A Song to Sing: A Story of Priesthood Renewal in the USA

Father Paddy O’Donovan, Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel Parish (Denise Panyik-Dale Photography)

“Never ever, in my life as a priest, have I been, as I am now, so excited to be a priest!” – Father Paddy O'Donovan

Jacqueline Marie | June 16, 2022

“In the last days it will be, God declares, 
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, 
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 
and your young men shall see visions, 
    and your old men shall dream dreams.“

Acts 2:17 

As a child, Father Paddy O’Donovan either wanted to be a performer, a politician… or a priest. 

His humour, charm, and conversational agility make it clear he could have been all 3. But behind the warmth is a spiritual depth and a profound love for people. Quoting Father Hans Urs Von Balthasar, he states he ultimately chose theodrama, than that of the ego. And a reflection on his years in ministry demonstrate how God is using him to tell His story. 

Serving in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, his ministry has included multiple suburban parishes, time as a University chaplain and his current placement as the Pastor of Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel, in Cedar Knolls, NJ. 

This month he celebrates his 50th ordination anniversary. 

Bruff, County Limerick, Ireland (Web)

Father Paddy first felt a pull towards the priesthood at a young age in his hometown of Bruff, County Limerick, Ireland. As a child he would often stop into the church to pray after school, “I felt very safe there. I felt very connected to my faith…I always felt it was there that I began to feel at home with a kind of a little desire inside me.” He was further inspired in his childhood by his parents’ faith as well as that of a beloved, developmentally challenged man in the community, “Mick the Saint.”

Mick was known in town for his kindness and could frequently be found walking the aisles of the church and praying.

I’m not saying I made decisions then, but those days were, looking back, very impactful in me discerning priesthood.” 

In the last decade, instead of easing into retirement, Father Paddy wanted to be part of the New Evangelization. Five years ago, after reading Divine Renovation: Bringing Your Parish From Maintenance to Mission he connected with Father James Mallon and DR.  “My engagement with Divine Renovation has set me on a plane and a path of renewal that I’ve never had in my priesthood. And it has impacted me… to the point that never ever, in my life as a priest, have I been, as I am now, so excited to be a priest.” Father Paddy became one of the early adopters and has been in coaching with DR ever since.  

The fruit of renewal is evident in his parish. Before this interview he had just finished a conversation with a young college student who is discerning a call to the Capuchin mission. That student then met up with two other young men from the parish for lunch, both of whom are considering the priesthood. “Something is happening, a seed is being passed on.” 

“I’ve come into a parish that has a great history. It was a parish alive with activity. Alive with engagement. Now we’ve come with the culture of Divine Renovation and discipleship on mission. I’m beginning to see that right now there is a definite shift.”  

The shift has included the decision to focus not just on young children but on their parents and families as well. There was a “push back from the parents originally who were used to dropping off” their children instead of joining in. But this switch is “beginning to bear fruit” in the culture of the parish where it is now routine for the whole family to be at Mass. 

Father Paddy goes on to say, being a Pastor “can be a very lonely place.” But now, as he leads out of his Senior Leadership Team, “what I find most liberating, most encouraging and exciting is that when I work out of a team, it also lifts up the leadership of the laity and that is wonderfully hopeful for the life of the Church.”    

“I feel that there’s a great call for me today. To inspire, to encourage, to welcome people on a path of renewal – which could be for some people a first time in … or a path for people who’ve been disconnected to come back into the life of the church.” 

He likens it to the story from the gospel, when John the Baptist jumps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when he encountered Christ. “And sometimes that’s happening for me when I encounter renewal leadership. Shepherding, guiding, encouraging – that’s what causes me to jump for joy.”  

Father Paddy, Notre Dame of Mt. Carmel Advent 2021 (Web)

This joy extends out into evangelization. He quotes Blaise Pascal’s advice: “in difficult times carry something beautiful in your heart.”  Father Paddy goes on to say:

“We’ve all something beautiful to carry. Even in the difficult times and we need to carry it, we have the Christ. We have the greatest news in the world. We’ve got the good news, carry the blessed thing, you know. ”

He continues, “I’m not trying to sound pious here. But dang it, He’s there! He’s there in a poem, He’s there in a piece of art. He’s there in the beauty of a friendship, He’s there in in the beauty and the wisdom of the Scriptures. You know that carrying something beautiful in your heart makes so much sense.” 

When pushed what this looks like in a secular era, Father Paddy states, he has no interest in warring against the culture to push them into a different way. Rather he uses the metaphor of music for the call to evangelization.  

“In the secular community we have a song to sing, we have music to play, we have stories to tell, and all we have to do is tell them, respecting the culture in which we find ourselves, which in this world is secular at the moment. But we’ve still got to sing our tune. That is a song of joy, a song of hope …to the people and let the Holy Spirit do what the Holy Spirit will do with us…whether we’re in tune or out of tune.”  

If the Church does this, “I believe we will move people’s hearts…our ministry can’t be merely transactional it has to be transformational.”  

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Pentecost Sunday 2022 at Notre Dame of Mt . Carmel