Stephen Rooney is a seminarian from the Diocese of Rockville Centre (Long Island, NY). He is in his third year of college seminary studying both philosophy and theology. I met Stephen at SLS16 and spoke with him over the phone a few weeks ago to learn more about the ways he is reaching out to the world and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Stephen, thank you for giving me your time. Could you tell us about your faith story?
I come from a Catholic family and I am number four of five. I remember my mom saying when we were kids “If you’re not going be a Catholic priest, you should marry a good Catholic girl. Because the objective is heaven.” So, if we get married, we were taught our first responsibility is to get our spouse and our children to heaven; everything else comes second. The same thing as a priest – you get your soul into heaven first and then get as many souls into heaven as possible. My mom never really spoke of the this second part since she spoke about marriage, but it was implied. She said the same thing for my two sisters: “Enter the religious life or marry a good Catholic boy.”
I’m a very active person and I’ve always played sports. I played high school football through and I ran track and cross country. Senior year, I was the captain of our team and I was awarded a cross country scholarship to Ave Maria. At that point, I thought, “This is a dream come true! First of all, it’s warm in Florida and I love warm weather! No more, New York cold.” Plus, Ave Maria is a great school and I’ve always wanted to compete at the next level.
But, I didn’t know what to do because Senior year I had started seriously discerning the priesthood. I went in to talk to my high school chaplain and said, “Fr. Joe, I don’t know what to do.” He already knew about the scholarship, but now I told him that there was a small, small chance that I was considering the priesthood. He was very excited. When I had been a freshman/sophomore, he had invited me to something called Operation Andrew where a bunch of seminarians and priests talk since, at the time, I had expressed that I wasn’t sure what I was called to be.
Even though, senior year, I still thought, “I don’t know if I’m sure about the seminary, because I don’t know if I want to be a priest or not. ” He said, “Hold on. Do you know this song by Chris Tomlin?” I said, “Sure, sure.” and He told me one of the verses. It goes something like, “Don’t worry about whatever you’re afraid of, you don’t know the future. Just put all of your worries, all of your doubts on God’s angels and He’ll take care of it.” He suggested applying to the seminary – which I did – and he also suggested going down to Ave Maria and visiting it. “You shouldn’t make a decision until you do.”
So I visited Ave Maria; it was really great and I really, really liked it for many reasons! It is very good academically, which actually might have scared me more than anything else! I remember when I was over there, my adviser said, “Our first responsibility/objective here is to get you into heaven; to make you a saint.” I said, “Wow!” I had gone to a Catholic high school, Catholic prep school, etc. and no one has ever said that so explicitly except for my mom. The atmosphere at Ave Maria would have been really great, plus I would be running at the next level which has always been a dream of mine.
I went back to New York and I kept on discerning these two options. I still remember this one day when I dropped my friend off at his house after track practice which was something I did every day. I remember pulling away and I turned on KLove and Matt Maher was playing. I don’t remember the song, but I remember pulling over and breaking down into tears. I knew at that time that I needed to enter the seminary.
You had already been accepted to the seminary?
No, I don’t think I had been accepted yet, but I had applied. At that point I had to go through the psychological evaluations, meet with the rector, and a few other little things like that. It is rare to not get accepted to college seminary.
You’ve been there three years and you said it was last summer that you did the bike missions trip?
First, since I’ve entered the seminary, I have been volunteering with the Catholic Worker which is a soup kitchen and homeless shelter. A few of us from seminary bring clothes and work at the soup line. That has been nothing but a gift; it has been absolutely amazing. Also, last year I was able to teach a H.S. Confirmation class to mostly tenth graders. I really did like teaching and I really did like serving homeless as well. Both are true blessings and they probably served me more than I served them.
Now to the bike trip. After my first year of seminary, I biked across the country from Providence, RI to California with an organization called Bike and Build. I did it for affordable housing, so along the way we try to build awareness for affordable housing by speaking to people. For example, on the side of the road people ask, “What are you doing?” We respond,”We’re biking across the country.” Typically they say, “What makes you want to do that?” Then we explain how we think that the affordable housing cause is very important. Along the way we help build with Habitat for Humanity and similar organizations and we also donated a lot of money to those kind of organizations.
