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Men on a Mission: Faith is a family affair for Fr Mark


Earlier this year, a BBC documentary shone a light on the life of seminarians in the Pontifical Scots College in Rome, which was universally well received. The programme allowed the young men—who will form an important part of the future of the Scottish Church—to express themselves on camera, show their dedication to the faith and perhaps even dispel some myths about the priesthood along the way. Missio Scotland decided to delve a little deeper with some of them to find out why they’re embarking upon this very special personal mission.

MOST of those who tuned into when it was broadcast will no doubt have felt that its success lay in its ability to avoid showing seminarians in a very one dimensional light. By circumventing such a depiction, viewers were able to gain a well-rounded insight into a vibrant, intelligent and conscientious group of young men who have chosen to dedicate their lives to God.

One of the themes that came through fairly notably as a result of the documentary was the importance of family in the widest sense. This was most prominent as we followed the journey of then seminarian, but now priest at St Joseph’s Blantyre, Fr Mark O’Donnell (above)—and not simply because his granny gate-crashed his pre-ordination interview! We were afforded the opportunity to see him within the familial environment of the seminary and also become part of the brotherhood of priests in his home parish of St Thomas’ Wishaw surrounded by members of his own family.

It was within that ‘typical Lanarkshire Catholic family’ that important faith foundations were laid. Fr Mark explained that his faith had probably played a bigger part in his life than he cared to imagine, going, as he did, to Mass every Sunday, at times before primary school, being an altar server, attending Novena and Benediction every Thursday with his grandparents, going to Saturday morning Mass and often attending Mass in High School too. A faith experience further afield with Motherwell Diocese, however, would prove to be the main catalyst for him deciding to take up his vocation.

“I had never thought about a vocation to the priesthood until I was about 18 and that came from a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the diocese,” Fr Mark said. “At the time I was very unhappy with what I was studying at university and a priest on the pilgrimage suggested the idea of priesthood to me. I gave the idea a cold shoulder at the time, but as I was praying in the Grotto at Lourdes I had an overwhelming sense that this would, perhaps, be worth investigating.”

Decision time

Fr Mark did, however, continue his studies at university and became a mathematics teacher in Lanarkshire, but it was during his commute to work one day that the emotion he felt in Lourdes eventually overwhelmed him, and, as he admitted himself, after years of wrestling with the idea he couldn’t wrestle any longer and decided to follow his vocation, which brought a bit of a mixed reaction from his family.

“I don’t think my friends were overly surprised, but my parents, although not surprised either, were not overly happy,” he admitted. “In the sense that they realised how big a decision this was for my life and whether we like it or not, our parents create a narrative for how they think our lives will play out, and when we throw a spanner in the works to interrupt that, it can be difficult for them to understand that. They have been supportive of me in my vocation, but at the same time, I think they found it difficult.”

Shaped in seminary

In spite of the mixed reaction, Fr Mark was now fully focussed on his vocation and also extremely cognisant of what the term meant to him, describing it as a realisation that you have ‘grown in a relationship with God to the point where you have come to acknowledge the gifts and talents that He has given and in turn, trying to find out how to use them.’ That would, in part at least, be revealed to him during his time as a seminarian, an experience that would help to shape him both personally and spiritually.

“Seminary wasn’t quite what I expected,” he said. “I suppose I thought it would have been very monastic; a reserved, quiet place, but that was not what I experienced. It was a very lively place, with lots of different characters, but with everyone working for the same goal. Seminary became a place where I made very good friends—and now brother priests—and I am thankful for having spent that time there with them.”

While his prayer-life (above) and relationship with God deepened in seminary and were a vital source of strength for him, Fr Mark also praised the role that his family and friends played in helping him mature and stay grounded, something he feels was and remains essential for someone entering diocesan priesthood as it encourages you to be authentic, a characteristic he believes is important for seminarians.

“There are many obvious characteristics such as being compassionate, prayerful and patient,” he explained. However, I think an often overlooked and undervalued quality is to have authenticity. I mean being comfortable with who you are and not trying to pretend to be something that you are not, yet at the same time allowing yourself to be formed into what the Church envisions for Her priests. It requires strength and courage and a desire to strive for, and figure out, holiness.”

Fraternity, friendships and Pope Francis

In the midst of that desire for holiness, Fr Mark was able to enjoy a number of experiences—including being in the close presence of the Holy Father, Pope Francis (above)—that allowed him to explore and appreciate his faith, to an even greater extent, in the fruitful fraternal atmosphere of the Pontifical Scots College.

“When I was studying theology I took real joy in reading and studying and having the opportunity to explore things in my faith that I had never considered,” he said. “Seminary was great for giving structure to your day, and especially for allowing you to create your own space and time for prayer and giving you the time to grow in that life. Again, it was an important place for building friendships that will sustain me in my priesthood.

“I think the standout memory for me was serving for Pope Francis at the Easter Vigil. I was the Crossbearer that evening and it was such a special Mass to be part of St Peter’s Basilica was majestic and the Liturgy proceeded with beautiful drama. The Pope was in very good spirits and when I told him I was going to Lourdes with HCPT the next day, he asked that I pray for him at the Grotto and assured me of his prayers for the entire pilgrimage.”

Preparing for priesthood

During the course of the onscreen interviews conducted with Fr Mark, his desire to conclude his time in seminary and finally become ordained a priest was always evident—even though he was naturally nervous about some aspects of it. It is, he feels, one of the few negatives about seminary life, the fact that you live in somewhat of a ‘bubble’ in comparison with the multi-faceted life as a diocesan priest.

“Seminary can cause you to become very used to living a ‘student lifestyle’ and, as a result, you have to make a conscious decisions to break out of that mould when you leave,” he remarked. “I think, the hardest thing about seminary, is that you kind of live in a ‘bubble’ and sometimes you risk losing sight of what you are preparing for: serving the people of God.”

Joy and hope key to mission

As the film continued to roll, viewers were able to see Fr Mark celebrate his ordination (above) in the bosom of his family and friends—both from within his parish and further afield—and brother priests. It reinforced that notion of family in the widest sense and marked the beginning of the next stage in his faith journey, a journey which has filled those around him with ‘hope and excitement at the prospect of having a younger minister.’ While he admits he is still ‘finding his feet,’ in priestly life, given that he is embarking upon his own mission, he has been able to reflect upon mission as a whole and the work of Missio Scotland in supporting mission in the universal Church.

“I think mission means allowing the joy and hope experienced in my relationship with God be the directive of my life,” he said. “Mission then becomes how I show, live and give that relationship and Good News to others, especially in overcoming the boundaries we are confronted with in society.

“A crucial part of our discipleship is to find—and be comfortable in—our relationship with God. I believe that mission has got to start here! So I think the best way to find our mission is to open ourselves to life with God, to begin to know Him and trust that He will direct us to the mission He has chosen for each of us.”

“Obviously at the root of our Christian understanding of mission is how we go out and spread our Good News of salvation to the world,” he continued. “Yet we come across many boundaries in this mission today that are created by our culture and we must ask ourselves how we cross these boundaries to preach the Gospel. Boundaries of race, gender, nationality and politics all have obstacles, but also offer us ways of breaking through with the Good News of Christ. It becomes so important for us to support the Pontifical Mission Societies in order to aid them in crossing these various boundaries.”

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