BONITA – “Relying on the help of the Lord God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, we choose Michael, our brother, for the order of priesthood,” Bishop Robert W. McElroy declared during an ordination Mass celebrated June 21 at Corpus Christi Parish.
“Thanks be to God,” the congregation responded in unison.
At these words, Michael Maurice O’Connor turned to face them, his hands folded and his face beaming, as he received their applause.
Shortly thereafter, through the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination, the 33-year-old transitional deacon was ordained to the diocesan priesthood.
Wearing the stole and chasuble, the liturgical vestments of a Catholic priest, the newly ordained Father O’Connor looked every bit his new role. But he hadn’t always seemed an obvious candidate for a life of prayer and ministry.
At age 4, when his family would pray the rosary, the Litany of Mary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet together at least twice a week, he wasn’t filled with fervent devotion.
“I did not know what the prayers meant or what they accomplished,” recalled O’Connor, who has been assigned as associate pastor of St. Mark Parish in San Marcos. “All I knew is that it was going to take 25 to 30 minutes.”
And, as for the Mass, which he attended infrequently for much of his youth, he was “disinterested” in that, as well.
That all changed during his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, when a Catholic friend invited him to Sunday Mass. Within a month, he was attending Mass almost daily, and he had not only purchased a Bible but immediately started reading the Gospels.
Previously bored by the liturgy, he was now seeking out Church ministries in which he could serve – something that he would continue to do after graduating from UC Berkeley in 2008, returning to his hometown of San Diego and finding a spiritual home at Corpus Christi Parish.
Then working as an academic scientist at the University of California, San Diego, O’Connor was attending Mass and reciting the rosary every day, serving as a catechist and a youth group leader at his parish, and realizing that he was arranging his daily routine around Mass times and holy hours.
“I noticed that it was my work in and for the Church, more than the work in the laboratories – which I enjoyed immensely – that I found most fulfilling,” he said. “Here, in my joyful labor in the Church, I was living out what I believed was my purpose in life.”
O’Connor, who was ordained to the transitional diaconate on June 2, 2018, and completed his theological studies last May at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, used to reflect on what constituted “a well-lived life.” Ultimately, he decided that it involved doing something “to improve the world.”
This mindset drew him to the world of science where, as a neurobiology researcher, he was working on treatments that would alleviate suffering. But it also led him to the seminary.
“As an academic scientist, I knew that through this truly honorable and indispensable work, I was helping build a better world,” he said. “However, I found that I was doing far greater good when my life was aimed toward helping people find God and so to love Him more and more.”
In his homily, Bishop McElroy noted that both a geographical and an inner journey had led O’Connor to the day of his priestly ordination. But the bishop said his remarks would focus on a different journey, “the future journey” that was awaiting O’Connor as priest.
Bishop McElroy promised that this journey would be “filled with wonder and joy, with challenge and suffering, with the realization that you can create marvels in the Lord’s grace that you never would have dreamt possible.”
“As you join yourself to the priesthood of Jesus Christ this afternoon, as you are filled with a sense of joy in all that has led you to this moment and all that lies before you in the wondrous life to which you are committing yourself,” Bishop McElroy said, “I pray that the grace of God will make you always a caring and faith-filled shepherd, tender, compassionate and sacrificing yourself always for the good of your flock.”