Zacchaeus moment leads to deeper discernment

| May 25, 2011 | 0 Comments

Deacon O'Neill

Deacon Tony O’Neill, left, greets his brother, Sean, and Sean’s wife, Elizabeth, after Mass at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. Elizabeth teaches at St. Agnes School in St. Paul and the couple belongs to St. Mark in St. Paul. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Tony O’Neill said it was a “Zacchaeus moment” nine years ago that led him to the St. Paul Seminary and will lead him to the priesthood when he is ordained May 28 at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

He is referring, of course, to the Gospel passage in Luke 19 in which Jesus picks a tax collector named Zacchaeus out of the crowd, calls him down from a sycamore tree and tells him he wants to come over for dinner.

“This past year, I did a homily on that Gospel passage,” Deacon O’Neill said. “Part of my point was that, in life, we all have Zacchaeus moments where Christ breaks through the crowd and says, ‘I want to be with you today.’ For me, the moment in the Cathedral [of St. Paul] in 2002 was a Zacchaeus moment.”

Hearing the call

He is referring to the priest ordination Mass that year, to which he came to witness the ordination of his friend, Father Michael Keating. At the time, Deacon O’Neill, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was living in Michigan in a lay, ecumenical brotherhood of men called Servants of the Word.

He had joined the brotherhood in 1989 and was flourishing there. He spent 17 years in the group and was planning to spend the rest of his life in it. That is, until his Zacchaeus moment happened during the ordination Mass.

“In 2002, I was living in Detroit and I was working at Cornerstone Middle School [as dean of students],” said Deacon O’Neill, 47. “I was very happy. It was a very fulfilling time in my life. We had done a lot of real key, inner-city work with young people. I just felt like I was making a difference with what I was doing.

“I came to St. Paul to attend an ordination of someone that I knew. In the middle of the ordination, I had an experience of God that was a very profound one. I felt pretty clearly that God was calling me to be a priest. It was one of those experiences in life that was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time because I realized the tremendous call, but also that it was about to turn my life upside down.”

Deacon O’Neill didn’t immediately leave the brotherhood and enter the seminary. Rather, he took several years to carefully discern God’s will. Then, in 2006 he entered the seminary and, at the same time, joined a group of priests and seminarians in the archdiocese called the Companions of Christ. He felt this group offered the same kind of spiritual life he had with Servants of the Word.

“They were living a form of fraternity that really attracted me,” he said. “Ultimately, I felt a great conviction that God was calling me to come here.”

While he said everything that has happened since he came here has strongly confirmed his decision to join the Companions and the seminary, he also was emphatic in expressing “the great love and respect that I have for the brotherhood that I came from.” In fact, he gives credit to the brotherhood for a large chunk of his spiritual formation.

He also credits his family, especially his parents, Sean and Eilis, who continue to live in Scotland.

“I’m the youngest of five children, and at every step in my life, both my parents and my siblings have been 100 percent behind me,” he said. “They’ll all be at my ordination, and it’ll be the first time the family’s all been together for, I think, at least 15 or 20 years. That’s a long time.”

Early stirrings

Deacon O’Neill said he thought about being a priest as far back as his early childhood. In fact, he went to a high school seminary run by a religious order. After graduating, he entered the order as a postulant, but left three months later when he discerned that was not where God was calling him to be.

“Pretty soon after leaving, I came in contact with the charismatic renewal in Scotland,” he said. “Both my brothers had been involved in that — Frank and Sean. . . . And, really, through the charismatic renewal, I experienced a real awakening in my faith. Things just really changed, and I got involved in a community in Glasgow, a charismatic community called the Community of the Risen Christ.”

In his ministry as a priest, he is hoping to help others deepen their faith like his has deepened over the last 20 years. He particularly looks forward to celebrating Mass, hearing confessions and anointing the sick.

“Those are profound things that touch people deeply and bring Christ into the most important parts of their life,” he said. “I look forward to helping people take the next step toward God. If I can do that for the rest of my life, I’ll die a happy man.”

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Category: Ordinations