He leadeth me. My journey to the priesthood

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Fr. Sean Maher—Melrose, MA

Fr. Sean Maher grew up in Ireland in County Kerry, the southwest coast of Ireland. He came to the U.S. as an adult and entered St. John’s Seminary in Boston, MA.  Now he serves as parochial vicar of  St. Mary of the Annunciation parish in Melrose, Massachusetts, just North of Boston.

Upbringing in Ireland:

Fr. Sean had a typical Catholic-Irish upbringing. He prayed the rosary and Angelus every day with his family. In fact at 6 p.m., all over Ireland the main national television and radio stations would toll bells for the Angelus prayer. He is not sure if it is still the case today. Ireland has become more and more secularized since he left over ten years ago.

His family owned a shop that sold farm machinery and fertilizer. Sean grew up outdoors in this farming district. Much of the farming was linked to dairy farming or raising cattle for beef.

Since Ireland became independent much of the schools were owned and run by the Catholic Church. About 95% of them. Most children in primary schools would attend a parish school although there were some Anglican and some Church of Ireland run schools as well. Secondary and University level was more diverse and not always strictly Catholic.

Fr. Sean attended the University of Limerick. He studied business and French and specialized in marketing. He spent his second of four years of university studies in France. It is there that he lived a great year of faith formation and hence his faith blossomed.


He studied in Nantes in the region of Brittany. It is there that he began to doubt the existence of God. But what troubled him most was the thought of what “God would think if He knew that he was thinking that He did not exist?” He figured that if He truly did not exist, then the thought would not matter but if He did in fact exist, than it was just a thought and he would ask for pardon for having it in the first place.

There was a key moment in this struggle and that was when Fr. Sean approached his relationship with God with a new honesty. It seemed as though before hand he had been trying to hide himself from God.

One day, before Christmas, at the Cathedral of Nantes, in front of the Blessed Sacrament Fr. Sean began to question the Lord. But suddenly the answers began to become obvious and thus began to lead him to more and more questions. It was as if he began to cut through all of the layers of doubt and rubbish. Soon it lead him to the certainty that God did indeed exist and what ever situation he was in, He would show him the way forward. Fr. Sean believes this is true for every one, in fact, but unfortunately not every one finds this absolute truth.

Soon he was home for Christmas going out with his friends that were not in line with the Gospels. Yet, after Christmas he returned to Nantes and to the Cathedral hoping to repeat the same experience. Nothing did occur. However, he was curious to find out what exactly had happened to him. The year progressed with many steps forward in the faith and still many steps back. He went on a pilgrimage to Rome.

He began to attend daily Mass at the Cathedral while he was still in Nantes. One day, a lady approached him after Mass and asked him if he would like to join their prayer group. He said yes, although what he intended to say and what he was thinking was, no! He still does not understand how that happened. Needless to say, he attended the very next day; he had to abide by his promise. The meeting turned out to be attended by seven older women and himself. They soon mentioned that there was a prayer group for younger people in another church in the center of Nantes.

It was 1999 and many cities throughout Europe were preparing for the Jubilee. Nantes was no exception. All the churches were being cleaned except for this very church where he was going to attend the youth prayer meeting. It was dark and forbidden. There was scaffolding every where so as to prevent things from falling on people. There was a black cross on the exterior. As soon as he stepped into the cold church, a bird flew across the apse. He went directly to the notice board and saw that they had adoration every Tuesday night. It was the only church in all of Nantes that had adoration more than once a month. He knew that adoration was a good thing although he was not too familiar with it.

During adoration he felt the same joy he  had experienced before Christmas. It was as if he had his two feet were on solid ground, in a very special way. He was, as he says “over the moon!” Just one day later he went to Mass and then the prayer group. The prayer group consisted of about 4-5 young people in their 20’s. They were mostly students or young professionals. All of a sudden their hands were raised into the air. This was not very Irish! Normally he would have left but because the adoration had been such a wonderful experience, he decided to stay. Soon 20-30 young people began to arrive and they all prayed and praised together. They broke up into small groups and they asked all the new attendees to form a small group as well.

