Father Joe O’Connor brings focus and a younger presence to the vocations office
By Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer
One of the challenges of growing vocations is appealing to the younger generation. As the priest shortage threatens more and more parishes, it has become crucial for the priesthood to receive an injection of youth in its ranks.
With that in mind, the diocese recently appointed Father Joe O’Connor the new director of the Office of Vocation Promotion.
At just 30 years old, Father O’Connor believes his youth will help young people identify more closely with him.
In addition, the previous director of vocation promotion, Father Andrew Baranski, divided his time between three tasks. Along with heading up the vocation promotion efforts, Father Baranski is Bishop James Moynihan’s secretary and he serves as assistant chancellor.
Father O’Connor will be able to narrow his office’s focus, directing his own energy solely toward building the priesthood.
Although he graduated from Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School, Father O’Connor went through six different schools in Syracuse’s southwest corridor. While at Bishop Ludden, Father O’Connor played soccer, CYO basketball and baseball. At the varsity level, Father O’Connor was a team captain his senior year.
His home parish is Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse.
Father O’Connor graduated from Franciscan University at Steubenville and he completed his theological studies at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.
Following his ordination in 2005, Father O’Connor was assigned to St. James Church in Johnson City. While serving in the Southern Tier, he was an active member of the diocese’s Vocation Promotion Team.
His enthusiasm for sports made him a natural fit as the coordinator for the annual Men in Black basketball games. He also organized the bishop’s annual vocations picnic and he was a featured speaker at the annual diocesan youth rally.
But Father O’Connor has made it a point to expand his role beyond a handful of events. While at St. James, he offered vocation presentations to the parishes, schools and confirmation classes. He also simply offered his presence whenever he could. For instance, if Seton Catholic Central School was hosting a high school basketball game, Father O’Connor would make sure he was there, simply to be among young people.
“More than anything else, it’s just showing up at schools and building positive energy,” Father O’Connor said.
According to Father O’Connor, in a letter notifying him of the new assignment, Bishop Moynihan said that O’Connor’s enthusiasm for the priesthood and also his ability to connect with young people as qualities that suited him for the position.
While Father O’Connor was at St. James, he served with that parish’s pastor, Father John Donovan. Father Donovan, who served as the director of the Office of Vocation Promotion from 2003 to 2005, said, “He is the ideal person for this job.”
Father Donovan underscored Father O’Connor’s enthusiasm.
“[He is very] high energy and he is able to do the one-on-one with the proper attention,” Father Donovan said.
Admittedly, Father O’Connor said that he is still learning on the job.
“I’m still figuring it all out,” he said.
When The Catholic SUN interviewed him in December, Father O’Connor was still divided between St. James and his new office at the Chancery in Syracuse. He noted that his personal and professional materials were still jumbled in his Chancery office.
As he bobs and weaves amid this new terrain, Father O’Connor said that he’s really just trying to find a “new angle” to an elemental issue.
“I’m finding new ways to say what’s a pretty simple message: ‘God is calling you. Will you say yes?’”
Father O’Connor observed that it is as important that he make a strong impression on the parents of young people as it is the prospective priests. The clergy sex abuse scandal that made headlines in the early 2000s is still impacting the church.
With that in mind, Father O’Connor noted that his responsibilities include “rebuilding the esteem of the priesthood.”
“We have to rebuild the trust and respect that vocation used to have,” Father O’Connor said. “Anywhere youth gather is somewhere the Father needs to be.”
For example, Father O’Connor hopes to establish a more consistent presence in diocesan schools.
Father O’Connnor said that it is important to find potential priests among the ranks of all young people, not just those who might be regular attendees at Mass.
Father Donovan noted that Father O’Connor casts a wide net when it comes to inviting young people to the priesthood.
“Within the context of the diocese, he never encounters a young person without asking and inquiring about the priesthood – whether it be directly or subtly,” Father Donovan said. “He listens to their story first and doesn’t assume that their experience is just like his or even that it is typical. He understands that each experience is unique and that God calls them uniquely.”
He said he learned from Father Baranski the importance of extending the invitation to the priesthood. Father Baranski, for instance, spearheaded the effort to make the vocations office more accessible through such tools as its Web site: http://www.vocations-syracuse.org.
Those interested in vocations may contact Father O’Connor at email@example.com or by telephone at (315) 345-4522.