Father Matthew Cannon
Hometown: Lancaster, PA
Education: St. Leo the Great School in Rohrerstown; Lancaster Catholic High School; St. Vincent College in Labtrobe, Pa.; St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia; Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
Current assignment: Parochial vicar at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Harrisburg
Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I’m the oldest of three boys. I was born in Philadelphia and we lived in New Jersey until I was eight years old. Because of my dad’s job, we got transferred to Lancaster, and my family has been in Lancaster ever since.
I went to St. Leo the Great School and Lancaster Catholic. I graduated in 2009 from Lancaster Catholic. Growing up, we would go to Mass on Sundays. We would always pray at meals. We weren’t an overly religious family, but we were always open with one another. If anyone ever had a question about the Catholic faith or about God or Jesus, we could always go to our parents and they would openly talk to us about our faith.
What did your Catholic school education mean to you?
Going to Catholic school, as most high schoolers looking back, it was just like going to high school. Going every day, doing your work, hanging out with friends. I was coming into my own in my faith and I would become involved in campus ministry. I was an altar server. I was an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion my senior year at Lancaster Catholic, so I was definitely getting involved in my faith. But I would say, just like many high schoolers, it was school at the end of the day, as long as I did well on the tests and the papers.
When did you start thinking about becoming a priest?
For me, it was when I was 10 years old, back when I was in fifth grade. But for a long time, I wanted to be a lot of things. I wanted to be a meteorologist, I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to work for ESPN on SportsCenter, I wanted to be a broadcaster. But the priesthood never left my mind. It was always there in the back of my mind but I was never really taking it seriously until I got a little bit older.
I don’t remember this, but my teachers would tell my mom or my dad that whenever they would ask one of us to pray before class, I would always be one of the kids to raise his hand. I was an altar serving growing up, and would always be amazed about what the priest would do. I thought it was the coolest thing ever when the priest gave his blessing at the end of Mass. I started to bless my classmates when I was eight or nine. Now, looking back, even at a young age I think I was always amazed at what the priest did. I didn’t really understand what he was doing – I knew the Eucharist and everything – but it was the fancy vestments and him coming to the school to things with us.
What did you do after graduation from Lancaster Catholic?
After high school, I went to college for a year. I was still discerning at that point, but I felt that God was calling me to be a teacher. I went to St. Vincent College in Latrobe for a year. I loved it. It was a beautiful campus and a very nice school. I met some good people there and got involved in campus ministry. A group of us that lived together would go to Mass every Sunday, and during that year it came full circle to me. I wasn’t entirely sure at that time that I was called to be a priest, but I knew that I had to discern priesthood seriously. I knew that for a fact.
I left St. Vincent after a year and entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. I spent four years there and graduated in 2014, and then got transferred to Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, where I did my graduate work.
What was the discernment process like for you after your first year of college?
A big thing for me was the Quo Vadis Days retreat. I remember going there for the first time when I was 13 or 14. My mom told me to go because she wanted to get me out of the house for a week. She said, “You’ll meet kids your own age, you’ll be able to hang out with them.” I think she saw that I was really getting more involved in my faith. What really helped me with Quo Vadis Days was – and I think a lot of young men who have been on this retreat share this in common – I really got to see priests in a light that I had never seen before: playing sports, playing board games, going outside and playing Frisbee, going on hikes. They were dressed in athletic clothes or a T-shirt and shorts, not wearing their clerics. They weren’t always praying, they weren’t always reading their Bible, they weren’t always saying Mass. That really opened my eyes for the first time, just to see that priests are people. They have hobbies, they like to do things, they have friends, they go on trips. They do things just like anybody else. Obviously the biggest difference is, you willingly give up and sacrifice having a wife and kids.
Going into it, I thought that when I became a priest I would have to sacrifice everything: I couldn’t be a Phillies fan anymore, I couldn’t be an Eagles fan anymore, I could never dress down again. When I was 12, 13, 14 years old, that was always the thought in my head. But Quo Vadis Days really helped me, as well as getting to know Father LaVoie, who was the Vocations Director at the time. Talking with him, having meetings with him and having conversations with him, he was really big in helping me take that next step into the seminary.
When I was at St. Vincent’s, Father Kyle Sahd was there at the time. Because we lived close – he’s from Columbia and I’m from Lancaster – he would drive me home on breaks. For those three and four hour trips, he and I would talk about seminary, because he was a year away from going to Rome at that point. I had ideas that I bounced off him and he came to my house a few times.
Talk about your time at the Mount and your experience there.
The Mount, for me, and being there at Quo Vadis Days, I always remember just being there and loving the feel of the Mount, loving the area, loving the aura as a whole. When the time came for me to decide where I really wanted to go for graduate school, Father LaVoie sat me down and said, “Matt, where do you think would be the best fit for you?” I said the Mount. St. Charles was great, but I think the Mount is what I needed. I prayed about that, and in God’s plan for me, I was sent to the Mount.
For me, I think the Mount was a special place just because of the fraternity and having the history behind it. We’ve had great priests there. Msgr. Baker, the rector, is a very good man. He’s been just the kind of guy you could sit down with and talk to about anything. He was very welcoming, very much a fatherly-like figure.
I had really good experiences with the different priests and my brother seminarians that I lived with. I just went on vacation with a few of them from my seminary class. That’s one of the awesome things about seminary, too, that even when guys leave, I still have some of my closest friends who are not in the seminary, who are not priests. You see that bond, that fraternity.
