which you have partaken and which, please God, will bring you eternal life.
“The pieces of the seminary are to remind you of the time I spent at the seminary, and how that time was always blessed by your prayers for me.”
Inside the box was a hand towel, more properly called a manaturgia.
“When I was ordained yesterday, Archbishop Carlson annointed my palms with chrism, a holy oil of the church,” said Father Sullivan. “After the annointing, I cleaned the oil off my palms with this manaturgia. It’s a tradition to give this to your mother on the day of your first Mass.
“And so, Mom, when our Lord calls you back to your heavenly home, this towel will be wrapped around your hands as your body is laid to rest. And when our Lord comes to you at the gates of heaven, he’ll ask you what good did you do in order to build up My kingdom?
“And you can say, with confidence born of faith, looking directly into His eyes, presenting him with this manaturgia, ‘Jesus, my Lord and my God, I gave you my son, a priest.’ ”