Utica native Dan Horan’s journey to the Franciscan priesthood
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Father Dan Horan, OFM, began his homily May 27 with a little-known fact about himself.
“I’m not a birdwatcher,” he told the congregation at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Utica with a grin. Chuckles rose from the pews filled with family, friends and fellow parishioners who had watched him grow from Danny the altar server into Father Horan the Franciscan priest, ordained by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick at St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., just a few days before.
Although he doesn’t particularly care for birds, Father Horan explained, they had been on his mind lately. His order’s founder, St. Francis, loved birds. He had just read a book by his favorite author full of essays about birds. And then there were the week’s readings, calling to mind one of the Bible’s most famous images: the dove of the Holy Spirit.
With an ease belying his love of homiletics and his experience as a college professor, Father Horan launched into a smart, funny homily offering a new way to think about the Holy Spirit — as God’s breath, breathing new life into the world. Fittingly, the new priest looked right at home on the altar of the church he has considered a second home since he was a boy.
Father Horan, 28, grew up in Utica, the oldest of Kevin and Anne Marie Horan’s four sons. His family was faith-filled but not necessarily devotional, he said. Rather, his parents conveyed the importance of their Catholic faith through their day-to-day lives. The family never missed Mass, even on vacations in Old Forge. Father Horan also cited the sacrifices his parents made to send their children to Catholic schools; the three oldest Horan sons are graduates of Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School and the youngest, Ryan, is currently a junior there.
“My parents spent practically every cent they ever earned sending us all to Catholic schools,” he said. “That sacrifice impresses me most, and I am so thankful for it.”
Those influences were coupled with his attraction to the life of the church from an early age.
“We lived within walking distance of [Our Lady of] Lourdes, and I just loved being involved with the church,” Father Horan said. “I couldn’t get enough.”
His fascination with the liturgy and his interest in being part of the celebration in the sanctuary led him to begin altar serving as soon as he was able. He still remembers the first Mass he served, at 6:30 a.m. one Sunday.
“I was paired up with a boy a year older than me who taught me what I needed to do. I loved the idea of helping the priest and having a role in what was happening at the altar,” he said.
He worked his way up the altar server ladder, becoming a sacristan in high school. Then-pastor Father Donald Karlen remembers Dan as a young man who distinguished himself as a leader, one who would study the liturgy ahead of time and “always be right at my right hand.” His mom also recalled her young son as a leader, with a strong, independent mind of his own.
“He has always known exactly what he wants. Don’t try to tell him what to do!” she laughed.
Feeling God’s call to ordained ministry, Father Horan long thought he’d become a diocesan priest. Attending Franciscan college St. Bonaventure University showed him a different path.
His theology studies and freelance photography jobs (including some for the Sun) kept him busy, and he enjoyed knocking back a few beers with his friends. But “the idea of being a priest never left me,” Father Horan said. He went to Mass at the friary every morning before classes. (Anne Marie remembered seeing the well-worn carpet in front of his usual spot in the chapel during a visit to the campus.) There was also a vocations group, and once a month Father Horan would attend evening prayer and share a meal with the friars.
“Over time, I came to realize I saw myself in this way of life,” he said. The Franciscan charism, especially the concept of living in community, spoke to him, he said, and seemed a perfect fit.
“I discovered my vocation ‘in reverse,’” Father Horan continued. “I felt the sacramental call to ministry at an early age, but going to Bonaventure and living and praying with the Franciscans led me spiritually to the friars. This is the piece I discovered secondly, but it is my fundamental call.”
After graduating from St. Bonaventure in 2005 Father Horan entered the Holy Name Province of the Order of Friars Minor. He began a seven-year formation program of discernment, study and ministry during which he earned two more degrees in theology and ministered in variety of positions, most recently assisting at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va. It all led to May 19, when he and fellow friar Stephen DeWitt were ordained Roman Catholic priests by Cardinal McCarrick.
His mother had never been to an ordination before, but she said the combination of joy and solemnity reminded her a bit of a wedding.
“Sometimes before a wedding, though, parents might have to ask their child, ‘Are you sure about this?’” Anne Marie said. “I never had that question for Dan.”
Father Horan agreed. “Everything just felt right,” he said. “I could feel the Spirit in the celebration and the overwhelming, prayerful support of my family, friends, so many parishioners from Virginia and my brother friars.”
That same feeling came over him a week later as he celebrated Mass — just his fourth ever — for so many loved ones and neighbors in his home parish. “The experience [of celebrating Mass] is so humbling,” Father Horan said, recalling the many familiar faces he saw from his vantage point in the sanctuary. “It’s an amazing gift and privilege to have received this call, and to have it affirmed by the Church and my fellow friars.” Though it might sound trite, he said, it is truly a blessing for him to be able to serve in this way.
This fall, Father Horan will head to Boston College to begin work on his doctorate in theology. A self-described nerd, he loves academics and theology — “a hobby that got out of control,” he joked. “One of the reasons I love theology so much is that it is an intensive intellectual pursuit and field of discovery that deals with the most important issues of reality and experience — life, death, God, faith, love, suffering and so on — but it doesn’t stop at a superficial exploration and instead takes for granted the truth that there is so much more to life than we at first see,” he said. He counts Karl Rahner, Wolfhart Pannenberg, John Duns Scotus, St. Bonaventure, St. Augustine, Walter Kasper, Robert Grosseteste and John Caputo among his favorite theologians.
In addition to “still having so much to learn,” he said he also hopes his studies will prepare him to serve in education ministry as he did during the internship year of his formation, when he taught at Siena College.
“Early in my formation I thought about being the first Franciscan staff photographer for Sports Illustrated,” he said, only half-joking. “But now I see myself teaching theology classes to college students.”
Father Horan also spent that year at Siena writing his first book, Dating God: Live and Love in the Way of St. Francis, published in February by St. Anthony Messenger Press. The book, which grew out of an America magazine article he wrote following a 10-day hermitage retreat experience during his novitiate, offers a new way to look at one’s relationship with God. Father Horan has written a number of academic and popular articles, and said writing this book “was an adventure.” His next book, a Franciscan exploration of the seven last words of Christ as social teaching, will be released next year. He also blogs about contemporary issues of faith at www.datinggod.org.
Wherever his pursuits might take him, Father Horan knows he’s already found his place in the world.
“A weekly newspaper offered me a job as staff photographer during my first year of formation. It was kind of tempting. I had to ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep going? Or cash out and be a photographer?’” he said. “I ended up turning down the job. I realized no matter what I did, I needed to be in this community as a friar.”