Hello and welcome!
Regular readers will remember that, for the last couple of weeks, I have been giving some of our newly ordained priests an opportunity to share their stories with you. We began with Father Wellington Oliveira, last week we heard from Father Michael Zimmerman and this week, we conclude with Father Will Sexton, who is serving as parochial vicar at the Catholic Parishes of Stoughton collaborative.
– Cardinal Seán
My mother Ellen, myself and Aunt Mary Lou after my First Mass at St. Mary’s Dedham
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a priest. However, to say that it was my life’s goal from a very young age would not be entirely accurate. I think the first time that I thought about being a priest I was in elementary school — maybe first or second grade. It wasn’t from a place of piety, nor was it from seeing a priest celebrate Mass and wanting to emulate that. Rather, just like a child might say that they wanted to be a firefighter or lawyer or astronaut when they grow up, I said I wanted to be a priest.
I grew up with a priest in my extended family, but it wasn’t even his influence. I only saw him at holidays and never celebrating Mass, so it wasn’t even from a place of wanting to be like my great uncle. Nevertheless, occasionally I would pretend to say Mass on the kitchen counter and at least once asked my mom for “the thing the priest wears at Mass” (chasuble) for Christmas. All I can attribute it to is that God was making His plan known in my life from a very young age — perhaps so that when I finally got to Ordination Day on May 20th, I could look back in hindsight and see how He had been at work throughout my whole life.
In middle and high school, I went about life as a normal kid — or as normal as I could be (my friends reading this know why that’s funny). Every now and then, a peer I had gone to elementary school with would ask if I still wanted to be a priest. I was now old enough to understand the quizzical tone and facial expressions with which they asked. So in the 6th grade I said that I was going to be a history teacher. I can see now, looking back, that career became the narrative that, having created for myself, I felt the need I had to grow in to.
When I was in high school, my plan switched slightly, and I was determined that I was going to be a politician in Washington, D.C. And again, just as before, that became the narrative that I felt I had to live up to. However, like teaching history, being a politician and getting my law degree (only because I thought that would help) never really felt right. I had classmates who, also from a very young age, were determined to do this or that, and today they are. I was jealous that they had a plan and stuck to it. I wanted that. I think, if I am being honest, those things I wanted to do never felt like the right fit, because they weren’t. However, with my plan in mind, junior year of high school I visited the Catholic University of America, and senior year, I applied to CUA and was accepted “early decision.”
Backtracking to high school just a bit, I was involved with the Life Teen Youth Ministry program in my parish (admittedly reluctantly at first). Father Chris Hickey, the parochial vicar at St. Mary’s at the time, asked me when I was in the 9th grade to run the altar server ministry and serve as the parish’s Master of Ceremonies. I am sure that it was a combination of my time in Life Teen and my involvement with the liturgy that really formed me and opened me up to this idea of a possible vocation. I am also sure that it was my involvement with the liturgy that kept me close to the Church, and in a real way, closer and in a more direct way, than my classmates. I began to think about (discern) the priesthood again — at first privately, later publically. I remember being at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, and Cardinal Law asked all the men who had thought or were thinking about being a priest to come forward for a blessing. Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself with a couple of dozen other boys, in front of the altar, getting a blessing from the cardinal. This came as somewhat of a shock to my group from St. Mary’s, especially to the girl I was dating at the time.
Back to CUA: Sometime during my first week there, I made my way over to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and signed up to be an altar server. Many of the other men who were serving there were already planning on entering the seminary after graduation (five of them, myself included, are now in fact priests) and so I began once again to openly discern.
Gerald Souza, Mark Murphy Tom Foley, Tim Lewis and myself on pilgrimage to France, Dec. 05-Jan. 06
I made arrangements to meet with (the then-newly appointed) assistant vocations director, Father Dan Hennessey when I was home for Thanksgiving. And, after encouragement from my spiritual director in Washington, D.C., began the application to transfer out of CUA to college seminary.
Excited and ready to begin this new adventure, I arrived at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in August 2005. I quickly became friends with (now Fathers) Mark Murphy and Gerald Souza, as well as with Tim Lewis who is now happily married and a father of three!
My time at St. Charles was interesting. I had a lot of good experiences of parish life and nursing home ministry. However, I felt that, in a sense, things were moving too fast, and in December of my junior year, I withdrew from seminary formation.
I left uncertain about what I was going to do. Part of me — perhaps a larger part than I wanted to admit at the time — always knew I would come back to the seminary. I told myself that it would be better for me to leave and return to formation later, than to have never left, been ordained, and constantly be questioning if I had made the right choice. In a sense, I had to leave the seminary to save a possible (future) vocation.
