MOST REV. DAVID J. BONNAR
Bishop of Youngstown
This is Bishop Bonnar’s homily for the June 18, 2022 ordination of Father Connor Hetzel to the priesthood, at Saint Columba Cathedral in Youngstown.
Sacred Scripture is replete with amazing, and at times, ordinary stories of vocation that include Old Testament figures like Moses, Abraham, David, and the prophets, among others. In the New Testament we behold the stories of Mary, Simon, Saul, and Levi, just to name a few. Beyond these biblical stories, there is our rich Christian tradition pregnant with seemingly countless individuals who are called by God and respond accordingly. While some of these figures have gone on to be canonized by Holy Mother Church, there are many others who although they have not earned the title of “saint,” lived out a holy vocation of service to God.
In his 2022 message for the 59th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Francis speaks to this theme of vocation. He notes that vocation is not limited to those who follow the Lord through a special consecration. Every day we behold the gift of vocation in its many expressions, most especially the vocation of married life which becomes the first Church, if you will. I want to thank in a special way Brian and Kristin Hetzel for your response to God’s grace in embracing the vocation of marriage. I am also grateful to your openness to life which has yielded eight children. To you siblings of Connor – Matthew, Luke, Alannah, Shane, Liam, Kellan, and Finnian – I want to thank you for being instruments of God’s grace in supporting Connor in the discernment of his vocation. You are part of his vocation story, and he is part of yours as well. I also want to thank Fr. Phil Rodgers and all the priests who have served at Connor’s home parish of Saint Charles, Boardman along with the faithful for their part in this vocation story. Special thanks to Father Michael Marcelli, a parochial vicar at Saint Charles, who took Connor and his brother to an Operation Andrew Dinner and got the journey moving.
In his World Day of Prayer for Vocations Message Pope Francis references the renowned artist Michelangelo who said that every block of stone contains a statue within it. It remains the task of the sculptor to uncover that figure. What is true of an artist is even more true of the great artist: God. According to the Holy Father, God saw in a young Nazarene woman the mother of God. In Simon Peter he saw “the rock of the Church.” In the publican Levi, God saw Matthew, the apostle and evangelist. And in Saul, even in his sinfulness, he saw an apostle to the Gentiles. Pope Francis said, “God’s loving gaze always meets us, touches us, sets us free and transforms us, making us into new persons.”
In Connor Hetzel, a native of Wisconsin, a lover of science and physics, a person who has perfected Spanish as a second language, God sees a reflection of his Son the great high priest. As God gazes at Connor, he sees a man with a shepherd’s heart who, even in his humanness, can teach, lead, and sanctify the people of God.
When it comes to discerning a religious vocation, God uses many people for this process. The candidate prays, studies, and meticulously sifts through all the experiences of his heart. The Church, for her part, does the same. This experience turns into the collective unwrapping of a gift that at times appears to break the Guinness World Book of Records for slowness. And yet, this mysterious process is as beautiful as a flower blossoming or a tomato ripening. Both the candidate and the Church rely upon the Vocation Director, Parish priest and the faithful, trained seminary formators, and the priestly formation board to make the best decision for the good of the candidate and the Church. I am grateful to all the people who contribute to this process, most notably, Fr. Scott Kopp and his Administrative Aide, Gerri Dean, Fr. Phil Rodgers, Fr. Benson, Fr. Mark Latcovich and the formation team at Saint Charles Borromeo and Saint Mary Seminaries, Cleveland.
Just a few moments ago as part of an ancient ritual, Father Scott Kopp as Director of Seminarians presented Connor to be ordained. When called by name, Connor said, “Present.” As bishop I accepted the testimony given and received Connor to be ordained a priest of Jesus Christ for the Diocese of Youngstown. Connor, I want to say to you what my bishop said to me on the day of my priestly ordination, “Thank you for giving your life to the Church.”
