“Why does Jesus Christ call brothers? Why did He call Peter and Andrew? Why did He call James and John? Why did God make it work out that my brother and I were ordained together on the same day? Part of it is a mystery, but overall, I think it definitely reaffirms the importance of the family being the school of love,” said Father Matthew Coonan, a newly-ordained priest for the Diocese of Fort Wayne–South Bend.
Father Matthew and his brother, Father Terrence “Terry” Coonan, are four years apart in age, but were ordained together on June 11. Both of them cite the loving example and the virtuous role-modeling of their parents, Terrence and Theresa Coonan of Fort Wayne, as a key element in choosing their vocations to the priesthood.
The different vocation stories of the two closely-knit brothers, however, dramatize that while common threads are woven through their individual calls to the priesthood, God calls each man in a unique way.
Father Matthew did not begin to think of the priesthood until after he had graduated from college in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing. The third of eight children, he worked his way through college but still found time to volunteer with the youth program at his home parish of St. Vincent de Paul in Fort Wayne. He had been active in the program himself when he was in high school, and he realized how much the program helped teens grow in their faith.
He said that, during those college years of working with other volunteers and the teens in the youth program, “The Lord put a love in my heart I hadn’t really known before and helped me come to know His love for me as a beloved child in a more profound way.” The young man also developed a “genuine desire” to lead young people to Christ and free them from the “illusory happiness” of the world: “I wanted them to know the true joy of Jesus Christ, the true freedom in our Lord.”
Thus, by the end of his college sophomore year, Matthew experienced what he calls the first of two “graced moments.” He knew with certainty that his vocation was to serve the Church, and he planned to do so as a married youth minister.
During his junior and senior years of college, Matthew continued to help with the youth program in a leadership role of facilitating the Wednesday night meetings and volunteering with other adults on Sundays. The parish, he said, was “blossoming” under the leadership of Msgr. John Kuzmich, pastor, and parochial vicars Fathers Mark Gurtner and Joseph “Joe” Gaughan. Father Mark also became chaplain at the Coonans’ high school, Bishop Dwenger.
Modeled the Good Shepherd
“What was beautiful about the three of them was that they all modeled the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ in a different way,” Father Matthew said. “They showed how priests are not cookie cutters; different priests are given different gifts and different charisms for the building up of it all. So the way those three worked together was really kind of like “the dream team. My brother will mention the value of just seeing priests who are joyful — and those three were joyful priests who love the Church, and God’s people.”
Matthew was a year out of college and working at a business full time when that second “graced moment” occurred, especially through his regular participation in the sacraments and observing the important role of the priest.
“The Lord really moved my heart,” Father Matthew said. “I was able to see for the first time that although, yes, I could do great things, and the Lord could do great things through me as youth minister, really, if you don’t have the sacraments, you lose so much. And the heart of our youth ministry program at St. Vincent’s — the foundation — was the sacraments. It was Reconciliation and the Eucharist, and if you took those out of the equation, you would truncate the entire youth program; we would have nothing. And I came to see that clearly through our youth retreats, that the conversions that are happening in the hearts of God’s children are especially through the sacraments. And I realized then — it was on Holy Thursday, 2004 — and I just knew for sure clearly that day that I had a desire to give the sacraments, and I knew clearly I am called to be a priest.”
Not Quite Ready
Not quite ready to separate from his family, parish and friends, Matthew started the seminary application process as he worked full-time for one year as youth minister at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. He then entered the seminary at Pontifical College Josephinum, Columbus, Ohio, in the fall of 2005.
Father Terry Coonan, the fourth of the eight Coonan children, heard his call to the priesthood gradually over a period of time, rather than in “graced moments.” With his brother, Father Terry credits the example of his parents, as well as the Catholic education the Coonan children received at St. Vincent de Paul School and Bishop Dwenger High School.
He, too, was impressed with the priests the family encountered: “The priests I grew up with were very good examples, and I saw that they were very happy being the priests that they were. So that gave me a good start into appreciating the priesthood for what it is.”
Father Terry said he remembers clearly the first time the idea of becoming a priest was presented to him. He was in seventh grade, and after Mass one day, one of the parish priests looked at the eight Coonan children filling the pew and suggested: “Because you Coonans have four boys, you owe the Church one or two priests.”
Passed the Buck
Older brother Matthew “passed the buck,” Father Terry recalled, for Matthew said, “Don’t worry, Father, Tink [Father Terry’s nickname], he’ll take care of that; he’ll be the priest.” And Terry also “passed the buck,” saying “Don’t worry, Father, my little brother Tommy, he’ll be the priest.”
Father Terry explained, “We were passing it off, but that planted a seed, and even before that, I had thought about it. But that really put the idea in my head, although it kind of just sat there.”
Happy with being a good Catholic, playing sports, doing schoolwork and spending time with his friends, Terry went on with his life without thinking too much about a vocation to the priesthood. However, he soon began to understand and grasp his Catholic faith on a much deeper level. “Confirmation [in eighth grade] was a very powerful experience for me, to say that ‘This faith is something I want to take for myself and practice it,’” Father Terry recalled.
