From a young age, Will O’Donnell was fascinated by the Mass. Given the opportunity to become an altar server, he felt something special being that involved in the celebration and that close to the Eucharist. For most, their time as a server fades and lives move in another direction, but for O’Donnell, that simple service fueled a longing in his heart to serve God in more profound ways.
O’Donnell, a senior at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary from the Diocese of Gary, came from a devout home and attended Catholic school his entire life, so his formation around the faith started early. He credits that experience as a server with introducing the idea that his life could be used in special service to God.
“I didn’t totally understand it; I was still in third grade and I had just received communion for the first time,” he said of that early feeling. “I really wrestled with it, like being in greater communion with God, with Jesus Christ, and being a part of this mystery. Learning about it really increased my desire to learn more about how I can remain in this communion and grow in it.”
But like his peers, he grew up and out of serving at the altar, and his faith had cooled a bit when he entered high school and began to focus more on discovering who he was. Still, he attended a number of faith-based retreats, including the National Catholic Youth Conference, which reignited the fire in his heart once again, so much so that as a sophomore, he began working for the diocese on a retreat committee.
“It was really by working in the diocese that I really grew to want to work in a religious organization, so for a long time, I thought my call was to work for the diocese,” O’Donnell said. “I was really interested in computer technology, so I wanted to maybe be a source of help for the diocese. As the church was growing, there’s going to be more people and there’s going to be a need for understanding computers and technology and how to evangelize through that. That was my main plan.”
But as he later realized, God had different ideas. Those ideas became clearer for O’Donnell while attending a Kairos retreat, when he said he experienced the profound love of God through others – most significantly, through letters written to him by loved ones who expressed their deep care and love for him. In receiving that love, God told him he was to share that same kind of love with others.
“I heard His voice say to me, ‘I want you to share this love in how I intend for you,’ and how that love was shared was through an image of the priesthood,” he said. “That initial call in third grade was real, and this was the realization of that now.”
Recognizing the call was an exciting moment for O’Donnell because of the joy that swelled in him after the Kairos experience.
“I figured out that this is a way of life; I could live out of this love,” he said. “But there was some fear, with some misconceptions of the seminary.”
O’Donnell sought to clear up those ideas – including, for instance, that men did nothing but pray in silence all day or that he had to change who he was to become the ideal priest – by talking with some priests and deacons he knew. Once that was resolved, he knew entering seminary was the next step, a decision he’s yet to waver about.
While at IHMS, O’Donnell said he’s learned to better trust the Lord, which has been the theme of his journey through discernment. That includes trusting that his formation would continue while away from the house during the height of the COVID-10 pandemic.
“It was during that time that I saw the growth of the priestly heart inside of me,” he said. “During that time, people were separated from the church and couldn’t go to Mass or receive the sacraments. I was, in some ways, in agony because I was like, who am I to be so close to the sacraments? There are so many people who need the Word more than I.
“Even in that agony, I was experiencing the pity Jesus had for the crowds that were destitute, like a sheep without a shepherd.”
That feeling is evidence enough that God has put the call of priesthood on O’Donnell’s heart, one he knows he’ll fulfill despite any doubts that crept in along the way.
“Having gone through that time and wrestling with those doubts, and really just abandoning all of my hope to Jesus, I really found that there are things that are keeping me from greater communion with Christ, but that’s why I need Him. I need Him to carry me forward and continue to form me and shape me into the priest that He wants.”