In his vocation message Pope Francis states that God calls us “like tiles in a mosaic but only when put together do they form a picture.” Connor, my son, there will be many images of you from this day. In some ways, because you are the only one being ordained, there may be a sense of feeling alone. But know that no one is ever alone in the Church. You are surrounded by your family, the people of God, and your new family—the presbyterate of the Diocese of Youngstown. I want you to turn around so that I can introduce you to your new family. Connor, welcome to the greatest fraternity in the world! These men who will now become your brothers who love Jesus and the Church like you. And, like you will soon do, they too promised obedience to the bishop and his successors. Their vocation, like yours, is not to a particular assignment or parish but to the Church based on the pastoral needs at the discretion of the bishop. Keep in mind that the needs of the Church are always greater than our own.
The readings today from the Sacred Scriptures serve as a fitting reflection for what you are about to become. The first reading speaks about being anointed. You will soon be anointed to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and release to prisoners, to comfort all who mourn. Through the grace of God’s Spirit, you will be consecrated and become forever God’s special instrument to continue his saving work.
In the second reading from Hebrews the author speaks about the high priest “taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Through the grace of ordination, you will become an “alter Christus,” “another Christ,” and like Christ you will be both priest and victim.
In the Gospel, we hear a beautiful exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus. After acknowledging his love for Jesus, Simon Peter is told to feed the sheep.
Blessed Father Antoine Chevrier was a French Roman Catholic priest, member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, and founder of the sisters of Prado and the Institute of the Priests at Prado. He once said, “The priest is a man eaten.” Connor you will soon go forth to live the mystery of the Eucharist in a new way and your days, hours, nights, and entire life will be eaten for the salvation of souls and the good of the Church. Every day, be sure to allow Jesus to feed you with his Body and Blood so that you can go forth and be food for others and the feed the sheep. The Ordination Ritual says this so well, “Receive the oblation of the holy people, to be offered to God. Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”
Because you are following Jesus Christ, you are embracing the cross. You are charged not only with carrying your own cross but helping others with their crosses. And your life is no longer your own as you belong to Jesus and his Church. You are charged with living out daily a relationship of love with Jesus Christ seeking to be a good shepherd who never tires of leading, feeding, and protecting the sheep. Like Simon Peter, you will show your love for Jesus by caring for his sheep. And be ready, because this love will take you, as Jesus says in the Gospel, to places you wish not to go.
Connor, my son, Jesus does not ask you to be a shepherd for yourself but for his people. Get to know your sheep entrusted to your care. Love them as Jesus loves his sheep and please, always make sure that you allow yourself to be fed regularly by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Connor, I want to take a moment and be brutally honest with you. The life you are about to embrace is not easy or without struggle, for you are called to live a religious vocation in a secular world that has little time or respect for God. Moreover, you are called to live a selfless life in a selfish world. There will be tough assignments, hard decisions, difficult people, and long days and sleepless nights. Nevertheless, God and the Church believe in you. Know that you are called by God to embrace this life and ministry. Trust in your goodness. As the saying goes, “Charity begins at home,” especially the home of your heart. Be gentle with yourself. You will make mistakes. As much as you seek to please people, you will fall short. Let God, through the power of his Holy Spirit, work through you. Behold the grace you receive today in this sacred ordination ritual which you take with you forever. Be humble and know that you are a piece of tile that forms a beautiful mosaic known as the Church. Whatever you do in your life and ministry, do it with joy. Priests are so much more effective and credible when they radiate joy that originates in knowing that we are God’s beloved.
In closing, I wish to conclude this reflection by sharing with you the final paragraph from the Instruction by Holy Mother Church for the Ordination of a Priest, because it offers a perfect focus for your ministry as a parish priest. “Finally, dear son, united with your Bishop and subject to him, fulfill the office of Christ, Head and Shepherd to the best of your ability. Strive to gather the faithful together into one family, so that you may lead them to God the Father, through Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Keep always before your eyes the example of the Good Shepherd, who did not come to be served but to serve and who came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Connor, as you receive the special graces from this ordination, I encourage you to go forth in humility, fidelity and joy to be Christ’s presence in the world as a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek of old. Let your tile blend with all the tiles of this local Church to present a magnificent mosaic of God’s love and presence.