AVONDALE — The West Valley’s largest church provided just enough seating and wiggle room to witness the ordination of the biggest seminarian class in nine years.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted ordained four men — Fr. Sheunesu Bowora, Fr. Dan Connealy, Fr. Ryan Lee and Fr. David Loeffler — to the priesthood June 11 at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. The four comprise the largest ordination class since 2007.
Another trio, God-willing, will be ordained to the priesthood next year. For the newest crop, the fraternal bond was almost as seamless as the bishop’s transition during Mass from calling the ordinands “dear sons” to calling them “brothers.”
“This fraternity starts with our identity in Christ and from that, once we already have a strong bond there,” Fr. Loeffler said, unique personalities begin to emerge.
That point hit home as the freshman priest — who grew up in Yuma, but found a home at St. Paul Parish after moving to Phoenix — recalled the laying on of hands. The bishop, followed by a steady stream of priests, silently laid their hands on each ordinand’s head as they knelt at the foot of the altar. All Fr. Loeffler could see was a flowing alb that moved from one ordinand to another.
Then Bishop Olmsted anointed their hands and a priest helped them don their new vestments. For a final time, the bishop and each priest reverently filed past the altar. This time the bishop and each priest — enough to fill 11 pews with a 12th row seated on the altar — warmly embraced one another.
Fr. Loeffler felt encouraged knowing that he was now united with each priest in living the same mission. Bishop Olmsted reminded the faithful that God made his entire holy people “a royal priesthood in Christ” during the Rite of Ordination. He pointed out the ordained ministry of all four men to serve as Christ the teacher, priest and shepherd.
“From today forward people will call you ‘Father,’ and to the degree that you embrace your fatherhood, you will learn humility and learn to be courageous,” Bishop Olmsted told them. “Humility roots our ministry in truth and lays a foundation to prayer. Only when we admit that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready freely to receive the gift of prayer.”
Fr. Bowora expressed gratitude for the united prayer of so many during the litany of the saints. It was just before the laying on of hands that all four elect prostrated themselves in front of the altar while the faithful invoked the names of many saints.
“You could really feel the weight of the whole Church. It was like this is really bigger than any individual,” Fr. Bowora said.
He sees the priesthood as a new adventure because everything will be seen from a new perspective: through Christ’s eyes. Fr. Bowora looks forward to every priestly opportunity, especially conferring the sacraments.
“The idea of human beings doing such holy things — being conformed to Christ — that comes from beyond us,” Fr. Bowora said after his line of people seeking a first blessing tapered off.
Fr. Lee, who studied with Fr. Bowora at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, found the symbolic moment his life was conformed to Christ a profound part of the two-hour ordination Mass. When Bishop Olmsted anointed his hands with holy oil, he knew life would be different.
“That’s when my hands were transformed into the hands of Christ. They exist now to sanctify and to serve,” Fr. Lee said.
He described his first hours of priesthood as filled with much joy and grace. The new parochial vicar at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale looks forward to serving God’s people in a much more profound way.
Fr. Lee may have received one of the earliest offers for priestly assistance among this year’s ordaining class. It was about a month ago that an engaged couple — via the groom’s mother, whose son went to St. Theresa School with the new priest — requested Fr. Lee’s priestly presence at a wedding set for January 2017. Fr. Lee’s mother fielded the call.
She always asked her three children as they grew to pursue whatever is was that gave them their greatest joy. “Ryan — Fr. Ryan’s — answer was always the Church,” Rita Lee said. “He was the altar boy who never stopped.”
It’s the prayerful, financial and practical support of the faithful that affords seminarians the opportunity to peacefully discern a priestly calling. The new priests saw many of those people make their way through each line to receive a blessing.
“It was kind of humbling remembering how many people have supported me over the years. I saw a lot of old faces that I didn’t expect to see,” Fr. Connealy said. “It was really a blessing to see the witness of all the people who love the priesthood and what it means to them.”
During the ordination Mass, he took great joy in listening to the words of the Rite of Ordination. Fr. Connealy soaked it all in and let the Holy Spirit work in that moment. The prayer traced the Church’s roots through Moses, Aaron and other early priests. Bishop Olmsted chanted the prayer that asked the Lord for the helpers needed to exercise the priesthood that comes from the apostles.
“May they be worthy co-workers with our Order, so that by their preaching and through the grace of the Holy Spirit the words of the Gospel may bear fruit in human hearts and reach even to the ends of the earth,” the bishop prayed.
Fr. Connealy is eager to meet and learn from fellow priests. After spending roughly one-third of his life discerning and preparing for the priesthood from afar, he’s happy to be home.
“You can spend so much time in seminary, but there’s a lot to be learned from your first pastor and the priests,” said Fr. Connealy, who is headed to Flagstaff for campus and parish ministry.
Fr. Loeffler agreed. He feels at peace with his first priestly endeavors, even if he stumbles. God uses weak people all the time, he said.
“I’m a baby priest, but that’s fine because God has done a whole lot more with a whole lot less,” he said.[quote_box_center]
Ordinands across the country: Key data about their age, early life
People might be surprised to know… (including Fr. Lee!)