How Biking 4 Vocations came into existence. While I was biking, I saw the lack of priests throughout the country. It really scared me for someone who is becoming a parish priest. I was in towns in California and there were seven parishes in the vicinity with only two active priests for all seven parishes. From someone coming from the Northeast, that is so rare! We usually have two priest per parish. My parish always had three! So that really startled me. There are other cities like Moab Utah that had one priest for a large parish, but still had to travel 35 miles to go to a mission church that didn’t have a priest. There is such a great need for these priests. Traveling across the country, you could really see this huge need for priests and there simply wasn’t enough.
That really startled me and I think the Holy Spirit inspired me to bike across the country again, but this time for the Church and for vocations. I started planning it and I even started thinking about it during that first trip (Bike and Build). I thought of it early on in the trip, but really saw how much need there was for it during the trip. In regards to planning, a number of people really jumped in and started helping/suggesting ideas. For the Biking 4 Vocations trip, I settled on going to Florida and then someone suggested starting in Florida and coming back to NY. St. Augustine was the start where the first Catholic Mass was said in the United States so it was decided we would start there. That is how Biking 4 Vocations came into being.
You were saying that there were a couple priests involved and even people in the Philippines knew about it?
We had great feedback primarily because we had a PR person, Rose Sullivan, who is the Executive Director for the National Conference of Vocational Directors. I don’t think she had an official position, but she made it a worldwide event. People in the Church all over the world knew about it because of her and the Holy Spirit used her to spread the word worldwide. For example, the Archdiocese of Seoul in South Korea was promoting us. I had a friend over there from high school and he said, “Hey, look what I found!” and sent a picture of an article on us from South Korea! Even on Biking for Vocations Facebook I shared this picture. The Vatican was on-board through Archbishop Wong who is the Secretary for Seminaries for the Congregation for the Clergy and oversees all the seminaries in the world. There were lots of bishops in Canada also…I don’t know all of the places. It wasn’t really my job; I just biked! It is all on the Biking for Vocations page. People all around the world were supporting us.
What was a regular day like? How were you able to interact with people and share your love of Jesus?
That is a good question. When we were biking, we might start off the day around 4:30am. We’d probably eat breakfast and then head out. Usually we’d bike 50-60 miles…it’s hard to say. Our highest day was 86 and our lowest day was maybe 26. We would bike for 20 or 30 miles and then take a break, etc.
We encountered many people who were not Catholic. I remember we were once at a supermarket at 6am. The cashier saw that we had our biking jerseys, etc. on and said “Oh, where are you guys heading?” We said, “We’re actually biking to New York.” (I think we were in Georgia at the time.) She was amazed and said, “Why are you doing that?” We were able to have a short conversation and share what we were doing.
We would encounter people along the way and talk with them about being open to God’s plan for them whatever that might be. We asked them if they had anyone we could pray for and often they gave us an intention. For example, we were in a Waffle House where we met a single mother who was trying to provide for her son and we told her we’d pray for her and her son. It is people like that we encountered along the way.
Another was was we gave talks to churches. The churches might have their schools, CCD classes, or maybe their youth group come and we would speak to them. We might have Mass and then have a talk afterwards. I remember going into a classroom in Delaware and we got to the school early. I remember there were 300 kids waiting outside and they all welcomed us in because it was recess time! When they went back to their classrooms, one of the other seminarians and I went to six different classrooms speaking to the kids for ten minutes saying, “God has a plan for all of you guys; be open to it. He has great plans for you!”
Like I said earlier, we did always asked people if they had any prayer intentions we could take on for them in the pilgrimage. We had plenty of time to pray while we were on our bikes! We even prayed the Rosary as a team. When you go downhill and the wind is going against you, you have to yell it at that point!
I noticed you were fortunate enough to be able to serve at the altar at SLS16. Has that always been a part of your life?
I actually served daily Mass before I even made my First Communion. At SLS16, the job of myself and my fellow seminarian – in addition to serving at Mass – was the responsibility was to carry the candles for the Eucharistic procession; another seminarian rang the bells. Twice a day we would get the Eucharist from the chapel and a priest would take the Eucharist to where we said Mass. It would be a good five minute walk. It was so cool because when people heard the bells, everyone just fell on their knees! You were there, you experienced it! It was amazing.
I haven’t been able experience a procession before; was this one of your first times as well?