After the meeting someone approached him and asked if he was looking for a job. They informed him that in a place called Paray-le-Monial there was a gathering every summer where they needed volunteers He had asked his parents if he could work there rather than back home at their store, and they had approved.  He also asked his mother if she had ever heard of Paray and she concurred, telling him how the Blessed Lord had appeared to St. Margaret Mary; whose name she herself had been given.

He then called his brother, who lived in Rome, and asked him if he knew of a certain “Emmanuel Community” who organized these summer gatherings. His brother told him that in fact he had taken him to their house while he had visited him in Rome earlier. Needless to say, he did volunteer in Paray before returning to Ireland for his third year of University studies.

Emmanuel International Community:

The Emmanuel Community heads the chaplaincy in Paray.  The community is so vibrant. It was formed in the 1970’s. Soon after the community was born, they began to frequent Paray. Soon the local Bishop noticed the community and asked them to take responsibility for the chaplaincy. Now Paray sees over 100,000 pilgrims each year. It was during Fr. Sean’s time in Paray that he learned that a Christian who was alone was a Christian in danger. Community is important. Sure, God’s grace is enough, but community certainly helps. Community is the Church.

The Emmanuel Community is currently present in over 60-80 countries around the world. They have about 8,000+ members, most of which are lay members. The three pillars: adoration, compassion and evangelization. Eucharistic Adoration is a commitment each member strives to maintain daily by having an hour of Eucharistic Adoration when ever possible. It is during Adoration that they receive the Lord’s compassion and so they are able to more aptly look on the world as the Lord does. Then as you look on the world with compassion your desire to evangelize grows as well.

It is true that many new communities have an intense prayer life. But at the same time, the Emmanuel community has an intense activity of evangelization. These pillars help me as a priest immensely. Yet, I must say that these three pillars should connect in any Christian’s life. This is actually what made discerning the call to the priesthood a bit confusing. Because of his great love for the Eucharist many thought that he should be a priest. Fr. Sean was of the opinion that all Christians should have this great love for the Eucharist. This love for the Blessed Sacrament reinforces what men should do as priests. It highlights the fact that we should take the time to pray, to bring the message of Christ to His people rather than our own message. At the same time it reminds us that we should meet everyone knowing that it is not just a random chance but rather something the Lord has arranged from long ago. He has prepared each one of our meetings with others so that we may speak His words and not our own.

I am indeed happiest when I am evangelizing. When you meet someone that has been away from the Church for so long and they have this honest conversation with you, like I had some years ago with the Lord, it brings me great joy. A lot of people are afraid of speaking to priests in this way. But honesty is the best policy. If we are not honest with the Lord and with those who are trying to help us, it is hard to progress in our spiritual life.

The Emmanuel Community in Boston:

The activity of the community in Boston is really centered around a household group that meets occasionally. We are hopeful that we will grow. Yet, the few members that are here have had an affect. “Jesus in the North End” now “Jesus in Boston” or “Jesus in Harvard Square”. This comes from a recommendation that Cardinal Sean had from what he witnessed in Piazza Navona in Rome at the church of St. Agnese in Agone. Then Lauren Hardegan, who was a young woman employed by the archdiocese set up Jesus in the North End. She had the same experience as myself in spending one year in Rome with the Emmanuel School of Mission (ESM).

Coming to the U.S.:

I came to the U.S. because of a scholarship that I discovered my final year. It was advertised for an MS in Finance or an MBA from Fairfield University in Connecticut. ONce I completed my degree in Connecticut, I entered seminary at St. John’s. My spiritual director at the time was helping me discern what I would do next once I had finished my degree. I had just finished reading the book “He Leadeth Me” by Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. One of the things that I learned from that book was that once you narrow things down as far as choices, you also find out that God works through concrete reality. Firstly, I asked myself if it was the priesthood or not. Secondly, I needed to question where.

I also had the assistance at that time of Bishop O’Malley in discerning the question of community. It was then that I decided to apply to the seminary in Boston. After I went home for Christmas, I found out that I had been accepted to begin in January. In the end, I was ordained.

Although my family would have preferred that I would have entered seminary in Kerry, they did still support my decision. They were happy with the formation I was receiving in Boston. I was ordained four and a half years ago. My first assignment as a priest was at Holy Family parish in Duxbury, MA.

