Séan O’Donnell left Muff, and the home that he knew for the past 34 years, on the 24th August 2008. This was the beginning of the journey which will reach it’s fruition next Sunday, 14th June, when he is ordained a Priest in St. Eugene’s Cathedral, Derry.
Séan had never lived away from home prior to this departure. He embarked upon a Spiritual Month in Maynooth seminary on August 25th 2008. This particular day had the added significance that it was also the first anniversary of the late Fr Lawrence Keaveny; someone who had heavily influenced Séan on his vocation.
Séan said that on his first day in Maynooth he felt like he was in a ‘boarding school’ and realised that for the first time in his life, he was on his own. ‘I broke off from the world I was used to.’ This month was to be a time of prayer and building a relationship with God.
Prior to this period, Séan says his life was spent worrying about ‘paying the mortgage and my beloved Honda car’. Suddenly he was now embracing a more simple and humble form of life. ‘It became a structured life of prayer where I was growing spiritually’, says Séan of this time in Maynooth.
Séan O'Donnell pic
Not only did this journey into the unknown bring Séan to a time of spiritual growth but it was also a time of academic learning. Séan moved to Belfast where he studied Philosophy over a two year period at Queens University. ‘Here I was interacting with students and people of all ages. Everyone was very supportive. I had left school in 1989 having completed my Leaving Cert and now here I was in an academic setting 19 years later. It was daunting’. Séan clearly enjoyed this period of study as he speaks very fondly of his early days at Queens.
From there Séan moved to Rome where he was to study Theology over the coming 3 years. ‘I’d never been that far from home before. It was 38 degrees in Rome but I loved it.’ Unfortunately Séans diabetes didn’t like Rome and he had to return home and furthered his Theology study at Maynooth.
Whilst in Maynooth Séan began to play the organ. He said, ‘had someone told me 8 years ago that I’d be singing in an all male choir and playing the organ I would have laughed at them.’ Séan not only sang and played the organ but he had the honour of becoming college cantor. ‘This was an immense honour’ he told me. ‘God brought out the hidden gifts and talents that I have. I’d never been aware of them before.’
Throughout my chat with Séan he emphasised the importance of Reflection. He explains to me that, ‘On reflection you see the hand of God working in your life. As Socrates once said, “Life not reflected isn’t worth living.” Life is a journey and I’ve learned that over the past 6 years. I must never lose sight or sense of that journey. That’s the sense of spirituality I have (the journey). Everything that has happened to me in my life has brought me to where I am today. The good times and the bad.’
Listening to Séan speak of his journey and the importance of Reflection to him, it makes sense that we all need to reflect on our life. Everything that we go through makes us the people that we are. As Séan says, ‘it helps us to become the full person’. “The glory of God is the human person fully alive”.
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Séan is passionate about the position and placement of youth in our lives. In fact speaking to Séan I believe that he has the ability to explain things from a young persons perspective. This will certainly enable his people to gain a great insight into the understanding of God. He told me that he met a young student, Niall (aged 10) from Rosemount Primary School recently. Niall answered Séans question, ‘What is a Sacrament?’ Niall said, ‘It’s a gift of God from God’. When Séan explained all the sacraments to me, Niall’s explanation rings true and simplifies the true meaning of the word. Niall also explained why we pray for the dead when he said, ‘Some people die quick and we pray to get them to God. When they’re with God, they pray for us’. A child can sometimes make us all wake up and see life for what it really is.
Séan firmly believes that people both dead and alive have enabled him to be where he is today. ‘People who have lived and died have prayed for me to be a priest. Others knew before I did. I wish they’d told me!’
Séan is ever the humble man in that he laughs knowing that no one was surprised on his announcement that he was joining the seminary. Myself included, was not alarmed or shocked when I heard. Séan says, ‘even when I told my boss at work he said, “we all knew you’d go some day”. I didn’t know this, but apparently everyone else did!’
With all the obstacles placed in the way of the church in recent years, I asked Séan if he was ever forced to question his vocation. He tells me, ‘Of course I did. But faith withstands it all. I stand stronger now for having questioned it.’
Prior to speaking with Séan yesterday I spoke with my mother. A very spiritual Catholic for all of her 68 years, I wondered what she expected of Séan, a local man, becoming a newly ordained priest. She spoke of the new evangelisation requested by the Pope and wondered how he plans to evangelise. Séan said, ‘the youth will evangelise those who have lost what it is to ‘be’. If we engage with young people like Niall, they’re the ones who’ll bring parents and grandparents back to the church.’
Mother also wondered if he felt the Year of Mercy, commencing in December this year, was important. Séan says that it’s very important. ‘By being merciful we show compassion and love. God is love and it’s the living expression of love.’ He spoke of the Prodigal Son and says that we ‘are all that son at times. But the father is always waiting. “Await those who come to the Lord”. There’s always a second chance. But the remorse must be in our heart. When you give that remorse to God, you’re free’.
Listening to Séan explain all of this made so much sense. He has a way of defining life and explaining it all in such simple terms.
My afternoon with Séan took a completely different turn to what I had planned. He brought me on a spiritual journey which I certainly hadn’t planned upon.
I had read much about Séans life over recent weeks prior to his leaving home in 2008 and I wanted to know how his life had progressed since that departure. I got a real insight into where his journey has taken him. I got an insight into where he hopes his journey will lead him. And I got a real insight into what is certain to become one of the most learned, inspirational priests of the modern day.
As a lover of language and the spoken word, I am certain that Séan is going to inspire people from the altar. His homily’s are destined to be informative, interesting, inspiring and innovative. He has a passion within him that is new, fresh and contemporary.
His journey may have taken him 34 years to set upon, but I firmly believe that after a friendly mug of tea with him yesterday, he is about to take us all on a journey that will be rewarding from it’s very onset. If ever someone was destined to spread the word of God, it is our very own Séan O’Donnell. I for one, look forward to travelling a little part of the journey with him.