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 | By Mary Gates

Appointed and anointed

Ordained priests of the Diocese of Lansing on June 8, Father Joshua Fons and Father Riley O’Shea have experienced the call, appointing, and sending by the Lord described in St. Mark’s Gospel. Neither one having had the priesthood in mind as children, the newest priests of the diocese now reflect with gratitude at how God led them to their vocations.

As the youngest of three children in his family, Father Joshua grew up in Ann Arbor attending Christ the King Parish. “Looking back now, I know I was so blessed growing up around witnesses of the faith. That definitely rubs off on you. I couldn’t have explained it as a kid but there’s a sense of total gift of self to God and docility to God’s will. And that fosters an openness to vocation.” Also immersed in the culture of the Catholic faith, Father Riley recalls the impact that his Irish Catholic background had on him. “My dad passed along our Irish heritage. He started the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Grand Ledge, which first only went around our block and then grew to a downtown event. I have good memories of the faith being intertwined with Irish heritage. The parade started in the St. Michael’s Parish parking lot and our pastor, Father Jim, blessed the parade. I realized that part of who I am is Catholic. This has been passed onto me.”

With foundations of faith fostered by their families, the two priests both experienced the Lord’s gentle calling to a deeper personal relationship with Him. “I had a couple of very impactful moments,” Father Joshua recalls. “I attended Pine Hills Camp in middle school and my faith started to become my own there. The beauty of following the Lord and of Catholic masculinity became evident to me there, and I realized I wanted to be a man of God.” The tug on his heart to pursue the Lord intensified in high school. “In my junior year at Father Gabriel Richard I started thinking that the Lord wasn’t calling me to something ‘normal.’ It was that year on the night of prom that a group of friends and I were at the vigil Mass at Christ the King and a line from the homily struck me. I put my head down on the pew and for the first time wondered if God was calling me to the priesthood.”

And Jesus went up into the hills, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach. (Mk 3:13-14)

Father Riley also remembers the first moments in which God invited him to be open to the priesthood. “When I entered college at Michigan State, I was pursuing an engineering degree. And in my first year, because of the persistence of a friend, I attended a retreat.” It was there that Father Riley experienced God’s love in a profound way. “That retreat really changed everything for me. I had the grace to return to confession for the first time in many years, and that cleared my heart for the Lord to reveal Himself to me. The second day, after hearing a testimony, I went to the chapel and genuflected to the Lord in the tabernacle out of custom, but that night it was different because I had faith that Jesus was alive. I had experienced God’s love in a real way. It was unmerited grace. I was immersed in God’s love and I cried tears of joy. I thought I had my own plan for my life, but after tasting the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit, I knew that to be truly happy I needed to surrender to His plan for me. The next day the talk was about vocations and how the Lord calls some men to become priests. That planted the seed. I had never considered it before.”

Discernment wasn’t without its challenges for either man, yet God continued to pursue, call, and invite. Father Joshua experienced the Lord’s consolation during prayer on a retreat. “The Lord said to me, ‘You have a desire to be the best Christian, but I’m calling you to be mine. I just want you to be mine.’ That encapsulated the journey to today as I am now a priest — the desire to follow him.” After attending four years of minor seminary, Father Joshua discerned out of seminary and became a FOCUS missionary. “I wanted to serve and to help others to know Him.” But in December of 2019, the Lord put the call to the priesthood back on his heart and he applied to Sacred Heart Major Seminary to complete studies and formation. Father Joshua attributes his “yes” to God’s gentle grace: “It’s all because of the Lord’s faithfulness through it all and His invitation for me to be His.”

Not unlike Father Joshua’s, Father Riley’s discernment took time as he grew in openness to God’s invitation. “I was initially excited about the possibility of the priesthood, but the pressure of figuring out my life caused anxiety for me so I put it on the backburner and focused on what was in front of me, which was graduating and moving on. So that’s what I did.” During time working in the auto industry, Father Riley had a prophetic dream of being a priest. “I initially thought it was a crazy dream but the next day at Mass a total stranger approached me and said ‘you would make a good priest someday.’” That simple nudge caused the priesthood to go from the backburner to being something that was again on his heart. A consecration to Jesus through Mary opened Father Riley’s heart to the graces he needed. “Once I made that simple prayer I put it in the Blessed Mother’s hands and I actually had a desire to become a priest if it was God’s will. I had the grace to apply and enter seminary and had such peace once I was there.” 

Now ordained and in their first assignments as priests, Fathers Joshua and Riley have great hope for the future. “There are three priestly offices: teaching, sanctifying, and governing/leading,” Father Joshua says, “and I want to live each of those out as the Lord calls me here at St. Patrick’s in Brighton. And I have a desire to see where the Lord has people who may be lost and how he’s going to ask me to go to find them.” “For me,” Father Riley says, “it’s such a blessing to serve as a priest at the parish that caught me as a floundering college student in East Lansing. Being back at St. Thomas/St. John as a priest now is to be a fisher of men, to catch souls for Christ. The Church is our spiritual home where we become fully alive as sons and daughters of the Father. My hope is that the Lord can somehow use me to expand His family, to grow His kingdom.”