After I had left, from the career perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and from the vocation perspective, part of me wanted to date and thought about being a father and a husband. I began working maintenance part-time for a Noble & Greenough School in Dedham, where I had been a camp counselor during the summer since 9th grade. As well, I began substitute teaching at the Dedham Middle and High schools.
In August 2007, I entered UMass Boston to finish my degree. When I left St. Charles, I had more courses in philosophy than anything else, so as much as I didn’t really want to, I decided to keep philosophy as my major. During this time, I began to help with my parish’s Confirmation Program (Patrick O’Connor, who just completed his first year of seminary at St. John’s along with Nick Stano, was a student my first year teaching Confirmation). And, after two years of just helping with our ROC Confirmation program, I joined the Core of our Life Teen program. I found myself in a unique position — I saw many of the kids in the Confirmation program at school while I was subbing, and while working at the Nobles hockey rink, I saw kids who played for Dedham High. Having gotten to know the students very well in three different areas of their lives, I felt as if I was supposed to be the teacher that I had told myself in the 6th grade I would be.
Driving the Zamboni at the Noble & Greenough School hockey rink where I worked
For a while, that felt right. I loved being in the classroom. I loved that the kids saw me in school, on the ice, and at church. It allowed them, as well, to be open with me in ways that someone involved in just one aspect of their lives couldn’t be — fielding questions from the other night’s Confirmation class after practice at the rink or in the cafeteria at lunch. I thought that this is finally what God had been calling me to.
St. Mary’s, Dedham Life Teen Fall Retreat, 2011
Well, you’ve heard the anecdote, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans”? Almost as soon as I found a new resolve to pursue education, I began to feel that pull again on my heart to consider going back to the seminary. At first, I fought it. I didn’t want to. But that was the problem — “I.” I wasn’t asking what God wanted of me. The biggest influence on my decision to go back, was the teens I was working with through Life Teen.
I found an interesting dichotomy in that, while I was trying to “lead teens closer to Christ” (as Life Teen says), I came to the realization that they were actually living (or at least trying to live) the faith and deepen their relationship with Jesus better than I was myself. My faith had plateaued. I was going to Mass, but that was about it. I wasn’t praying. There was no depth. It was all very flat. Seeing the teens trying to do what I was telling them they should, but wasn’t in actuality doing myself, caused me to reevaluate my own faith. As soon as I started actually trying to live myself what I had been telling them they needed to, God’s call to return to the seminary became abrasively clear. Only now, I was more open to the thought of going back.
In the fall of 2011, I applied to St. John’s Seminary and was accepted and entered in August 2012. My time at St. John’s had its ups and downs — when people would ask how it was going, I used to say that it’s not like waking up at Disney World every morning, but it’s where I need to be.
Thankfully, as many priests told me, the seminary is not the goal. Ordination is the goal. Seminary is just the means. They say the odds of making it through Navy SEAL training is 1 in 4. Of the 1,000 or so recruits that sign up for Navy SEAL training, only about 250 will make it all the way through. Like “Hell Week” for Navy SEALs, the seminary is not for everyone. However, unlike the SEALs, it’s not about what I can do, what I can endure. Unlike the sailors who enter SEAL training, it’s not about your own strength, but rather, God’s strength — alone, we can do nothing, but with God, “we can do all things in Christ who is our strength” (Phil. 4:13). If you are open, if you are honest, if you let God do His thing and work through you, everything else will fall into place. During my time at St. John’s, I had the privilege of meeting many great men — many of whom were priests, many of whom are now priests, and many who hopefully one day soon will be.
Concelebrating Morning Mass on July 6, 2017 at St. James with Father Kevin Leaver, classmate and son of Immaculate Conception, Stoughton
I’ve been in the Catholic Parishes of Stoughton since June 1. I guess I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I am excited to finally be where God had intended all along. To be able to minister the Sacraments, to offer Mass, and to absolve sins in Confession and Holy Anointing — to be called, “Father” by people who could be your grandparents — all of these and more are truly humbling experiences that words can’t sufficiently describe, and all and only because I am a priest.
Receiving the vows of Mr. John Paul and Mrs. Caitlyn Manning, July 8, 2017
Recently, I had the incredible privilege of celebrating the Wedding Mass and receiving the vows of one of my closest friends, and that experience is probably unlike any other that I will ever have. I am so thankful to Cardinal Seán for having assigned me to the Catholic Parishes of Stoughton: St. James and Immaculate Conception.