by Joyce Duriga
CHICAGO — It all started with a friendship between a home-schooling family and an archdiocesan seminarian studying at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, north of Chicago.
Deacon Dan Morris, a fourth-year theology student at Mundelein, sent a copy of the DVD “Heroic Priesthood” to the O’Neill family back in his home parish of Sacred Heart-St. Joseph in Topeka.
The short DVD shows the joys and demands of the priestly vocation and was filmed last year during Mundelein Seminary’s annual basketball tournament.
“Brian [O’Neill] ended up emailing me a few weeks later and asked if this was something that we did every year. And, if so, could anybody come to it,” Deacon Morris said. “That rolled into him asking every father in the home-schooling family network. And, before we knew it, we had 29 people coming up. Eight families.”
The group of nine dads and 20 boys traveled to Mundelein the weekend of Jan. 31 to visit the seminary and attend the basketball tournament. Twelve teams from seminaries in seven states participated in the annual Father Pat O’Malley Invitational, which has been going on for 15 years.
A group of the Kansans arrived on Jan. 29, and stopped by the Fulton Sheen Museum in Peoria, Illinois, on their way to Chicago. All stayed in the dorms on the Mundelein campus.
“Friday, we went into Chicago. We saw the Willis Tower and went up to the Skydeck, which was a first for most of us,” said Reid Downey of Immaculate Conception Parish, St. Marys. “We sampled some deep-dish Chicago pizza at Giordano’s.”
They also visited the Field Museum and Old St. Pat’s Church.
Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower and one of the tallest buildings in Chicago, was a particular highlight for the boys — so much so that they were still talking about it, said O’Neill.
On Saturday, Deacon Morris and some other seminarians from the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas gave the whole group of dads and boys a tour of the campus. They went to Mass in the morning and then toured the main chapel, the library and the new St. John Paul II chapel.
“We got to meet Father [Robert] Barron,” Downey said. “We’ve heard him so much on CD that it felt like you know him. But he’s great to talk to.”
Father Barron is a nationally known evangelist, founder of Word On Fire ministries and rector of Mundelein Seminary.
The seminarians also took them down to the pier on the lake on campus and to the Lourdes grotto.
“We hung out in the [theology recreation] hall and watched the KU– K-State basketball game, then played pool, pingpong and shuffleboard,” said Deacon Morris, who will be ordained in May for the archdiocese. In the afternoon, some of the boys went swimming.
This was the first father-son trip for the home-schooling group, Downey said.
“But I have a feeling we’ll be doing more in the future,” he said. “They’re already kinda throwing out ideas of stuff to do.”
On trips like this they always bond, said Troy Butcher of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka. “The kids always remember the trips with their dads.”
Butcher said he was moved by the sight of all the seminarians from around the country playing in the tournament.
“You feel the strength of brotherhood here,” he said, while watching a game. “We need these men around to keep us strong in our faith.”
Downey used to do youth ministry and heard about Mundelein Seminary through the Totus Tuus program. For him, it was good to come and see what everyone was always talking about. But there were other benefits of the trip.
“This is a way to introduce [the boys] to seminary life — to see how a seminarian lives,” said Downey. “They get a clear picture and realize that priests don’t just come out of machines. They play basketball. They joke. They eat. They do all the normal things that everybody else does.”
O’Neill, of St. John Vianney Parish in Maple Hills, agreed.
“We hope that if we introduce it to them early enough, they will be open to the calling if it comes,” he said.
Sean Downey, 14, said the seminary was “pretty cool,” even though the weather was “really cold.”
“I always thought that seminaries were these cold, hard places, and you woke up on a stone floor every morning,” Sean said. “The pool was really cool.”
Deacon Morris said when he was growing up, making a visit to a seminary wasn’t something people did.
“I’m 40 years old, so the whole notion of vocations was never really something that was on the radar,” he said.
It helps when the parents are interested, he added.
“I think it starts with their families. These kids are amazing,” he said. “Their families are amazing just in the way that they instill the faith and make it the central thing in their lives.”