A congregation of clergy, religious, family members, friends and lay faithful filled St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg on Saturday, June 3, in joyful celebration of the ordination of three priests for the Diocese of Harrisburg.
Bishop Ronald Gainer celebrated the Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood for the new priests, Father Richard Groff, Father Kevin Key and Father Chiedozie Ononuju.
“Some days are so significant that they remain fixed in our memories for a very long time; perhaps even for the rest of our lives. Today is one of those days. Not only for our three deacons who will be ordained priests this morning, but also for all of us here,” said Bishop Gainer.
“This morning, three new priests are given to the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. What wondrous love God shows us! What joy we have in this precious gift!” he remarked.
Family members and friends of the new priests filled the pews, sitting across the center aisle from the rows of priests who welcomed the newly ordained into their fold. The standing-room-only congregation was one of the largest contingents of faithful to fill the Cathedral for ordination, and demonstrated the life of the local Church and the support of its priests. Still thousands more tuned in live to watch the stream on the Diocese’s Youtube Channel.
“Our brothers who are to be ordained do not claim this special honor for themselves,” Bishop Gainer said during his homily, “but can only accept what God, through the Church, is doing for them and for us.”
Addressing the three men to be ordained, the bishop said “You begin today to devote your whole self to something that is not your own work. Today, you take on a mission and you become the bearer of a message that God alone can commit to your charge…. Today, you will receive from God what is properly God’s own, but what God has willed to share with us.”
“The High Priesthood that Christ shares with you today sets you apart, takes you from among men, and makes you humankind’s representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifice, to forgive sins, and to speak in the person of Christ His very words in the Upper Room: ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood,’” the bishop told the men.
He asked them to make an intentional commitment “to be active and effective ministers of the presbyterate of our Diocese.”
“Join in fraternal love, your bonds with your brother priests must become a genuine and an important part of your lives,” he said.
Reflecting on the day’s Gospel Reading (John 21:15-17) of Jesus asking Peter three times whether the disciple loved Him, Bishop Gainer remarked that Peter’s love for Jesus had to show itself by responsible actions.
“Through my voice, Christ is about to ask each of you a series of questions,” Bishop Gainer told the ordinandi. “The questions concern the fundamental responsibilities of the priesthood, specific commitments you must promise. As you give your answer this morning, hear the voice of Jesus asking you in each of these questions, “Richard, Kevin, Dozie, do you love me?’…. “Realize that each time you faithfully meet these obligations, you are saying to Jesus Christ, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
The series of questions, asked during the Examination of the Candidates, are:
- Do you resolve to discharge unfailingly, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Office of the Priesthood in the Presbyteral Rank, as trustworthy coworkers with the Order of Bishops in feeding the Lord’s flock?
- Do you resolve to carry out the Ministry of the Word, worthily and wisely, in the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of the Catholic faith?
- Do you resolve to celebrate the Mysteries of Christ, reverently and faithfully, according to the Tradition of the Church, especially in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for the praise of God and the sanctification of the Christian people?
- Do you resolve to implore with us the Mercy of God for the people entrusted to you, with zeal for the commandment to pray without ceasing?
- Do you resolve to be united more closely each day to Christ, the High Priest, who offered Himself for us to the Father as a pure sacrifice and, with Him, to consecrate yourselves to God for the salvation of all?
Eager and Prepared to Serve
At the conclusion of the Mass, the bishop announced the priests’ assignments as parochial vicars for the following parishes: Father Groff to Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lewistown and St. Jude Thaddeus Parish in Mifflintown; Father Key to St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey and as chaplain at Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg; and Father Ononuju to St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle.
Father Groff, 61, is from Holy Trinity Parish in Columbia. He gave many years of service to the Church before entering the seminary, including as a parish youth minister and director of religious education, as a campus minister at Franklin & Marshall College, and as a teacher and director of spiritual life at York Catholic High School.
“I heard the call to the priesthood, and I kept deferring. I always felt, ‘There is somebody else who can perhaps do this better,’” he told The Catholic Witness. “I always loved Church, I loved the sacraments, I loved the celebrations. I thought I could see myself doing it, and yet at the same time, when thinking about entering the seminary and going through the process, I thought, ‘I’m not sure.’”
What’s more, as an only child, he spent a number of years taking care of his parents. After his mother passed in 2014, he wondered if God was still calling him to be a priest.
“I met with a spiritual director, Father [Lawrence] McNeil, and he was a great person to talk with. He finally posed the question to me one day: ‘You’ve done everything short of going to seminary. Can you go through the rest of your life saying, ‘What if?’ I immediately knew the answer in my heart of hearts,” Father Groff said.
He entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., literally leaving everything follow the Lord, including his job as director of religious education at St. Joseph Parish in Mechanicsburg and his family home.
“I got up on a Sunday morning in August, went to Mass, loaded up the car, locked the door to my house and, with a huge leap of faith, drove down to the Mount,” he recalled. “On Tuesday of orientation, I received my letter of acceptance, which was August 15, the Assumption of Our Lady and also my mom’s birthday. I knew she was looking down from heaven…. That was a sign for me that my mom and dad were pulling for me, and Our Lady has been part of my vocation and who I am.”
At 61 years of age, Father Groff recognizes that he brings a different perspective to priestly ministry.
“I think I’m able to bring the practicality of having lived on my own. I’ve had to pay bills, go to work. I know how hard it is to make ends meet from month to month, so I can relate to parishioners on that,” he said. “Having taken care of aging parents and their health concerns, I can relate to people in their suffering…. I know that God will give me the graces to do this ministry for His people, and I am blessed to work in the vineyard for Him.”
Father Key, 28, is from St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle. He first considered the call to the priesthood as early as middle school, when he was an altar server. He said the examples of the priests he knew as a young man showed him “the Church isn’t outside of my life, but part of my life, and part of the community’s life.”
While discerning his vocation, he attended the Diocese’s Quo Vadis Days retreat for young men.
“It introduced me to the seminarians and younger priests, and that made things seem more possible and more real,” Father Key said. “I met guys going through the same things I was and it made me realize I was not alone and that it was not a weird desire for a Catholic man to think about priesthood.”
He took those discernment tools to college, where he studied at the University of Dallas. “As a man on my own in college, I had the tools to really hear what God wanted to say. He said, ‘I want you to be happy, and the way I’m going to make you happy is to be a Catholic priest.’
Father Key received his seminary formation at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. For him, the most rewarding aspect was “the subliminal and slow molding that only comes with time and experience.”
“It was six years of being with my brothers in seminary, six years of learning how to pray, of seeing examples of the priests in our Diocese – just the really slow, subliminal changes,” he said. “God is so generous and very patient. He gave me those opportunities so that I arrive where He wants me to be, according to His timeline.”
In times of struggle or doubt during his discernment, he turned to prayer and the sacraments.
“‘Am I able to do this?’ was a big question I had during the two years in college when I was really discerning. There was a huge feeling of unworthiness, which I think most of us have in any situation in life,” Father Key remarked. “I sustained that discernment and relationship with God by staying close to Him in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Confession.”
In his final year of formation, he served as a deacon at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lancaster and said the year of service has stoked his desire to become a priest.
“Getting the opportunity to baptize people, to preach, to be at Mass every single day as a minister, to help people deepen their faith – as a deacon and seminarian, I got to do all those things, and I can only imagine what that’s going to be like as a priest. The joy I had in serving as a deacon, I know God will keep giving me even more graces as a priest,” Father Key said.
Father Chiedozie Ononuju, 29, is a member of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lewisburg. Originally from Nigeria, he grew up in the busy city of Lagos, where he attended boarding school from seventh through twelfth grade. He came to the United States as a teenager, finishing high school at an all-boys school in Maryland before attending Bucknell University.
It was during his high school and college years that Father Ononuju began considering the call to the priesthood.
“The thought of it came to my mind off and on during that time,” he said. “Sometimes, I pushed it to the back of my mind, but God won.”
When doubts crept in during his discernment and he wondered whether he should have pursued a career in his field of study as an electrical engineer, he found counsel in a spiritual director and solace in trusting God.
“I received good counsel from my spiritual director, who said, ‘Wait it out. Trust in the Lord. Don’t make any rash decisions,’” said Father Ononuju, who received his formation at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. “And God showed me He would provide for me and that things would be OK because the priesthood is what He was calling me to. It’s been a beautiful journey.”
He said he is eager to serve the people of the Diocese as a priest, and “being there for those who need God’s love.”
“Accessibility and availability can’t be emphasized enough,” Father Ononuju said. “I want to serve God in whomever I meet, whether that’s in the parish or on the street. I keep asking the Lord for a deeper love to do that, because I can’t do it on my own; I need His help. I want to give all I have to the Lord and His people.”
“It’s heartwarming to know that I’ve been supported by so many people in parishes throughout our Diocese,” he said of prayerful, fraternal and financial support of the faithful during his time as a seminarian. “It’s beautiful to know that the people of God are behind us, they love and they care for us. It’s humbling to know that so many are supporting you, praying for you and love you because you’re going into the ministry of shepherding them and feeding them with the Body and Blood of the Lord. I’m floored by that privilege.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness