Men in the Breach: Sean Kelly cycles around Tempe to bring atheists, fallen-away full circle

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Sean Kelly, once an avowed atheist, now spends his free time sharing the joy and truth of the Catholic faith with complete strangers who wander past the St. Paul's Street Evangelization's table in downtown Tempe. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Sean Kelly, once an avowed atheist, now spends his free time sharing the joy and truth of the Catholic faith with complete strangers who wander past the St. Paul’s Street Evangelization’s table in downtown Tempe. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
In response to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Into the Breach,” every month The Catholic Sun will feature one of these “Men in the Breach” who’ve answered the bishop’s call to authentic Catholic masculinity.
In response to Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Into the Breach,” every month The Catholic Sun will feature one of these “Men in the Breach” who’ve answered the bishop’s call to authentic Catholic masculinity.

For many middle-class men in suburbia, Saturday afternoon spells a round of golf or professional sports on television. Sean Kelly is not one of them.

That’s because in 2003, the avowed atheist, who once studied the works of Bertrand Russell and Friedrich Nietzsche, had a profound conversion experience. The catalyst was a recurring dream.

“The message I was given was, ‘I’m calling you and I need solid men to rebuild my Church.’ I thought, ‘That is a crazy dream!’ and put it out of my head and went to work,” Kelly said.

Each night he would have the same dream and by the end of 30 days he couldn’t deny it any longer. He’d been baptized as an infant but hadn’t been raised with any faith. So, in 2003 he went through classes at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish and was confirmed. For five years, he attended Mass but wasn’t involved in any of the Tempe parish’s activities. That changed when OLMC began the “That Man is You” program.

“That’s what got me living out community,” Kelly said. A few years later, he was asked to lead Our Lady’s Men of Christ, the parish’s men’s group.

“That was my first jumping-off point, actually committing, becoming an intentional disciple,” Kelly said. These days, you might see him passing out Miraculous Medals or pedaling his bike along the shores of Tempe Beach Park. He’s the one praying the Rosary. “I have a paper boy bicycle, so I rarely have my hands on the handlebars,” Kelly said, adding that people regularly ask him for prayers.

St. Paul Street Evangelization

1071542_465116220272179_327538898_oSt. Paul Street Evangelization (SPSE) is a grassroots, non-profit organization, dedicated to responding to the mandate of Jesus to preach the Gospel to all nations by taking the Catholic Faith to the streets. There are four chapters within the Diocese of Phoenix:

On Saturdays, he’s often found standing on Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe near a sign that declares “Catholic Truth and Information.” It’s all part of the St. Paul’s Street Evangelization movement, or SPSE.

“When we first started going out there, people were like, ‘Am I on “Candid Camera?” You guys are Catholic!’ We were an oddity. They didn’t understand.

“It’s such a powerful thing when you go out on the street and you’re sharing your faith with somebody you’ve never met,” Kelly said. “You’re out there doing what Jesus called us to do — make disciples of all nations.”

As pedestrians wander past, Kelly and his team ask if they want a free rosary. One young man refused, but then stopped in his tracks. “They’re free?” he queried. “Yes. And no strings attached,” Kelly told him. SPSE is all about starting a conversation on faith, not winning an argument. As the two men spoke, Kelly mentioned that the nearby Newman Center offered late-night Sunday Masses to accommodate college students’ schedules.

“We talked and answered a few questions, gave him a rosary and a few tracts and he went on his way. He was one of many we spoke with that day,” Kelly said. A couple of hours later, as the SPSE team drove away, they saw the same young man entering the Newman Center. “That was powerful,” Kelly said.

He’s a big fan of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted’s apostolic exhortation, “Into the Breach.”

“There is a breach in the defenses and somebody needs to step in there and take that bold step,” Kelly said. “It’s going to take you out of your comfort zone. It’s going to be difficult at times and yet it’s the right thing to do and we’re called to do it. So we do it.”

He has a sense of humor too, which comes in handy as the heat rises off the pavement in the blistering sun.

“As an atheist I used to laugh at people of faith. I thought it was silly and I couldn’t understand. I thought it was ridiculous. Now when I’m out there talking to people about my faith, the irony
is not lost.”

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