I get that question a lot, “What was it like being in seminary?” It’s hard for me to really put it into words. I can say, “It was good here. This was fun. There’s a lot of prayer.” But I would say what always amazed me were the bonds. It’s something you experience with one another, you and your brothers, that no one else can really experience. You can’t really put it into words. Even when you leave the seminary, those bonds remain. Those memories and experiences are unique to you and your brothers. I’m actually officiating at the wedding of one of my seminary friends next June.
You were ordained in June of 2019. Tell me about your first year as a priest.
First and foremost, being able to offer Mass every day has been top of the list. Being able to offer and give the Eucharist has been a blessing, but I think the word “blessing” is an understatement. Being able to celebrate the sacraments, Baptism, Confession; being with people in the hospital and the Anointing of the Sick. I got to be the celebrant of my brother’s wedding in March, my brother Michael and my sister Camilla.
Everything going on with COVID definitely brought things to a screeching halt. We’ll tell stories of this for years to come.
What has it been like to be a priest during the pandemic?
Very fortunately, we were able to livestream Mass every day in our chapel, so we could still offer Mass for everyone. For me, personally, it was a hard thing. When you’re called to be with people and then you’re told you can’t be around people, it’s very difficult. School ended early, every event got cancelled, everything got put on hold.
But when I look back on those two months, just the simplicity of it all. Taking that time to help myself grow. I had extra prayer time. I was able to go out and exercise more, explore more things. Getting out, going on walks, exploring different things that I might not have been able to do if I was in the middle of the busyness of springtime in the school. Looking back, while it was difficult and definitely a trial during that time, I really appreciated the simplicity of it all.
Do you have a favorite part of your ministry that you find rewarding?
Other than saying Mass every day and offering the sacraments, I would say it’s going into the school and spending time with the school kids. I really make it a priority for myself to be present in the school, spending time in the classrooms and going to their different events, like their basketball games, the fall festival they have here, trunk-or-treat. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend time with the kids. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, even as a seminarian because I wanted to be a teacher. I think that’s where the joyfulness of going to the schools comes from. That desire from within me years ago, God took and elevated it to the priesthood. He told me, “Matt, I don’t want you to lose the joy that you have going into the schools and spending time with the kids.” Through the grace of God, I haven’t. Spending time with the kids has been awesome. Working with youth is something that is essential nowadays.
What do you enjoy in your free time?
I’m a huge sports fan. I’m a die-hard Phillies fan and Eagles fan. I cried when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017. I was at the Mount and saw it happen. I also like to work out. I like to go on runs, and going to the gym.
I also like reading a good book. I’m a big crime drama fan: Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Law and Order, Unsolved Mysteries. Anything that deals with mystery, deduction and intuition, I really like watching. Probably my favorite TV show is Blue Bloods.
I’m a big country music fan. I really started listening to country when I was in seminary because I had a friend who was a huge fan. He introduced it to me and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Tell me about your time at Holy Name and what you’ve enjoyed here.
I did feel a little comfortable when I was assigned here because I had been here before as a summer seminarian. I was interacting with Father Quinlan, getting used to the people and going into the school a couple times when I was here before, so I was somewhat familiar with the church and somewhat familiar with the office.
It was a little bit daunting when I heard over and over again, “You’re going to the parish in the Diocese.” But the people here have been so welcoming. They’ve just welcomed me with open arms, and I can’t thank them enough for that. When you’re a baby priest and newly-ordained and you’ve left the seminary, it’s like the world has changed in an instant. You don’t know what to expect. You kind of have a fear of the unknown. But the people of God have been so generous to me and I’ve met some very nice people who I consider friends.
How do you prepare for your homilies?
The first thing I do is take the Gospel Reading and I do Lectio Divina, a form of spiritual meditation in which we go beyond what the text says. I place myself in a particular scene. For example, for the passage of the feeding of the 5,000, I pictured myself as a person in the crowd. I’m number 4,872, a random person who decided to come listen to Jesus.
I usually like to organize my homilies in three points, and I state my three points at the very beginning of the homily. I usually summarize last week’s Gospel, introduce this week’s and then go into my three points before giving an ending.
I also read commentaries, not necessarily personal stories. A lot of it is just taking it and doing the best that I can to relate it to people’s lives and meet them where they’re at.
I do enjoy preparing homilies. It is a lot to plan for, because they are week after week, but when the time comes to preach it, you’re thankful that you spent the time to preach it. I feel very blessed to be in that position where I can stand on the pulpit and give the homily to the people.
Who are your favorite saints?
St. Matthew, first and foremost. St. Joseph, for me, personifies not only the beauty of fatherhood both biological and spiritual, but he’s also a man everyone can look to. He was given a seemingly impossible task, at first glance, to be the role model and example of earthly living to God. St. Joseph wasn’t immaculately conceived, he wasn’t a divine being. He was a normal, everyday guy chosen to be betrothed to Mary, never expecting the plan God had for him. He teaches us – not just for a guy’s perspective but for everyone’s perspective – that if God gives you something, no matter how daunting it is or impossible it may seem, you trust and have faith in His plan. The role that St. Joseph had in Jesus’ life growing up was so instrumental, because Jesus saw just how much love and affection that Joseph gave him, knowing that he wasn’t his real father. Joseph loved him nonetheless and Jesus loved Joseph nonetheless. The love that Joseph had for Mary and Jesus is one that transcends, and is something that we’re all called to in order to elevate the love we have for God.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I am very humbled and very blessed to have been your priest for this past year, and am doing things to the best of my ability so that God can use me here at Holy Name of Jesus. If we ever cross paths one day, I look forward to it. I am very glad that God sent me here. I am so glad that He gave me my start here at Holy Name, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
(Interview conducted by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
The Called: Father Matthew Cannon
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