Life as a priest:

My experience at Holy Family was fantastic. The parishioners were very welcoming. They helped to form me. I pray that I helped to draw them closer to the Lord as well. It was through administering the Sacrament of Confession, listening to their problems, attending their family’s deaths and meeting the people outside of the Church that I learned so much. There was one particular group of men that would meet at a local coffee shop after Sunday Mass. I would try to go once a month. We would have great conversations. We would talk about all sorts of things…about life! You learn about their lives and hence you learn about where it is that Christ wants to meet them.

Meeting them “outside of the Church” helps me to understand each of them. During the week I am able to have conversations that illumine the Scriptures for that coming Sunday. This helps me to preach. I use this to preach without revealing their identities. I can also have fun with this too. It all helps to bring people closer to Christ. The homily is not meant to be entertainment. It should give them a lift so that they can be excited to live their life with God.

Pope Francis talks about this often. He really has a broad based appeal. It is no longer Catholics that are interested in the Pope but your average people on the streets. It is a mystery to me. He is not that different from other popes, he just says a lot of other things. The media reports differently on him. That is when we realize that our impressions are many times informed by the mainstream media. This is why Catholic media is so important. Pope Francis speaks in a more coloquial style.

At St. Mary of the Annunciation I am, for the first time, serving in a parish that also has a school. I have always been the youngest in my family, amongst my siblings and cousins. My whole life I was always alongside people my age or older. Working with young people is new for me. The funny thing is, they know more about me than I do about them.

I love being a priest because I see how the people change and draw closer to the Lord through the Sacrament of Confession. It is also a gift to be able to celebrate the Eucharist. It is amazing to me when I reflect on the fact that Mass is like a sort of time machine. The Sacrifice on the Cross is being made present in real time so that all people throughout history are united at that very moment. Even all the saints are present at the moment of consecration. During my very first Mass I was so overwhelmed by this thought.

The Sacrament of Confession transforms us. There is something real that is happening at that very moment of the confession. Something intangible. Just like the Eucharist. We see what looks like bread but in faith we know that Jesus Christ is truly present and He is not separate from God the Father or the Holy Spirit. God Himself is entirely present.

Confession takes something wrong and sets it right. It requires so much honesty. People come and talk about their lives and their anger with certain people and confession suddenly brings out a different person. They are almost child like. As Jesus said: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 18:3.  They take responsibility for what went wrong and a maturity and simplicity is present. There is accountability. We can all do with accountability. Of course there is often fear, but it’s a pity because it is a wonderful thing. I tell you, do not be afraid of what the priest might think. Chances are we have heard it all before. Don’t be afraid of confession! It is between you and God. The priest is just an intermediary. My words only assure you that God forgives you. It is solely the power of God working through the priest.

I like to preach often about coming away from sin and the frequenting of confession. One of the things that I found striking about Saint John Paul II in his Reconciliation and Penance Reconciliation and Penance Apostolic Exhortation (from 1984) was a quote he had from Pope Pius XI stating “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” And in the footnote it stated that Pope Pius’ message had been delivered via radio to a congress in Boston in 1946. Things have not changed much. In my vocation it was in reading the line of Zachariah about his son John the Baptist: “for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Luke 1:76-77. This is what a priest is called to do.

The other thing I preach about quite often is joy.

During my free time I like to ski. Since I am unable to ski during the weekend I am able to get a better deal with mid-week passes. I ski with a classmate from New Hampshire. I’ve really taken to it this year. It is wonderful; the exercise and the fresh air. In the winter, when there is so much darkness, the brightness you witness during skiing really helps.

Our Mass Schedules at St. Mary of the Annunciation is Saturdays at 4 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 a.m.; 9;30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Many young families attend the Sunday 9:30 a.m. Mass.

Last thoughts:

I had two big experiences during the year I spent in Rome:

One was that the Lord wants to reach His people and if we are to experience His desire for us, we only experience pain because we are not doing enough for Him. It is powerful. He is reaching out and wants to embrace us. Secondly, when we do reach  life in heaven it will be so consuming that praise will gush forth from us and it will be so gratifying!


Taken with permission from a radio interview at “The Good Catholic Life” Boston’s 1060 AM. Program #0633 for Tuesday, December 10, 2013. Hosted by Scot Landry and Fr. Chris O’Connor. You can listen to the full interview by clicking here.

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