Similarly, he remembers that his years participating in the high school youth group at St. Vincent de Paul Parish were the most important years for growth in the faith, both in practice and piety. In that youth group he had a community of faith with peers who prayed, learned about the faith and performed community service together. Terry also remembers priestly influence. He said, “Another thing that was really great was that the associate pastor at our parish was very involved with the youth group, so he was always present. He was a young priest and he was happy — a real spiritual father who guided us a lot.”
The thought of a vocation to the priesthood stayed with Terry throughout high school, and he prayed for guidance in choosing a vocation. However, he never felt a clear calling, so he decided to go on to college and major in computer engineering. At the University of Dayton, he took a leadership role in establishing a group of Catholic students who wanted to grow in their faith together. “As I look back,” Father Terry observed, “I realize that I always liked helping people grow in their Catholic faith, and that’s obviously one thing that the priest does a lot of.”
As a student at Dayton, Terry continued attending daily Mass, a practice he had begun his junior year of high school, but he also started attending Eucharistic adoration at the college. He said that year was “an interesting mix” of being very much at peace with the Lord during prayer and adoration, even though he was still “very unsure” of what his future held.
“Ultimately I had become very restless about my future, really trusting the Lord in where he would guide me, but wanting an answer,” Father Terry said. When he returned home the summer after his freshman year, he talked to his parish priest at the youth group about his restlessness, and the priest suggested he carry on with his studies and keep praying.
During sophomore year, the restlessness continued, so Terry met with the diocesan vocations director, Father (now Msgr.) Bernard Galic, over Christmas break. Father Terry said that Father Galic explained that Terry had a misconception about the seminary. A man does not have to be certain he is called to be a priest to enter the seminary; rather, a man goes to the seminary because he thinks God might be calling him; he goes to the seminary to find the answer. “I told him, ‘Well, OK, I’ve been trying to answer that question myself outside of seminary for so long that I’m ready to go, so let me sign up.’”
It was a huge step to leave his college Catholic group and his family behind, Father Terry said, “But God was calling me elsewhere at the time.”
Terry entered Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minn., in the fall of 2005, just as Matthew entered the Josephinum. Terry thrived in the seminary. He said that, over the years of his studies, “I came to the decision that this was the Lord’s will for me, and I was ready to accept it.”
Terry was able to study philosophy as he finished his bachelor’s degree in Winona, while Matthew, who already had a bachelor’s degree in business, studied philosophy at the Josephinum for two years. Thus, both brothers started studying theology in the same class at the Josephinum in the fall of 2007. They were ordained to the deaconate together in 2010 and to the priesthood in 2011.
Joys Outweigh Sacrifices
Just one month into their priesthood, both men spoke about how the joys of the priesthood outweigh any sacrifices a man makes to become a priest.
“Our Lord’s promise that you’ll receive one-hundred-tenfold more in place of what you have given up is really true in this life,” said Father Terry. “It comes also with some challenges. Every vocation has unique crosses, but nothing is impossible with God’s grace. It really is a joyful life where you’ll be surprised day after day about what God gives you, and about the beauty of being a diocesan priest.”
One of those joys Father Terry has discovered is the priest’s relationship with the people he serves. “The kind of access and openness that people have to the priest is only because they are priests, not because of any other reason. They welcome the priest into the most intimate parts of their soul. That’s why it’s so beautiful to be a priest. It’s a great gift, and God does surprise you time after time with those events where he uses you as an instrument of grace for other people. And afterwards, you can only thank Him for the gift because it is really beautiful to be that instrument.”
Father Matthew agrees. “All Christians are called to carry their crosses and bear sacrifices and hardships, and also to experience the joys and blessings that the Lord God has chosen for them in their vocation,” he said. “No Christian life is easy, a ‘walk in the park.’ Every life has its unique crosses, and regardless of which vocation you are called to, you are only able to live it and carry your cross through your abiding communion with Jesus Christ. So, if we focus on our communion with Jesus Christ, then we have nothing to fear about any sacrifice we have to make.”
Father Matthew went on to say that a man in discernment should also consider the sacrifice of not being a priest. He explained, “An individual in discernment would have to ask himself: Is this the sort of sacrifice the Lord is asking me to make? Is the Lord asking me to offer up the sacrifice of not having a wife, a life partner, of not having children, and grandchildren? Or is the Lord asking me to offer up the sacrifice of not being a priest, not being able to preach the Gospel in this special way, not being able to administer the sacraments, not being invited into this close, intimate relationship with God’s people?
“So, there are sacrifices any way you go, and it’s just a question of what is the Lord asking you to embrace. And, if you embrace it out of love, those sacrifices become life-giving because they draw you closer in communion with Jesus Christ. It’s all about discernment, about what the Lord wants you to do, what He’s calling you to. The most important thing is that, through prayer and a servant’s heart, we embrace wherever the Lord leads us for love of Him.” TP
ANN CAREY is a freelance writer from South Bend, Indiana.