Reflections of a newly ordained priest: Fr. Thomas Sullivan

Hello and welcome!

Around the start of summer each year, I like to give an opportunity for two of our newly ordained priests to reflect on their experience. Last week, we heard from Father Christopher Bae, and this week I am happy to have Father Thomas Sullivan share his story with you.

– Cardinal Seán

– – –

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It’s impossible to put into words all the workings of grace that lead a man to ordination and the priestly life. We can talk about significant events and people who have influenced us, we can piece together a concise narrative, but even we don’t understand all God has done in his providential care for each of us in order to accomplish his holy will.

But we still give our vocation stories anyway, as best we can, to give thanks to God and offer possible guidance to those who might follow the same road. Having lived with dozens of seminarians over the past five years, I’ve had the chance to hear dozens of vocation stories, and many have been inspiring and humbling. To be honest, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about my own story. I have no Saul on the Road to Damascus event to tell. The only remarkable feature of my background is my family, immediate and extended, which has been blessed with rather extraordinary graces when it comes to true Religion.

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Baptized by my uncle, Father Bob Sullivan, at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church, Watertown.

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Slightly older with my brother-in-law Jeff, sister Meg, and my parents next to Galway’s Cathedral.

The extended Sullivan family has been blessed with a strong faith, and that has born great fruit when it comes to strong marriages and several religious vocations. Born to Thomas and Geraldine (Reed) Sullivan in March of 1982, my part in that history began at my baptism in St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in Watertown, MA, on June 13, 1982. I was baptized by my Uncle Bob Sullivan, a priest of the Society of St. Joseph — an order that ministers specifically to African-American Catholics in the Baltimore/Washington area and along the Gulf Coast. St. Theresa of the Child Jesus would be the parish where I would go on to make First Penance and receive First Holy Communion, both with Father John Nichols who 26 years later would vest me at my priestly ordination.

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With Father John Nichols at my First Holy Communion and being vested at Priestly Ordination.

The example of vocations to the religious life didn’t end there. My uncle, Ed Sullivan, is a permanent deacon in Baltimore, my aunt, Sister Eileen Sullivan, was a Sister of the Blessed Sacrament (St. Katharine Drexel’s order) and my grandmother’s brothers, Jack and Jim Coen were religious order priests — a Passionist and a Redemptorist, respectively. I give this inventory of vocations because this is the Catholic atmosphere I grew up in, and our earliest influences are often decisive. Apart from any accomplishments they had in their specific apostolates, the mere presence of these family members in my life made the possibility of a vocation something real and almost ordinary. The steadfast faith of my parents and the rest of our family demonstrated to me that the Catholic Faith isn’t one more feature of who we are, but something that permeates and animates the whole of life.

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Granduncle Jack Coen, C.P., Uncle Bob Sullivan, S.S.J., Granduncle Bill Coen, and Granduncle Jim Coen, C.Ss.R.

The “whole of life” included Mass each Sunday and every other holy day of obligation. I was probably a typical kid, not always eager to wake up for that morning Mass, and often a pain in the neck in the pew. But I remember at a young age, before even receiving First Communion, looking at the priest at the altar and saying to myself, “I could do that…” before returning to my mischief under the pew. My vocation had no more dramatic beginning than that. I always wanted to be a priest. As I grew up I attended Boston College High School and Boston College, graduating in 2000 and 2004. At B.C., I majored in Philosophy with an eye to entering the seminary. In my studies I had the great benefit of being taught by men like Dr. Peter Kreeft, Father Ron Tacelli, and Father Gary Gurtler. They helped me see the beauty and inner cohesion of the Faith with which I had grown up, and I owe much in my formation to the truths in which they schooled me.

