Continued from Part 1…
Fr. Connor Danstrom (FCD): …The friendships that I forged at U of I’s Newman Center, with the life of the Church that was available to me – I could go into the chapel any time I wanted to pray – and then the priests that I met, that all influenced me. When I first met Fr. Barron the thought of priesthood did not come to me. I thought I was very different when compared to Fr. Barron’s life story. I thought he must have wanted to be a priest since he was five years old. But then I started meeting these priests who studied the same things I studied. This one priest mentor of mine studied biology in his undergrad, and that was close to what I studied. I studied biochemistry at the University of Illinois. When I saw priests with different backgrounds I thought, “Wait, how did you do that?” That started to open my imagination to the priesthood. It hit me that you did not have to have a certain background in order to become a priest.
I count myself very blessed. I could have gone the way of many of my contemporaries in terms of just going with the culture and the trend of “the Church is out of touch” with society, etc.
Kathleen Quinlan (KQ): Or maybe the thought of using your skills elsewhere.
FCD: Yeah, exactly. The question of what do you want to be when you grow up is important. But I had the gift of people preaching to me the even more important question of what does God want me to be or who has He made me to be. Believing in God and the authority of His Church to mediate His Presence in the Sacraments or His Word in the Bible and preaching, put me in a place to make a decision on those grounds instead of just what I wanted.
The seminary was there when it needed it to be there for me. I was a sophomore in college when I first came here for an Exploring Priesthood Weekend. Fr. Joe Noonan was the Vocation Director back then. My roommate was the one intent on looking into the priesthood. He called Fr. Noonan and we planned to come to Mundelein. I remember Fr. Barron being there at the pizza social. So that started the process of discernment for me. That is why I said the seminary was here when it needed it.
If a priest had come into my public school during lunch, I probably would not have gone and eaten with him. Now, in my case, I’d be so cool and, of course, all the kids would want to come and eat with me [laughter]. But I was not courageous enough to be identified as a churchy kid. I just had it in my mind that the faith is a deeply held belief and you’re not going to change my mind about it. The Newman Center was so key for me because it was a group of like-minded people, and they were all passionate about the same kind of thing.
KQ: I know so many people who do not have that strong faith and they may not hear the call of God and the vocation He has for them. They might talk about purpose, but it seems like a self-construct instead of it truly coming from God. It is amazing that you followed the call of God and are now a priest. What advice would you give to the newly ordained priests?
FCD: Thanks. If I had any advice these guys, it is preach good homilies.
Preach the great story of salvation. When I was growing up my dad decided that after Mass each Sunday we would walk through the Gospel of Luke and talk about it. It took about six months to a year to finish the Gospel but it was the first time that me and my dad ever talked about the faith and the first time I ever read the story of Jesus from the birth of John the Baptist all the way to Jesus’ Resurrection, hearing all the parables. I heard them all in Mass but I didn’t put the stories in context. Knowing the story of Jesus opened me to the content of the homilies. What I do now is when a person, like Saul, comes up I will explain who he is, where he came from, where he is going and why he is important today. I do this in five minutes or less. This has an effect. Someone from my parish sent me a message saying, “I didn’t know Saul and St. Paul were the same person!” People know very little about the Bible and the story of salvation, certainly little about theology. With few exceptions, all I heard growing up were homilies about being nice or stories about niceness. At the time I thought, “Okay, I get that but I do not need a priest to tell me to be nice; my mom does that all the time.” So talk about the story of salvation, the unique mission we have and the Sacraments.
If you have a vocation to the priesthood, you will be hungry for this stuff. God plants desires in our hearts. He leads us by our desires. When I entered college I wanted to live at Newman. I wanted to go to Mass in their chapel, and I didn’t even like church! Just have trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding you.
KQ: Now you are at Saint Benedict Parish in Blue Island, IL and have a parish community of your own. There are many men of all ages that could come to the priesthood through your influence.
FCD: Yeah. I’m probably not going to see the fruit of what I am planting now. Here’s an example: there’s this family of redheads in the parish which makes me laugh because everyone in my family is a redhead as well. They have two sons who are in high school. They say hi to me every week, but that is just about it. They do not extend it any further. But I thought: that is exactly what my family did with Fr. Barron every week. Fr. Barron didn’t know at the time that what he was preaching was going to have an effect on my dad, myself and however many other people at Sacred Heart or beyond. Now he sees it that God had done something all the way back then that has effects to the present day. But generally speaking, I’m preaching to these two redhead boys who go to public school and do not really ask any questions but you cannot assume anything since I was the same way. It is a tough thing. You cannot sell the Gospel and see the results to see if you’re successful or not. It is a matter of the heart, and God speaks there. All you have to do is put people in a position to hear that call.
KQ: How do we foster the hearts of people in the parish to be open to the call of the priesthood?
FCD: I think a parent’s influence is key. There may be some parents who are faithful Catholics and, nevertheless, have reservations about their son wanting to become a priest. If this reservation exists among weekly Mass goers, how much more reservation must be there amongst parents who take their kids to Mass at least once of month, if that. Say if one of their sons hears the call to the priesthood and brings it up at home, he probably would get the following response, “What are you thinking? You’ll just be unhappy and lonely.” So we need a PR boost with happy priests in the parishes.
KQ: But wasn’t there a report that found that clergy were amongst the happiest people if you had to rank people according to their jobs?
FCD: Yeah but if your priest is a crab or unhealthy and not enthusiastic about the mission it is just a very natural thing to say that that is what all priests are like. So I like the idea of getting seminarians out into the parishes or having parish missions with the faculty, etc. Fr. Barron was a professor. I heard of the seminary because of him. I didn’t really know what it meant or how you got in.
But when I was a college kid I would have been looking at websites to see what was out there. I probably would have looked at a site like www.mundeleinseminary.org. or videos done by the Vocations Office. There are different resources you need at different times of your life.