I’ve not been part of a procession with the Eucharist. I have been able to serve for the Pope, which I will get back to. The Eucharistic procession at SLS was so cool. At the conference, we were talking about St. John the Baptist who said, “Prepare the way for the Lord” and, that is exactly what we servers were doing in this procession. We were literally escorting Jesus and saying, “Prepare the way for the Lord” and everyone went on their knees. It wasn’t for our glory; it was for His glory! As His disciples – and possibly someday as a priest – we are all called to give all the glory to God. And to just repeat His words, “Prepare for the Lord, He is coming…and He is coming sooner than you think.” Sometimes as a priest, someone might say, “Great homily Father. Great job with this; you’re so funny; whatever it is.” But we need to remember to give Him the glory for He is the one who gave me my comedy; He is the one who gave me the gifts. We always have to redirect the praise to Him; He is the one who we need to give all the glory to.
You said you served for Pope Francis when he was in America?
I was very, very blessed. I was chosen as a candle bearer – along with another seminarian from our seminary – to serve for Pope Francis when he presided at vespers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
It was absolutely amazing; it was one of the best days of my life! At first, we were told the day before that we had to get there seven hours early according to the Secret Service. At this point, I was complaining, “I’m going to starve!” But it was absolutely amazing because when the two of us walked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the only other people there were Cardinal Dolan, his secretary, and his bodyguards. It was completely silent because they had been working the day before on the renovations and they had just finished. It could be one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen and it was completely empty. It was just us, the five of us, in this humongous, newly renovated cathedral. The sun was coming through the stained glass windows and that hasn’t happened in years. It was absolutely beautiful!
We had hours there before most people came and we were able to go to the choir loft, all the side altars, etc. I talked with all the security – Homeland Security, FBI, the Navy Nuke Squad, NYPD, NYFD, everyone you can think of. They said this is ten times worse than when the President comes. Ten times more security. So I was just talking to them, just starting a conversation since we had hours there to pray. We just had so much time there.
Before the vespers started, Monsignor Marini who is the head Papal Master of Ceremonies, the Pope’s assistant. He was the MC for Pope Benedict and Pope Francis liked him so much that he asked him to be his MC. This man is so prayerful, so cool! He was speaking to about a dozen of us who were all servers. The other ten – with the exception of myself and fellow seminarian Steven – all of them were major seminarians. They were in at least their second year of theology so they were much further ahead than myself and Steven. Monsignor Marini was explaining to all of us the liturgy and I’ve never seen a dozen grown men come to tears before when speaking to liturgy. He had a translator because he only speaks Italian. I can’t do him justice, but first he was talking about how “if we mess up, it doesn’t matter, because we are just along for the ride.” I thought that was so cool. He said, “Remember who the protagonist is during this liturgy.” It was just vespers, but still a liturgy. We’re serving with the Pope, but even he isn’t the protagonist… the protagonist is Jesus! I thought that was so cool. He said that during the liturgy you should have a spousal love for Jesus. How he was just explaining liturgy, it was just awesome!
I was able to meet the Pope, but all I really did was shake his hand. I was probably just mumbling because I was so nervous. It was really neat!
The final question. Having all these wonderful experiences and then going to SLS16 and learning all these tools: how to evangelize, how to engage, Bible studies, etc. how do you think you’ll be able to bring these into the priesthood and your life in the future?
I think if we just always remain second, and just remember He is first. Remember in the Gospel, St. John the Baptist says, “I must decrease and You must Increase.” If we just remember to give Christ all the glory, we can do great things for His name.
My confirmation saint is St. Francis Xavier and he inspires me so much. Tradition says he baptized more babies than anyone in history. Like Fr. Mike Schmitz said, when St. Francis was writing back to St. Ignatius he said, “My throat is aching at night because of the amount of people I have baptized.” He just inspires me more than anyone else. He gets it! He is just doing everything that is humanly possible. I think he is going beyond human limits and God is giving him the strength to do more because he is doing it for Him.
If someone asked me what I want to do with my life, I would say, “I want to bring as many souls to Christ as possible!” I think that is the objective of life. I might have hobbies like football or running or biking, but at the same time those are just hobbies. The real objective of life is getting my soul into heaven and getting as many other souls into heaven as possible.
I am not entirely sure how I can use all of these things I’ve learned here, but like FOCUS said, it is spiritual multiplication, having a relationship with one person at a time and showing them the love of Christ and of God. If I can do that with one person at a time, I think it is all worth it.
Thanks for your time and God bless!