The Catholic Post interviews silver jubilarian Father Patrick O’Neal

Born in Quebec, Canada, Father O’Neal grew up in Bridgeton, Missouri. He attended St. Louis Preparatory Seminary North in Florissant, Missouri, and continued his studies for the priesthood at Cardinal Glennon College Seminary and Kenrick Seminary, both in St. Louis, and Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Father O’Neal has served as parochial vicar at Holy Trinity, Bloomington, and Epiphany, Normal. He was named pastor of Sacred Heart, Granville, St. Francis Xavier, Bureau, and St. Mary, Tiskilwa, in 1993 and made vicar of the Henry Vicariate in 1996; St. Mary, Ottawa, and part-time faculty at Marquette High School in 1998; and St. Patrick, Bloomington, in 2003, adding St. Mary, Atlanta, and part-time faculty at Central Catholic High School, Bloomington, in 2004. Granted a leave of absence in 2007 to discern his vocation, he returned as parochial vicar at St. Monica, East Peoria, and teacher at Peoria Notre Dame High School in 2010. He was in residence at St. Philomena, Peoria, in 2011.

He went to St. Anthony, Hoopeston, as administrator and chaplain at Schlarman Academy, Danville, in 2012, and was named pastor at St. Anthony in 2014.

Father O’Neal will observe his anniversary with a Mass at 2 p.m. on Pentecost Sunday, May 24, at St. Anthony Church and says it will be “just a simple celebration with no frills.”

Mail may be sent to him at St. Anthony Church, 423 S. Third St., Hoopeston, IL 60942.

What drew you to the priesthood?
I can’t say that any one person or thing drew me, it was a combination of God, family, priests and teachers. You’re asking a philosopher about “knowing” — a dangerous thing! No human being can ever be 100 percent certain of knowing any particular thing, but we can try to know as much as possible. My vocation to priesthood was a “knowledge” from the head and the heart. Even as a kid, I thought about priesthood, amongst other things, such as a religious or military career. But the more I thought and prayed, it was to the secular priesthood that I was being called. By the end of college, I can say I was as certain as I could be of that.

Who has been the biggest influence on your vocation and why?
My family, especially my late father, and his mom and aunt had the greatest influence, but the good Sisters of St. Joseph, who taught me in grade school, also had a profound effect. The way all of them lived their faith, not just on Sundays, but in ordinary life, as well as their example of being active in the parish set the course for God’s work in me.

How are you a different priest today than you were 25 years ago?
Ministering teaches you many things — first and foremost that we priests don’t know it all nor have all the answers. Second — listening, which is so very important in ministering to people, as well as in prayer, which helps one to listen to God. During my three-year leave from active ministry (which I requested on my own initiative), I remained active in the faith, but also had to do some jobs to make ends meet. That taught humility and respect for the laborer, and deepened my solidarity for the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden. Aging as well teaches you to slow down and listen more carefully to what one’s body says. Priesthood isn’t lived on a pedestal but with and for the people of God.

What has given you the most joy in your priesthood?
Celebrating the Eucharist, of course — that’s the greatest joy, along with breaking open the Word for others. But ministering to the people through and with the sacraments has had the deepest impact on me. All the other things pale in comparison to knowing that in the sacraments I’m just a fragile and faulty instrument in the hand of God.

What have been the highlights of your various assignments?
No one event stands out. Certainly the consecration of St. Patrick Church in Bloomington was memorable, but so was anointing some of my brother priests, being humbled in having them ask me to hear their confessions, baptizing my two nephews, and celebrating my father’s funeral Mass. All of my assignments have had both joys and sorrows, and I enjoyed being at the various parishes in which I ministered.

Talk about your prayer life — what feeds you for your ministry?
Several forms of schools of prayer have enriched me — the ancient prayers of the Celts of Ireland and Scotland, the Ignatian way of prayer and discernment, lectio divina, and the simplicity and humility of the Franciscan orders have also influenced me. Most of all, I try to form my personal prayer from and according to the liturgy and its seasons and feasts.

How has priestly ministry changed in the last generation?
Things seem at times to be going back to the alleged “good old days,” which strikes me as odd. We must value and learn from traditions, but like God, the church always goes forward, never backward. What may have worked in the last centuries, such as some devotions and forms of dress, seem in my view, to not speak well to our world today, especially to those who have been alienated from the church. A constant in priestly ministry is always the care of souls. The priest is always a shepherd, called to lay down his life for his sheep. Without a shepherd’s heart, a priest is empty and foolish.

What Scripture passage sums up your ministry?
Our Lady’s last recorded words in Scripture “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Since Mary is our mother too, it’s the best advice she can give to those who follow her Son. I placed my priesthood in Mary’s hands under her title of Our Lady of Knock, and she’s taken wonderful care of me since. She has shown to me that she is indeed my mother, and leads me closer to a better following of her Son.

What advice would you give someone who is discerning a vocation to the priesthood?
Pray! Pray! Pray! Then pray some more! Priesthood isn’t something that I, we, or they want, it’s what God wants. Any other reason or ambition to priesthood is null and void in comparison. One doesn’t have to be perfect to be a priest — in fact I don’t know any perfect priests aside from Christ — but one has to be open to letting God lead you on the path of perfection; which means learning patience, humility, serving and loving.

Name your favorite saint (and tell us why).
It’s a toss-up between Patrick and Joseph. I love Patrick not only because I have his name, but especially for his tireless work in evangelizing, even when he was opposed my those in the church who thought they were better or more learned than he. I love Joseph since I was baptized with his name, and he’s always been there for me. I always place any major undertaking or intention in his care, knowing that he will obtain it — but in his own time. Like Pope Francis said of him, craftsmen take their time to do an excellent job.

Favorite prayer?
The liturgy, of course (although I’m not happy with this new English translation), and lectio divina which helps me to understand and love the written Word of God, and then try to live it daily. An oldie but a goodie is, of course, the meditation on the mysteries of the rosary.

Favorite hymn?
Not being a musician, that’s hard to say. I suppose that “I Am the Bread of Life” comes to mind, since it was part of the funerals of some folks whom I love, and it reminds me that the Eucharist does indeed plant the seed of resurrection and eternal life.

Favorite encyclical/papal document/church teaching?
I’m going to be very contemporary and say the “Joy of the Gospel” by Pope Francis, since it is both consoling and challenging, and written in a style which anyone can read without wondering what is said, or trying to interpret the typical “Vaticanese” verbiage of older official documents.

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