Kathleen Quinlan (KQ): Fr. Connor, could you tell us who or what played a big role in you becoming a priest?
Fr. Connor Danstrom (FCD): As a public school kid at New Trier High School, I counted it as a win that I considered myself a Catholic in school. I had gone to CCD; I received the sacraments, etc. I remember this kid who I knew was Catholic – he stood out since a large portion of the student body was either Jewish or nothing at all, eating a ham sandwich and it was a Friday in Lent, so I said to him, “Dude, it is a Friday in Lent.” He responded, “Who cares?” That experience stood out for me and influenced me through high school. But the two people who particularly influenced me were my dad and Fr. Robert Barron. My dad was not a Catholic when I was growing up, and somewhat considered himself an atheist. He grew up a Protestant, but as a scientist he believed that science debunked religion. He was not intellectually honest enough to look into religion until he started coming to Mass with us. That is when Fr. Barron started saying Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in Winnetka on the weekends. We tried going to the Fr. Barron ‘s Masses to hear his homilies. So, over the years my dad decided to become Catholic. He started having lunch with Fr. Barron, asking him questions on what books to read. Interestingly – and Fr. Barron would tell you this, my dad suggested to Fr. Barron that he should make a website instead of just trying to put his homilies on WGN radio. My brother built his first website. That is the connection between my family and Fr. Barron.
The first time I came here [Mundelein Seminary] is when my dad tried connecting me with Fr. Barron, thinking that maybe I had a vocation. I remember walking around campus, but at that time – I was around sixteen years old – I didn’t want anything to do with the seminary or the priesthood. In short, the biggest thing anyone did for my vocation was not so much anyone at the seminary but my dad. On top of that, hearing Fr. Barron every week convinced me that smart people believe in the Faith. I remember being in a Great Books class my senior year during the unit on God’s existence, and we read everything: Aquinas’ five ways, Bertrand Russell’s statement on why he is not a Christian, Freud’s thoughts on religion, etc. Any time there was an atheist position, the lion’s share of the class jumped on board with it. I remember being incapable of refuting these arguments, but I thought if Fr. Barron were here he would totally crush these guys [laughter]. That was a security blanket for me that I am on the right side of all this stuff. Faith was not a conclusion I came to but a trust in someone bigger than me and that there are answers to questions I have not even asked yet. But growing up in the public school atmosphere forced me identify with my faith more than I would have at a Catholic school. In a Catholic school it is possibly the ‘institution’ telling you all these things and your classmates are the ones reacting, thinking the ‘institution’ is trying to brainwash them. But I always thought the institution was trying to brainwash me with this atheism stuff or Freudian psychology – that all seemed to me like ‘the institution.’ I stood against them contra mundum. That didn’t translate, however, into a habit of prayer or upright living on my part, but it did lead me to move into St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
The Newman Center was attractive because there was a chapel, and it was close to the Quad. It also forced me to think about what I want my life to be about. I never felt like the Church slammed anything down my throat. I was hungry, and I went and found what I was looking for. What was great to me about Newman was, first of all, the liturgy was beautiful. The church was beautiful. It was done well, and I trusted that the priest was always going to say the right words so that I wasn’t confused by what to respond with or when to respond. There was nothing loosey- goosey about it. You could take it for granted that this was the Mass and the Eucharist is here. Priests were in the confessionals every day. I started going to confession. I felt connected to the Church because of that availability. They took us seriously as college kids and asked us to rise to the occasion.
The people I was friends with, and still am today, were people who thought that life is more than pleasure, success and pleasing others. They all thought that there was a purpose to life and the point of life is to courageously carry that out, despite the challenges. That really appealed to me. I always had a desire to go into the Army for no other reason than to see if I could make it through boot camp. That desire for a challenge is what drew me out to California to me a firefighter. The challenge of being a warrior (physical or spiritual) attracted me, and I think that we need to remember that the way of attracting young men is by giving them adventure. If you want get young men who are down with the mission of the priesthood, and are not fleeing to the priesthood because they cannot get a girlfriend or whatever, you need to appeal to that sense of mission. The priesthood is for men who want a mission bigger than himself. The sense of being part of a team and having a common mission (what I have now as a priest) was all forged at the Newman Center.
KQ: Next week I will post Part 2 of my conversation with Fr. Connor. In the mean time, check out his podcast Three Dogs North (http://threedogsnorth.com) to hear from the man himself.
Photo Credits: Chicago Priest (www.chicagopriest.com)