By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Bill. Subscription expiration. Assorted junk. Bill. The usual pile of mail greeted Father Joe O’Connor when he came into his office at the Chancery in Syracuse one morning in November. But one piece of mail in the stack stood out — a handwritten greeting card.
Inside the envelope was a note and photo from Olivia Guy, a 10-year-old altar server at St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s Parish in Rome. The note explained that, as part of a program organized by her church, she was going to spend Advent praying for Father O’Connor and his vocation.
“I thought, ‘How awesome is this?’” Father O’Connor said. “Advent is such a busy time for priests. It can be draining. To pick up the mail and see a note from someone saying, ‘I’m praying for you,’ that’s really powerful.” He was especially impressed that someone as young as Olivia had “really committed” to this exercise in faith.
Many other St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s parishioners had committed as well, and though most of them didn’t know it at the time, the priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese had partners in prayer this Advent season.
The idea for the project came to St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s via parishioner Sue Mullin. While vacationing in Florida last winter, she went to Mass at a local church and was greeted at the door by a parishioner holding a card.
“I was asked if I would be willing to pray for a priest during Lent,” she said. “I said, ‘Of course.’”
Mullin took the card, which listed the name of a priest in the diocese, a prayer to be said for him and his vocation every day, and his address, so that Mullin could send him a note at Easter to let him know that she had prayed for him. She immediately added the priest to her daily prayers. She also began thinking this would be an excellent project to undertake for the priests of her home diocese.
“There are so many wonderful priests in our diocese. I thought this would be something the laity could do to support them,” she said. “Our priests face a lot of challenges in their vocations, and they need our prayers.”
Once back in Rome, Mullin told a few of her fellow parishioners about the project. The project was then proposed to pastor Father Philip Hearn.
Father Hearn, who has worked in the diocese’s vocations office and who regularly encourages his parishioners to pray for and celebrate religious vocations, was all for undertaking a project that would offer spiritual support for priests.
“We can always use prayers!” he said.
Father Hearn thought Advent, a season of hope and joy, would be an appropriate time to start the project. He contacted diocesan offices to get the names and addresses of the priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese, having decided to expand the project beyond just priests. A brief leaflet was produced, similar to the card Mullin brought home from Florida, that listed the prayer recipient’s name, a Prayer for Priests, and instructions from Father Hearn to pray every day and send a note at Christmas letting the priest know he had been prayed for. Christina Carissimo, a 16-year-old parishioner, created beautiful illustrations for the leaflet, including an intricate Celtic knot with symbols of the Gospel writers.
Father Hearn introduced the project to the parish over two weekends leading up to Advent, encouraging everyone to take a pamphlet from volunteers on their way out of church. The response was so strong that a second batch of pamphlets had to be printed.
Olivia was at Mass with her grandmother, Connie Cushman, when the project was introduced.
“I told her that I’d be taking a card and she said she wanted to take one, too,” Cushman said. “I explained that she’d have to pray every single day for whomever she picked, that she couldn’t forget. She said she wouldn’t forget. She was very sincere.”
True to her word, each morning during Advent Olivia said a prayer for Father O’Connor, usually an original composition. She said that even though she’d never met him, it was important to her to pray for the priest.
Cushman, who sees her granddaughter a few times each week, checked in each time they were together to make sure Olivia was keeping up with the project.
“She always said yes!” Cushman said. “She was very dedicated.”
Cushman was also dedicated to the project. Her daily prayers already included Father Hearn and the priests at St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s, so adding Father Arthur Krawczenko, pastor of the Church of the Sacred Heart and St. Mary Our Lady of Czestochowa, came easily.
“I pray for [the priests] and their intentions, that they be open to the Holy Spirit and that we [the faithful] can be good lambs,” she said. “Praying for our priests and their vocations is so important, and being a part of this project was something I wanted to do, something I knew I should do.”
Father Corey Van Kuren, chaplain at Binghamton University, was also the recipient of prayers from a St. Mary’s/St. Peter’s parishioner. He got his letter just before Christmas, timing, he said, that helped him put the season in perspective.
“To know that I was involved in someone’s Christmas spirituality is touching,” he said. “And that it was done without me knowing about it, that’s grace-filled. For me, grace comes from doing good without expecting any recognition.” Father Van Kuren said the experience spurred him to do more “anonymous prayer” of his own, including people he didn’t know personally in his intentions.
Father Van Kuren also said the project “widened the responsibility for vocations in our Church.”
“Bishop Moynihan, whenever he preached about vocations, would say that you needed to make it personal. What these parishioners did — praying for a priest they didn’t know, for his vocation — that personalized it. It was an investment for them. And it was a blessing for me.”
As Advent drew to a close, Father O’Connor received a second letter from Olivia. This one was dotted with drawings, and a brief note sweetly summed up her Advent endeavor:
“I have been praying for you every day in Advent so far…. All I wanted to do is tell you I look forward to praying for you throughout Advent, and Merry Christmas. Love, Olivia.”