Newly ordained Deacon Conor McCarthy speaks to Martin O’Brien
“My encounter with God was so intense that I knew that He had brought me to this point.”
The words of Rev. Conor McCarthy, newly ordained transitional deacon from Down & Connor in Rome as he recalled the period of prostration before the altar of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme before the laying of hands on him by Bishop John Buckley and the definitive moment of ordination on Easter Tuesday.
“What is so intense?” I probe.
“I suppose my love and my submission to the will of God. I knew at that moment I had nothing to fear. It’s that great line from Scripture that [Saint] John Paul never tired of saying: ‘Do not be afraid!’”
Conor (26) former pupil of Rathmore Grammar, from St Anne’s Parish Belfast was speaking in the Pontifical Irish College where he has been a seminarian for the past three years following an initial two years at St Malachy’s diocesan seminary back home.
The son of Martin and the late Either McCarthy, Conor is a music graduate from Queen’s University.
While there he was a peripatetic teacher of cello and music theory for the South Eastern Education and Library Board and the City of Belfast School of Music.
He was ordained along with Rev. Marius O’Reilly, (37), from Ballincollig, Cork, a former marketing consultant and a graduate of the Smurfit Business School, UCD.
Conor is clean-cut in a brand new clerical suit and collar which he is still getting used to.
With the taking of his three final promises – celibacy, obedience, praying the Divine Office at the appointed times daily – and five years of formation and study: “It feels right to wear.”
In a few days he would officiate as deacon assistant to Cardinal Seán Brady at a Mass of Thanksgiving for the canonisations and wear his gold coloured Dalmatic, the vestment deacons wear while assisting at the altar, for the first time since his ordination.
Asked to describe his emotions during the ordination ceremony there is a long pause.
“If it were up to me alone I would not be here because it is God who brought me here.”
He describes the period of prostration during the Litany of the Saints “when all of Heaven is called to intercede for you the most concentrated and deepest moment of prayer in my life”.
He thanks all those who prayed for him from the moment he entered seminary in September 2009 including “many people whose names I don’t know”.
He singles out the support of his family and of four priests, Fr John Murray, diocesan vocations director; Fr Tom Layden SJ, his spiritual director and now Jesuit Provincial; Fr Eddie O’Donnell, then his PP in St Anne’s and Fr Gary Toman, chaplain at Queen’s as well as his friend Philip Mulyrne, OP, the former soccer international also preparing for the priesthood.
Conor is a confident young man utterly at ease with himself, with a good sense of humour, articulate and eloquent. One senses he would shine in many professions, not just music.
He listens attentively, measures his words carefully speaking without notes over a conversation lasting two hours. He answers honestly and directly not once going “off the record”.
Conor laughs heartily when reminded we first met in the Irish College just after Pope Francis’s election at a performance ofKing Arthur: Crisis at Camelot, a highly regarded adaptation of the Geoff Bamber play which he directed and produced starring in the lead role of Sir Lancelot.
Arthur was “speaking to the community life of the College demonstrating that we are not locked away in a chapel or isolated as we are sometimes portrayed”.
The only person that Conor is really serious about is Jesus Christ.
God recurs in our conversation again and again. Not in a forced or contrived or overly pious way but in the most natural way acknowledging God as the all-pervading reality he is.
A recurring theme is Blessed John Henry Newman’s motto Cor and Cor loquitur – Heart speaks to Heart – which sees Christians called to holiness by desiring to unite their hearts with the Heart of God.
He chose Jeremiah, a McCarthy family name, as his Confirmation name and had read “a good portion” of the Book of Jeremiah by his Confirmation.
Asked what verse from Scripture “hits you between the eyes” he immediately cites Jeremiah 6: 6 – “Stand at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths where the good way lies and take it and find rest for your souls.”
“Jeremiah was calling the people back to the faith of old which they had lost sight of.”
He expresses a heartfelt wish that Irish people “will never fear that their faith is out of date and always see it as an always present and personal encounter with God”.
Conor expresses gratitude to his father, his late mother and his grandparents for nurturing his faith “from as far back as I can remember. First Communion and Confirmation were very important to me”.
His mother died 11 weeks after being diagnosed with cancer a week after his 12th birthday leaving him “absolutely shattered”.
But the Faith she did so much to inculcate in him grew ever deeper and “made me search more deeply to find a way to respond”.
“God was there throughout and I remember quite vividly turning to God in prayer a lot. I didn’t feel abandoned. Quite the contrary.”
“The second part of the Hail Mary, ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’ comes alive in a new resonance at a deathbed.”
At the age of 15 or 16 Conor began to ask himself “if Jesus was calling me to orders and I tried to ignore it but it kept coming back continually over the next two years” finally occupying much of his day.
He felt unworthy of a vocation and “torn” between responding positively to it and becoming the music teacher he had set this heart on.
He prayed a lot about it and felt obliged to give what looked like a call serve God as a priest “ due consideration”.
University looming, Conor plucked up the courage to attend a diocesan vocations retreat advertised in his parish bulletin.
He commends Fr John Murray for not putting him under any pressure and dispelling any fears that he might be “whisked off to a seminary” before he could realise his ambition to study music at Queen’s.
At university the sense of being called to be a priest intensified and he applied to enter St Malachy’s seminary in his final year.
Conor chose the diocesan way rather than an Order because in the diocese hehad been “privileged to be drawn to Christ through my home, and the witness of priests in my parish and at the chaplaincy in Queen’s”.
From a young age “like most people” he envisaged “marrying and having a family” but as God led him on the journey towards priesthood he recognised “the beauty of celibacy.”
“God does not leave you to deal with celibacy by yourself.”
Without devaluing the vocation of married love celibacy gives him “greater freedom to serve God and his Church” and to strive to aspire to a relationship with God captured in Newman’s motto Heart speaks to Heart.
Speculation about a possible future relaxation in the rule did not cause “any reservation in the back of my mind” about the “vow of celibacy” he took on Easter Tuesday.
Pope Francis has come “by the grace of the Holy Spirit” just as Benedict and St John Paul did before him and he is thrilled to hear “even people of no faith or who have not been baptised listening to what Francis has to say”.
Conor, due to be ordained to the priesthood in just over a year isn’t sure whether he will be working full-time in a parish after his finals or undertaking further study in Rome.
He is looking forward to conducting his first baptisms and presiding at the marriages of engaged friends who have already indicated a wish that he officiate.
Rev. Conor McCarthy is blessed with a brother and sister from his parents’ first marriage and with a much younger brother and sister from his father’s second marriage, to Bernadette, his stepmother from Kilrea, Co. Derry.
Those younger siblings, Rachel (7) and Peter (6) and their generation represent the future of the Church.
“My young brother and sister communicate to me a constant reminder to bring Christ into the next generation.”
That generation will be blessed if they have people of the calibre of Conor McCarthy encouraging them every step of the way.