By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Thirty-nine years old, Deacon Sean McCaffery finally feels at home and certain about what God is calling him to do.
He will be ordained to the diocesan priesthood Dec. 17 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. At the same time, seminarian Darvin Salazar will be ordained to the transitional diaconate, his final step before priesthood, in a double Christmas present to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Deacon McCaffery freely admitted that it took a long time to get not only to Kansas City, but to his vocation.
The life track of Deacon McCaffery begins in Edmond, Okla., where he was born and raised. It continues to Steubenville, Ohio, where he earned an undergraduate degree in theology from Franciscan University.
From there, it was on to Mobile, Ala., where he worked in parish ministry while earning a master’s degree in counseling from the University of South Alabama.
Then he answered the call from God he began hearing as a boy and entered the seminary, eventually enrolling at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also known as the Angelicum.
There he got to meet Blessed Pope John Paul II, not long before his death, who beamed at at the seminarian when he told him he was studying at the Angelicum. It was the same university where the pontiff had completed his doctorate.
But Deacon McCaffery wasn’t quite certain yet. From Rome, Deacon McCaffery landed, in of all places, Hollywood where he joined the Screen Actors Guild, and earned enough between small roles in movies, commercials and music videos and putting his degree to work in counseling to make a living.
But it wasn’t enough, he said. God was really, truly calling him to be a priest, but where?
Through friends in Kansas City, he decided to give the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph a try. And when he came here at the invitation of Bishop Robert W. Finn three years ago to work in parishes and ministries while completing his seminary studies at Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, he became even more certain that he was not only doing what God called him to do, but going where God wanted him to be.
And he regrets none of what he did before, not even the time spent in Hollywood.
“I got to go behind the scenes to see how movies were made,” he said. “I liked the acting. I liked performing.”
But, he said, it wasn’t enough and the acting bug quickly died.
“I knew there had to be something deeper, something more,” he said. “I just wanted to bring the Gospel and share the Word of God with other people.”
Deacon McCaffery said he didn’t know it at the time, but he first felt God’s call to the priesthood when he was watching an Irish priest celebrate Mass at the Oklahoma parish where he grew up.
“I looked at my Mom and said, ‘I’d like to do that,’” he recalled.
His faith was further strengthened at Steubenville, not only by the university, but also by his friends and classmates at an age — 18 to 22 — when many young people, away from home for the first time, might drift also away from the church.
“I had great friends there, and our friendship was based on Christian fellowship,” Deacon McCaffery said. “I saw there what a Christian man was meant to be and how to live a life in Christ.”
He was drawn to parish work, but also drawn to the idea of falling in love, marrying and raising children. But even as he dated, he said, he’d spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, where his call to priesthood became stronger.
Deacon McCaffery said he worked in parish ministry in Mobile while pursuing his graduate degree.
“I did some youth ministry, and I did some family life ministry,” he said. “I also did some work in counseling with a divorced/widowed/separated group, so I used a lot of that skill set.”
The call became so strong that Deacon McCaffery answered it — for the first time.
Learning from his fellow seminarians that Pope John Paul II particularly liked meeting seminarians from the Angelicum, Deacon McCaffery said he wrote a letter requesting a meeting and handed it to the Swiss Guards guarding the big bronze doors at the Vatican.
“His assistant called me later and said, ‘You can meet the Holy Father,’” Deacon McCaffery said.
It would be the most profound, unforgettable experience of his life, he said.
“This was about a year before his death, and he was in poor health,” Deacon McCaffery said. “There was a line of 50 to 60 people. I knelt down in front of him and told him I was studying at the place where he did his doctoral work.”
The ailing pontiff beamed a smile at him, blessed him, and gave him a rosary.
“It seemed like time stood still. It was that surreal,” Deacon McCaffery said. “I met a saint. I met a holy man of God. I walked to St. Peter’s and prayed on that rosary right after I met the pope. It felt like people were looking at me more, that everybody was staring at me, as if something from that experience of meeting a saint was exuding from me.”
Still, Deacon McCaffery knew he had to get the acting bug out of his system. After all, the man he just met, Pope John Paul II, also was an actor when he was a young man.
“I always had a desire to do acting,” he said. “I got to do a lot of background work and got into the union. I got to see how Hollywood worked.”
And that scratched that itch after about a year.
“There was something missing. Something else was tugging at my heart,” he said.
He was, finally, certain he was called to be a priest.
On the advice of friends, Deacon McCaffery came to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph where, he said, he couldn’t have possibly been more warmly welcomed.
“The Serrans, the Knights of Columbus, Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, they have all been incredible.”
He also dived head first into ministry work, preparing himself to serve in his new home.
He worked for the Bishop Sullivan Center installing air conditioners for the elderly. He worked at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish’s food pantry, helping arrange, sort and modernize it. He worked at St. James Community Kitchen, preparing and serving meals to anyone who came through the door. He worked at Archbishop O’Hara High School, both in ministry to the students and as a substitute teacher.
And since his ordination to the transitional diaconate in May, Deacon McCaffery has served at St. Peter’s Parish, working with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults team among other duties.
St. Peter’s will also be his first assignment, at least for the time being, as a priest, and Deacon McCaffery said he is happy about that.
And he finally learned what had been missing.
“It was the desire to teach the deposit of faith, and to bring the sacraments to the people,”
“You stand in the person of Christ. It’s all about the sacraments,” Deacon McCaffery said.
“Confession, empowering people to receive the mercy of God by being the instrument of bringing that mercy to others,” he said. “Marriage, uniting couples as they become echoes of the love of God. Baptism, bringing children into the family of God. Last rites, where they want to get right with God and receive the sacraments for the last time.”
“Wow,” Deacon McCaffery said. “What a gift that is.”