Take 5 with Father: spirit for adventure, heart for the Lord
He is: Father Michael O’Sullivan, SAC, pastor of St. Stephen Parish in Weatherford since March 2016. A Pallottine priest, he was ordained June 7, 1986 at Cathedral of the Assumption in Thurles, Ireland, and has spent most of his priesthood as a missionary in Tanzania and Kenya.
Growing up: His family ran a shop and guesthouse in a small village near Killarney, Ireland, so Fr. O’Sullivan and his four older siblings grew up in a “house always full of people” coming in for a cup of tea.
Fr. O’Sullivan remembers becoming an altar server “automatically after First Communion,” and he served at daily Mass before school. He considered the priesthood until his teenage years, “when it became the furthest thought from my mind.” Fr. O’Sullivan assumed he would take on the family business.
The call: After his father’s unexpected death, a group of former classmates insisted he join them for prayer and Scripture sharing each week. “For the first time, honestly, I heard the Word of God and thought, ‘Could it be possible that God actually speaks to us?’” A “cycle of coincidences, or graces” led him to the Pallottines.
The first person he told that he was considering the priesthood was his mother, who was sick in bed but was surprised and excited at the news. When he elaborated that he was thinking of joining the Pallottines, she “almost lost her life jumping up in bed, saying, ‘Oh my God, don’t tell me they are Protestants.’ She went from a moment of sheer joy to despair, thinking I was leaving the Church.”
Why the Pallottines?: The Pallottine motto, “the love of Christ urges us on,” has always inspired Fr. O’Sullivan, and he appreciates their teaching that the “Spirit of the Lord has anointed us, not just the priests, the sisters, or the hierarchy, but the Lord has anointed us as a people. We all are called to use whatever gifts we have as an offering for the Lord.”
Dream job: In 1992, the offer of his “dream job” as a missionary in Tanzania reignited the “sense of adventure” he had as a child. He arrived knowing two words in Swahili, but as he “slowly got to learn the language and know the people, that’s when the love affair began.”
Favorite memories: Fr. O’Sullivan likens one assignment located between two game parks to living in the Garden of Eden. Antelopes, zebras, and giraffes would freely wander the unspoiled open plains, a sight he “never took for granted.”
Another outstanding experience was opening a parish in Arusha, Tanzania, which began with Mass under a mango tree. The parish “really exploded” when home visits with local Catholics led the entire neighborhood to request door-to-door visitations, growing the parish of 120 members to almost 7,000 ten years later. He experienced a “hunger for the Church in people’s lives.”
On the African Church: “In Tanzania many people are living very close to the edge, never knowing what’s ahead or what’s tomorrow, and not knowing what to eat but really having that reliance on God. It’s the greatest witness of Christianity that I’ve seen in my life.”
On poverty: In Africa, Fr. O’Sullivan said that for many impoverished people, the “only thing they could hang onto is that maybe God is present in all of this.” Here, “our material world brings us security, but a phone call from the doctor can bring you back” to dependence on God.
Coming to America: Fr. O’Sullivan was a little hesitant initially about the “new world,” but he was “surprised how people made me feel so welcome.” Plus, like Tanzania, Texas has plenty of sunshine.
Best things about being a priest: Fr. O’Sullivan appreciates the sacred trust that people place with him, occasionally sharing something they’ve never told anyone. It “gives them great freedom so share some burden they have been carrying for years.”
Fr. O’Sullivan also delights in celebrating the sacraments. “Even though we celebrate the Mass every day, it’s something never to be taken for granted — to be really present to the presence of Christ.”
He’s especially moved by the rich symbolism of Baptism: water, two kinds of oil, Baptismal garment, prayers over the ears and mouth, and the paschal candle. “It’s a beautiful sacrament, so tactile. The child comes in belonging to the mother and father and leaves as our brother and sister. A transformation takes place.”
An attitude of gratitude: “The more grateful I am, less I take for granted. When we are thankful, we are less likely to forget what a blessing life is. As a priest and as a Catholic, the greatest act of thankfulness is the sacrifice of the Mass.”
The great outdoors: Fr. O’Sullivan enjoys cycling and walking, and he hopes to get back to painting landscapes.
A special prayer: Before Sunday Mass begins, Fr. O’Sullivan says a short prayer with the ministers. “All who come to our church this day carrying a burden, whatever it is, hopefully that they will have some experience of His presence and His grace. That they will not feel alone . . . even in the darkness, there is the possibility of light.”
Spend five minutes with Fr. O'Sullivan here: