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News & Features

Six priests talk about their journey to the Catholic Church
archived from: 2004-11-19
by: Chuck Moody

Terry O’Connor’s mother was Jewish and his father was Catholic, but O’Connor wasn’t raised in either religion while he was growing up.

The situation began to change for O’Connor, however, when he attended Central Catholic High School. He not only converted to Catholicism, O’Connor entered the seminary and was ordained a priest.

Father O’Connor, parochial vicar of St. Alphonsus in Wexford, is one of at least six priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh who were born into another religion, became Catholic and were ordained.

“I was sort of in limbo,” Father O’Connor said. “I can probably say I was in a synagogue or church a handful of times in the sense of Christmas or bar mitzvahs. I went there for an occasion.”

Going to Central Catholic was a turning point in Father O’Connor’s life.

“That helped influence me,” he said. “I remember my dad said to me once I got to Pitt, ‘As you get older, it would be a good thing to look into becoming Catholic.’ I said, ‘Oh, one of these days.’

“It was shortly thereafter I was teaching a tennis lesson at Schenley Park in Pittsburgh, and after the lesson I went over and saw Father Bob George, who was from Central Catholic, and said, ‘I was never baptized. I’d like to look into it.’ Three months later, I was baptized at the chapel at Central Catholic.”

Similar to his call to baptism, Father O’Connor said God spoke to him in his heart about the priesthood.

“In my prayer life, I just started to think a lot about priesthood,” he said. “A big influence in my life at Central Catholic was Brother Clement Smith, who was my high school guidance counselor, who I kept in touch with over the years. In Pitt law school, I started to think about it more and more. I would go to see Brother Clement, and we would talk about the prospects of priesthood. Just kind of wrestling with it and struggling over, ‘Is God really calling me to this?’”

Father O’Connor became an affiliate at St. Paul Seminary, talked to former seminary rector Father Ed Burns and “from there everything started rolling.”

“A call to priesthood is a real call where the Lord speaks to you in your heart,” he said. “Then it works its way up into your mind, and you start to think about the priesthood.”

Father O’Connor has no regrets about his decision.

“I love the priesthood,” he said.

‘Intellectual differences’

Father Kevin Poecking, parochial vicar at St. Thomas More Parish in Bethel Park, was baptized and raised Presbyterian.

“In my teenage years, I wandered for awhile doing nothing, and then right after college I sort of got reinvolved in my Christian roots in the Lutheran Church,” Father Poecking said. “That was very good, and I certainly learned the faith again as a result.

“I started to think about some of the differences, some of the things that were true in the Catholic Church and were also true in the Lutheran Church at the time. I was trying to reconcile the intellectual differences between where I was and where the Catholic Church was. It was a lot to think about.”

Father Poecking looked at the people in his life.

“I started to write a list down of the different people that were in my life and the people that I respected,” he said. “When I looked at the list of people, I realized that a large majority were Catholic. I thought, ‘Well, “by their fruit you will know them.”’ I thought I had to pursue that. I had to take a serious look at the Catholic Church then.”

Father Poecking called the local priest, Father John Ayoob, pastor of St. Margaret Mary in Moon Township.

“He really was a great guy to talk to and help me resolve some of those intellectual things, and at the same time sort of got me involved in the community there,” he said. “Along with my brother (Father David Poecking), who was in the seminary at the time, he helped.”

Father Poecking thought as a Lutheran of becoming a minister, but he dismissed the idea.

“When I started looking at the Catholic Church, both a Lutheran pastor and a Catholic priest said, ‘Well, that sort of makes sense to me that you would want to be a priest,’” he said. “I started to think about that while I was even starting to become Catholic.”

About a month after he became Catholic at the Easter Vigil, Father Poecking looked at priesthood seriously.

“I went in the seminary, and seven years later I come out a priest,” he said. Father Poecking, who was ordained early this year, said priesthood can be a challenge.

“There’s certainly a lot of people out there with a lot of needs and a lot of people out there with a lot of joys,” he said. “It’s inspiring to see both kinds and try to work with them on their journey, along with my journey, to knowing the Lord.”

‘It’s all a beautiful story’

Like his brother, Father David Poecking, parochial vicar at St. James Parish in Sewickley and director of the diocesan Office for the Continuing Education of Clergy, was baptized Presbyterian.

“Like Kevin, when I was in college I was pursued by one of the campus ministry groups,” Father Poecking said. “But my group was Presbyterian whereas Kevin’s had been from the Lutheran Church. The group that was in contact with me got me interested again as a Christian believer.

“As a teenager, I was somewhat dissident about it. Maybe not really a believer, or if a believer what religion was was mostly just a way to keep people moral. There wasn’t necessarily a whole lot of truth to it. But this campus ministry group got me interested again, awakened my baptismal faith.”

Father Poecking still was unsatisfied in his religious life.

“I began to shop around a bit,” he said. “Even as I was still involved in the campus ministry program, I visited other churches. I visited a Catholic Church and a Mass for the first time and fell in love with it. This was the Catholic campus ministry program operated by the Oratory at CMU and Pitt.

“I recognized in the Mass certainly its biblical heritage, the antiquity of it. That was very attractive. I also began to recognize that this Catholic life, Catholic faith, especially as expressed in the Mass, was a living expression of what I had fallen in love with as a child.”

When he was in first grade, Father Poecking’s mother gave him “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien to read. He liked it so much, he read another Tolkien book, “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I had that boyhood romance with the fantasy of JRR Tolkien,” he said. “Of course, I didn’t understand all of Tolkien’s purpose at the time. When I saw the Catholic faith, especially in the liturgy, I began to recognize in that what Tolkien had been writing about. A lot of the same drama, a lot of the same romance that were in Tolkien also were manifest in the liturgy.

“That was I think the foundation, my falling in love with the Catholic Church, with Christ as revealed, especially in the sacraments.”

Father Poecking said the campus ministry group gave him reasons not to become Catholic. Meanwhile, the Catholics he spoke to were “gung-ho” about their faith. “I did eventually enter into communion into the Catholic Church in 1985,” he said. “Since my conversion was originally over the beauty of Christ and the church, especially as revealed in the sacrament of the Eucharist, it wasn’t too great a leap from there to wanting to be a priest.

“I’m very glad to be a priest. There certainly have been any number of challenges over the years. But the drama of it, which is ultimately the drama of the cross, the paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is also the drama of the church, and also the church here in Pittsburgh, and the drama of a parish and the drama of a priest’s life. It’s all a beautiful story, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

‘A real adventure’

The family background of Father David Taylor, pastor of St. Charles Lwanga Parish in Pittsburgh’s East End, is Baptist and Episcopalian.

“We’re from Lexington, Ky., originally,” said Father Taylor, the only African-American priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

“During our last year there, I was enrolled in first grade at Catholic school. My older brother, Father Gus, was in the eighth grade. We went to a Catholic school, and that was really the beginning of our introduction to the Catholic faith.

“When we moved in 1954 to Cincinnati, my parents wanted to keep us in Catholic school. That’s when we started actually taking instruction to become Catholic. My brother was baptized Catholic, I was and pretty soon the whole family, we became Catholic.”

Father Augustus Taylor, who is now a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, went to Catholic high school and directly into the seminary. Father David Taylor didn’t enter the seminary until after college.

“I was still living in Cincinnati at the time,” he said. “I graduated from college and went directly into the seminary, but for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Because by that time when I went in the seminary, it was already clear that my family was all going to move to Pittsburgh so that we could all be together. My father worked for the railroad. My brother was already working here as a priest, and we wanted to keep the whole family together. So my mom and dad decided to just move here themselves.”

Father David Taylor said he is “very happy” with his decision to become a priest. “It’s been a real adventure and a real joy serving the church as a priest,” he said.

‘A profound impact’

Father Clint Zadroga, parochial vicar of St. Sebastian Parish in Ross Township, was raised in the Presbyterian Church.

“My family went to worship every Sunday,” Father Zadroga said. “After high school I went to IUP as a music education major. Once I was on campus and the first Sunday came along, not knowing where the Presbyterian church was, I decided to go with a group of other students to the Newman Center. Even though I knew nothing about the Catholic Mass, some things about it had a profound impact on me on that first experience.”

Father Zadroga was fascinated with the ritual and with the “comfortability” on the part of each worshipper with the Mass.

“The dialogue, the gestures, the structure and movement of the liturgy were all very familiar and natural to those present,” he said. “In that church on that day, even though I didn’t know what the Eucharist was and as a non-Catholic did not receive, I had an experience of the sacred and I thirsted for more.”

Father Zadroga began to read about the Catholic Church and began the Rite Of Christian Initiation of Adults at the Newman Center weeks later.

“At the Easter Vigil of 1993, I was brought into full communion with the Catholic Church,” he said. “While I was so caught up in what was happening with my faith journey, what I hadn’t noticed was that in the process I was losing my interest in pursuing music education. When I recognized what was happening, it was a little frightening. My whole picture of how my life was going to look was changing.”

Father Zadroga asked God, “Now what?”

“God revealed something to me that was right before my eyes, and that was how much I loved being involved in this church, my new spiritual home,” he said.

“While my own initiation into the church was complete, I sponsored someone through the RCIA the following year and became active in the Newman Student Association. Being so involved in church work seemed natural to me. Was God calling me to be a priest?

“During the summer of 1994 I asked God that question for the very first time, and I kept asking that question. Later that summer, after a weekday Mass at my home parish, St. Michael Church in Elizabeth, he answered me. As crazy as it might sound, I sensed on that day in the core of my being, God’s very clear answer: ‘Do not be afraid.’”

Father Zadroga entered St. Paul Seminary in the fall of 1994 and was ordained a priest in May 2001.

‘A growing awareness’

Father Jeffrey Molnar, parochial vicar at SS. John and Paul Parish in Franklin Park/Marshall Township, was baptized in the Lutheran Church.

“I was active in the Lutheran Church up until my 18th year when I went to college,” Father Molnar said. “In college, I sort of fell away from church a little bit. Then when I got out of college, I started looking for a church to attend. That sort of led me to the Catholic Church.

“I went through the RCIA process, and then I joined the Catholic Church in the early ‘90s. I like the traditions of the Catholic Church. I really enjoyed the sacraments of the church. The Mass to me was just a very holy and reverent time. I really like reading about the saints and reading about the early church fathers and what they had to say.”

Father Molnar entered St. Paul Seminary in 1997.

“I think it was just awareness that I was being called to do that, a growing awareness that maybe this is something that I should pursue, look at,” he said. “I was ordained in June 2003.”

Father Molnar said he made the right decision.

“I absolutely love it,” he said. “I have no regrets. It’s wonderful.”




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