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‘I have only grown deeper in knowledge and love of God’ — Ex-seminarian Mark Donohue in conversation with Father Norman Carroll

St. Mary's Seminary and University seminarian Mark Donohue of the Diocese of Wilmington and University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center Chaplain Judy Hvisc talk in the mediation garden May 11, 2022 at the Towson medical center. (Kevin J. Parks/Catholic Review)

Mark Donohue, 32, has been a seminarian in the Diocese of Wilmington the last four years. Beginning his pastoral year last summer, he made the decision to discern out of formation and explore other yearnings in his heart. As we observe National Vocation Awareness Week, Father Norman Carroll, director of vocations for the diocese, and Mark share a conversation they had about the value of formation in the seminary and how it answers the question of happiness.

Father Carroll: Give us a little background. What experience were you bringing to the seminary four years ago?

Mark Donohue: I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school K-12, but I did not really practice my faith personally, especially during high school and early college years. I was living more as an agnostic and borderline atheist. I was following the secular ideal of “follow your passions.” As it is presented in the surf movies and magazines, I wanted to surf the best waves and be with beautiful women (with the main focus being myself), but as I pursued this lifestyle nothing was ever enough, and it slowly led me feeling completely jaded and numb to the goodness of life. This led me to ask the deeper questions about life’s meaning and where happiness is found. I was doing yoga at the time, so I started exploring Hinduism and Buddhism and appreciated aspects of their beliefs but ultimately, I found it to be unhealthy because of its overemphasis on the spiritual opposed to the material aspects of reality, and for its belief that you lose your individuality as you enter the “divine.” So, I started to explore Christianity, but since I was raised Catholic, I wanted to explore a different perspective. So, I went to a protestant bible study. I enjoyed my experience and was impressed by the faith of the members, but it seemed that a lot of what was being shared was based on personal interpretation and opinion. Also, there were negative comments about Catholicism that seemed unnecessary and turned me off. I started to think about how beautiful life sounded in the way it was described in my high school theology classes, so I found some of my old high school books and started reading them. I then read the Catechism from front to back and began to live out the sacramental life of the church. In doing this, I felt the youthfulness and sense of wonder being restored in my soul. I began to feel the wounds and weaknesses I developed in living a life of dissipation and selfishness begin to heal through the power of God’s love, which flowed over to a healing and deepening of my relationships with others to a degree I hadn’t experienced before. This stirred a desire within me to share these healing effects of God’s grace with others.

Father Carroll: What inspired you to explore the priesthood and believe that it could be what God is calling you to?

St. Mary’s Seminary and University seminarian Mark Donohue visits a patient at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson May 11, 2022, as part of the spiritual care team at the Towson medical center. (Kevin J. Parks/Catholic Review)

Mark Donohue: This desire to share the healing effects of God’s grace with others and to give my whole self to God in thanksgiving for his love led me to consider the priesthood. Along the way a few people had asked me if I had ever considered the priesthood. I also was inspired by the heroic sacrifice that the priesthood entails — putting one’s whole life at the service of God and his people. Also, having lived a secular life and then experiencing the power of God’s grace made me think I could relate to people in our secular culture and try to be an instrument for leading them into a deeper recognition of God working in their life.

Father Carroll: What has been the greatest benefit of your formation?

Mark Donohue: Wow! Hard to answer that with one thing. Since you said “greatest,” that certainly would be growing deeper into love of God and his church. Spending so much time praying, learning theology, and serving God’s people cultivates an intimacy with God that I would not trade for the world. I hope to share this gift I have received in formation.

Father Carroll: What led you to your recent decision to end your pastoral year and seminary formation for priesthood?

Mark Donohue: There are many factors that would be hard to boil down into a simple answer. One factor was not having a strong desire for ordination, especially with candidacy approaching at the end of pastoral year. Also, the pain of loneliness at my parish assignments, realizing I will likely be alone at a parish most of my life, was something that over time I did not think was healthy for me personally. However, one great fruit of experiencing that pain of loneliness is becoming ever more dependent on God and his love. In addition, I missed having a female partner with which I could share the journey of life.

Father Carroll: Can you recall an experience when you thought that priesthood was you?

Mark Donohue: In trying to be a conduit or God’s healing grace when visiting the sick and dying in the hospital, or those suffering mental illness or addiction on the streets.

Father Carroll: Can you recall a moment when you realized that priesthood was not you?

Mark Donohue: When my fellow seminarians would be excited when thinking about and planning their first Mass, and I never really felt excited and had to exert a lot of mental effort to develop the imaginative energy to even try and think about it.

Father Carroll: Was there a moment when you realized that your life needed to go in another direction?

Mark Donohue: Yes, after praying and discerning the struggles I previously mentioned (loneliness, lack of excitement, and desire for female companion), I started to consider that maybe the priesthood is not my vocation. This was a painful experience in some ways because I had given my whole self to this path, but it was also liberating because it taught me that God does not want to force us into anything.

Mark Donohue

Father Carroll: Would you say that priesthood is still on the table?

Mark Donohue: God’s will be done. It is a beautiful vocation and if that is truly God’s calling for me, then please pray that I have the humility and docility to accept that.

Father Carroll: How do you see your life in the church moving forward?

Mark Donohue: I am currently working full-time at Saint Christopher’s Parish (in Chester, Md.) assisting the pastor, Father John Gabage, continuing to cultivate the life of the Parish. As I mentioned, I want to share the healing effects of God’s grace with others — so I plan for my life in the church moving forward to be at the service of that goal. I am unsure of how that will unfold, but I am trusting in the Holy Spirit.

Father Carroll: Do you wish that your path had gone differently?

Mark Donohue: Absolutely not. I do not regret a second of my discernment and formation. I have only grown deeper in knowledge and love of God, his church, and of myself as a child of God. Not to mention all the wonderful friendships I developed with priests, deacons, and parishioners along the way. The only regret I have is living a life of sin and prideful self-reliance that separated me from his love for so many years.

Father Carroll: What do you love most about the church?

Mark Donohue: As the body of Christ, her capacity to lift up the lowly and be a sure path to the flourishing for which God made us — regardless of who you are, how far you have strayed, or how broken you may feel.

From Father Carroll: Obviously, we expect anyone applying to the diocese for formation to come with a sense of a call to priesthood or to answer that question for themselves. I often say that if God wants you, He won’t go away. However, the call to serve him may not be so clear.
Seminary formation today healthfully aids a man through the dynamics of human, pastoral, intellectual and spiritual formation to challenge and affirm him to strengthen his commitment and ultimate happiness.
If you have been thinking about the diocesan priesthood as a possibility, reach out to Father Carroll at (302) 573-3113 or vocations@cdow.org.
Anyone inquiring should be known by their pastor, active in parish ministry and prompted by a few people to think about it.
We will be starting a discernment group for young men in high school and above.