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At the baptism of my niece/goddaughter

In college I took a course on The Confessions of St. Augustine, and while that work is a treasure trove of spiritual gems, one line in particular stood out as a summary of my post-college years. Augustine had been thoroughly convinced of the truth of the Catholic Religion, but his appetites weren’t yet brought to heel. He prayed that the Lord would grant him chastity, “but not yet.” While Augustine was speaking about a particular virtue, I could echo his words regarding my vocation. I often told God, “Yes, I’ll be a priest… but not yet.” It’s a result of having a fallen nature, even those who believe will often defer sanctity. We have so many attachments that the thought of giving everything up to follow Christ can be frightening. When I have given vocation talks in the past I like to include the concluding words of the great Pope Benedict XVI from his homily at the Mass inaugurating his pontificate. I use it so often because I need to constantly remind myself of the message:

“If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”

It’s that friendship with Christ, rooted in prayer and nurtured by the Sacraments, which sustains us in the particular vocation to which he calls each of us. It was after returning to regular and frequent Confession that I got the courage to finally bite the bullet and apply to seminary. And it was through study and prayer that I persevered to ordination. In my studies I came to know Christ better, and the more one knows Christ the more he can love Christ. The good friends God puts in your life help, too, as you share many of the same joys and hardships on your way to serving the Church we all love.

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Ordained a deacon by the Cardinal with my uncle Deacon Ed Sullivan in the foreground.

At the start of my last semester in the seminary I was ordained to the diaconate, with my Uncle Ed acting as one of the deacons of the Mass. I served my diaconate at the great parish of St. Thomas Aquinas in Bridgewater with Father Bill Devine and Father Adrian Milik. It was an encouragement and foretaste of the priestly life, which I’d not yet experienced. I was finally able to proclaim the Gospel and preach. And I had the humbling privilege of baptizing three babies — driving to Pittsburgh for the first!

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Administering baptism for the first time as a deacon, in Pittsburgh, PA, assisted by Seminarian Brian O’Hanlon.

The five months to priestly ordination flew by. All the years of preparation (and the more proximate stress of coordinating my first Mass the next day) melted away, and the three hour ordination could have lasted ten hours without me realizing it. Prone for the Litany of the Saints, kneeling before the Cardinal for the promise of obedience, the laying on of hands, reception of the chalice and paten, anointing with Sacred Chrism, and imparting to him my first blessing – I can recall all these moments vividly. Standing at that altar and concelebrating my first Mass was surreal. I felt like I was play acting! All those years of wanting to be a priest finally came to fulfillment, and yet it was difficult grasping that it had actually happened. God’s grace can change us in an instant: in the baptismal font, at an ordination, in the confessional, at the altar rail. And our response should be gratitude. Which is what happened the next day at my first Mass of Thanksgiving.

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I offered Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Watertown, a church in which so many Sullivans received the Sacraments, including my uncle’s own ordination to the priesthood. It was good to have so many friends and family assisting — clergy and laity and friends from the seminary. I offered the Mass for my grandparents, Warren and Bernadine (McDowell) Reed and Edward and Margaret (Coen) Sullivan… without whom the church would have been empty that day.

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Pictured after my first Mass at Sacred Heart, Watertown, with Seminarian Brian Cullen and Deacon Jason Giombetti.

Since starting my assignment at St. Catherine of Siena in Norwood I’ve quickly come to grips with ordination: I really AM a priest. My first full day I got called out to administer the Anointing of the Sick. I’ve heard many impromptu confessions. I’ve enjoyed visiting the parish school, attending morning prayers in the gym and popping into classrooms. And I’ve met countless other parishioners. But best of all, I look forward every day to being able to say Mass.

I began by saying nobody could ever give a full account of his vocation story. Well, no priest could ever fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist and the Mass, either. And maybe that’s the veil we need between heaven and earth, the veil of bread and wine concealing Christ’s Body and Blood, which gives us the courage, and even eagerness, to dare approach the altar. By God’s grace, I’ll never lose that eagerness to offer the Holy Sacrifice.

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In the sanctuary at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Norwood – my first assignment.

Thank you to everyone who has prayed for me over the years. Please, continue to pray for me, for all priests and seminarians, and that more men will answer the call.

August 2016
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