Every morning and afternoon at The Mount, students, faculty, and staff come together in prayer. Though the message is always different, the prayer always begins by reciting intentions for Mount men serving in various capacities around the world. Among the names prayed over each day are five Gael graduates who are currently in priestly formation.
This impressive number of alumni in the seminary has even caught the attention of Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori, who says, “Mount Saint Joseph High School, under the leadership of the Xaverian Brothers, has a long history of forming outstanding men of character, faith, and service, including countless who have gone on to share those gifts through vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. What a blessing The Mount has been to this local Church.”
The seminarians, James Lancelotta ’89, Tommy O’Donnell ’11, John Bilenki ’13, and Stephen Kirby ’17 of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Caleb Gaeng ’14 of the Archdiocese of Washington, each chose to pursue a vocation to the priesthood at different points in their lives. However, they all distinctly recognize the influence their experience at Mount Saint Joseph had on their decisions.
Hearing the Call
James first felt the calling to the priesthood as a student at The Mount. “During my time at Saint Joe 30 years ago, the Lord planted the seed of my vocation,” he remembers. “I can recall many times thinking of the priesthood during my senior year in 1989. After leaving Saint Joe and beginning college, a lot of life happened, and I stopped taking my faith seriously.” Eventually, he found himself being led back to the Lord amidst personal drama. He attended Mass at Saint Joseph’s Monastery and reconnected with Father Mike Murphy ’82, who helped him heal and rekindle his faith in the merciful Jesus.
Tommy’s years at The Mount were formative as well, as he was particularly inspired by the life and teachings of Brother James Kelly, C.F.X. “He wanted to pass on to us the best of what had been given to him,” Tommy shares. “For him, that meant the wisdom of the Xavierian Brothers from many years before, poems by the three greatest English poets who ever lived (Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare), the life of his hero Saint Thomas More, and the lesson of how to die well. Ultimately, he knew that the best he could pass on to us was Christ.”
Brother James died about six months after Tommy graduated, and his funeral was the first time Tommy seriously considered becoming a priest.
For Caleb, the realization of his true calling did not come until years after graduating from The Mount. While he felt tremendously supported and encouraged in his faith by the Mount Saint Joseph faculty, the priesthood never crossed his mind. In fact, as he entered college he felt as if he was living a double life, attending Mass every Sunday but struggling to live in his faith outside of Church.
“This lack of authenticity in my life continued until my sophomore year of college when I had lunch with a good friend of mine,” Caleb explains. “He did not preach or lecture me about how I should be living but simply told me how God was working in his life. His example of virtue inspired me to start the process of purifying my life. The purification process was tough but so grace filled. God kept calling me deeper and deeper into a relationship with Him.”
“Then, the summer going into my senior year, I went on a mission trip to Panama,” he continues. “On that mission trip, we served others, prayed constantly, and went to Mass every day. I had never been at more peace in my life. Through prayer, our Lord revealed that he wanted me to continue this way of life by entering seminary.”
Stephen and John both felt the roots of their faith deepen throughout their experiences at The Mount. John is grateful for not only the foundation his parents and three older brothers laid by raising him in the faith, but also for the friendships he made in high school that helped him to strengthen his relationship with God. “During my senior year at Mount Saint Joe, I was blessed with friendships I’d never quite experienced before,” he explains. “These were friends who loved their faith and wanted faith as part of their friendships. This humbled and inspired me all the more to be a man of faith.”
Stephen had felt drawn to the priesthood since a very young age. As he grew older, he continued to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the priesthood and its mission to “bring souls to Jesus through the power of His infinite love.” Sharing how Mount Saint Joseph helped him mature this understanding, he says, “It was in this environment that I experienced growth in confidence, friendship, and relationship with the Lord, allowing me to hear with clarity the call to enter the seminary for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.”
Brothers in Christ
While their experiences and interactions with faculty and staff at Mount Saint Joseph were instrumental in their decisions to enter the seminary, these five alumni know The Mount’s influence does not end there. They are also comforted in the noticeable similarities between their high school years and this new educational endeavor – from the emphasis on personal relationships to the encouragement of consistent, daily prayer.
“If I had been asked about my favorite part of MSJ while I was a student there, I probably would have picked something off my list of extracurriculars or perhaps some of my favorite classes, but in retrospect I am most grateful for the relationships I made there,” shares Stephen. “It’s not every day you come across a high school environment so conducive to authentic male friendships. From the first day of orientation to graduation and beyond, we were told to treat each other as brothers. Through the shared experiences of prayer, classes, after-school activities, retreats, and appropriate mutual mockery, my classmates and I grew in a camaraderie that has extended into our college years.”
According to John, that sense of brotherhood is just as evident in the seminary. “I really enjoy the fraternity with the other seminarians; the experience of walking together reminds me of my time at Mount Saint Joe a lot, actually,” he says. “The other seminarians are my brothers and being formed for the priesthood together, there is truly a special bond between us. We pray together, study together, eat together, and enjoy free time together, but all of this revolves around our common call from Jesus Christ to the priesthood, which is something beautiful and profound.”
Caleb agrees, “It makes trying to achieve holiness more doable when you live with 50 other guys striving to live out Christ’s will as well.”
Anything is Possible
The experience, though made easier through the support of their fellow seminarians, is not without its challenges. “It’s easy enough to say, ‘Lord, you can have me and my entire life; I will do your will,’ when you think that He’ll just toss out the old you and suddenly give you a new and improved identity,” explains Tommy.
“But, I’m starting to realize that you actually remain the same person,” he continues. “When the Lord takes up our offering of self, it’s not to throw it aside and put a replacement in right away. It’s to remold in a hot fire the same self that we give Him, and that remolding is far more painful than being tossed out and replaced like a spare part.”
For James, the most challenging aspect has been going back to school. Returning to the classroom after 28 years and writing long philosophical papers has proved difficult for him. “Although, anything is possible with the Lord,” he concludes.
John echoes James’ reminder, “I am regularly humbled by the truth that though unworthy, Christ nonetheless has called me and others to be His priests. On top of this, it is challenging to accept that we can’t live out this call on our own. Try as we may, our fulfillment and success are not in our hands, not just as future priests but, even more, simply as disciples who want to be faithful.”
For these seminarians, fundamental to trusting in the Lord and overcoming their challenges is prayer. While at first Caleb believed praying often was the toughest challenge, he says it is now something he “cannot live without.”
Stephen agrees, “Like anything else, some days are hard. Schoolwork can pile up; fear, doubt, pride, and loneliness can settle in; and relationships with friends can get complicated. But, by relating every aspect of my life, both graces and struggles, to Jesus and Mary and by listening to God’s voice in prayer, I receive the strength I need to carry on, confident that I am where I am meant to be.”
As each of these men would readily assert, we are all called to serve the Lord in some way. Spend time in prayer, they advise. “You’ll never know what God has in store if you never ask Him or give Him a chance,” says John.