Fr. Matthew Donahue becomes the 56th priest ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville
By Dan McWilliams
To hear Lydia Donahue tell it, it’s no wonder her son Matthew became a priest, with all of the Catholic vocation examples he has had in his life.
“First is Father David Mary Engo, who is his uncle, my brother. He’s a Franciscan. That was [an influence] all his life,” she said. “Then Father James McCartney on Long Island. He was our homeschooling spiritual director. He would have Mass each week for the kids, confessions with them, and sacraments with them.
“Then when we moved here to Knoxville, it was Father David Carter, Father John Dowling, and Monsignor [Pat] Garrity, who was huge in his life in making him feel part of the fraternity when he wasn’t even in seminary. [Diocesan chancellor] Deacon Sean Smith has known Matthew since we moved to the diocese, so he used to go talk with Deacon Sean. When the bishop came, we went to the bishop’s installation Mass, and we have a picture with Bishop [Richard F.] Stika and Matthew and the family.
That was really a big influence on him—these were men who loved their priesthood, so all his life he grew up understanding and knowing men who loved their priestly lives.”
Bishop Stika presided at Father Donahue’s priestly ordination Mass on Aug. 7 at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. Concelebrants included cathedral rector Father David Boettner, Father Peter Iorio, Father Engo, Monsignor Garrity, Father Carter, and Father Timothy Eck of the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., a classmate of Father Donahue at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Deacon Smith was deacon of the Word, and Deacon Fredy Vargas served as deacon of the Eucharist. Deacon Walt Otey and Deacon Hicks Armor were masters of ceremonies. Father Donahue’s uncle and aunt, Brian and Leslie Engo, delivered the readings.
“We gather together to celebrate something very significant not only in [the Donahues’] life and their family but in Knoxville and the universal Church,” the bishop said in his opening remarks. “Let us rejoice in the gift that Matthew is to this diocese as well as the gift to the priesthood.”
Before the homily, Deacon Smith called forth Mr. Donahue, who answered “present.” Father Christopher Floersh, diocesan director of vocations, then said the ordinand had been found worthy.
“We now choose this, our brother, Matthew, for the order of the priesthood,” Bishop Stika said, after which the assembly responded, “thanks be to God.”
The bishop began his homily with a semi-serious question.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked Mr. Donahue. “That’s not in the ritual, but it’s good to ask.”
Bishop Stika entered the ordination Mass having come off a nearly two-week period in which he was present at the exhumation and later the transfer of remains of Servant of God Father Patrick Ryan of Chattanooga.
“In the last week, really these last two weeks, priesthood has been ever-present in my mind,” he said.
Mr. Donahue has been in the seminary eight years, four at Bishop Simon Bruté College Seminary in Indianapolis and four at the Pontifical North American College. He completed his theology studies at PNAC and is returning to Rome after his ordination to study canon law at the Gregorian University.
“I think when he was 5 years old people were asking if he was going to be a priest. Seems like he’s been in the seminary for like 19 years,” Bishop Stika said. “He accepted my call to have him study in Rome moral theology, and now he has accepted my call also to study canon law because of the pastoral needs of this diocese.”
The memory of Father Ryan, who died in the yellow fever epidemic in Chattanooga in 1878 while ministering to victims of the disease, “still lives on,” the bishop said. And so does his influence, having administered the sacraments to the ancestors of many of those living today in Chattanooga, he continued.
“Matthew, as you come forth, I urge you to follow the example of Father Ryan,” Bishop Stika said. “And the people he ministered to I’m sure in the Chattanooga community are still around as generations have passed, people whose sins he forgave in the ministry of a priest. Because for a priest, there are ripple effects for centuries to come because of the sacramental nature and the sacramental life of a priest who gives his life for others. In the case of Father Ryan, and really in the case of all priests and bishops and deacons, there’s no greater love than to give your life for another.”
A vocation and the call of a vocation “is a conversation between an individual and God, but it has to be nourished. It has to be fed,” the bishop said. “Matthew received that call. Here he is, standing before this altar of the mother church of the diocese, with a desire as he made the announcement ‘present’ to give his life for many.”
The future Father Donahue “will be privileged to offer the sacrifice of Our Lord, the Eucharist,” Bishop Stika said. “In a few moments, the chalice I use will be his chalice, given to him by his parents. He will pick up that bread, and he will say, ‘This is My body, given for you.’ The bread is Jesus. He will take the cup, the chalice of salvation, and again offer that sacrifice that began at Passover so many centuries ago. ‘Take and drink all of you, for this is My blood, given for you.’ The core of the priesthood, the core of the Church—Vatican II tells us it’s the summit of everything that we are, who we are as a Church.”
Father Donahue also will celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation as a priest, the bishop said.
“You will be a mediator between God and man, a mediator between the Church and His people. You will forgive sins, not because you have the power, but the power, the grace, will be entrusted to you soon to reconcile people to God,” he said. “Marriages and funerals, all the beautiful sacraments that remind us that in the name of Jesus Himself you do these sacraments, not in your own name.”
Father Donahue also joins “an interesting fraternity called the priesthood of Jesus Christ, in the order of Melchizedek,” Bishop Stika noted.
“At one point you will pledge obedience to me and to my successors,” he added. “When a priest loses respect for his bishop because of his own personal opinions, he harms the priesthood. He harms the diocese. He harms the relationship of God to himself. Respect—it is mutual. It is life-giving, and it is so vital in the relationship between a priest and his bishop.”
The ordination of a man to the priesthood “is very simple in actuality,” the bishop said, “through the laying-on of hands that has existed for centuries and the invocation of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit that came upon Matthew at his baptism, the same Spirit that came upon him at his confirmation, that same Spirit that came upon him when he was ordained a deacon. And that same Holy Spirit, that Trinitarian presence that we pray for today, invoking the Holy Spirit, a Holy Spirit that he will invoke at the epiclesis of Mass, when he places his hands over bread and wine, asking that they be transformed by the ministry of the Church to become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew, you are a witness of Jesus. Always remember that.”
Bishop Stika asked Mr. Donahue to “be a man of prayer, be a man of sacrifice, be a martyr of charity, be a person whom others will be drawn to by your word but especially by your witness. You stand before the people of God from this day forward as another Christ. If you do that, then you will be a true priest of Jesus Christ, our Lord and savior.”
After the homily, the ordinand made several promises, including “to discharge the office of priesthood in the presbyteral rank, as a worthy fellow worker with the order of bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock,” “to exercise the ministry of the Word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith,” and “to resolve to be united more closely every day to Christ the high priest.”
Following that, Mr. Donahue prostrated himself as the Litany of Saints was sung. Bishop Stika then ordained him through the laying on of hands and the prayer of ordination. Father Donahue was vested by Monsignor Garrity. He then took part in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, concelebrating the Mass as a new priest.
At the end of Mass, Father Donahue gave blessings to his parents and to the bishop.
Bishop Stika announced that a maniturgium, a cloth used to cleanse priests’ hands during Mass, embroidered by Deacon Vargas, would be given to Father Donahue’s mother. By custom, the cloth will be buried with her. A purple stole, also made by Deacon Vargas and presented to Father Donahue by Deacon Smith, was given by Father Donahue to his father. By custom, it will be buried with Neil Donahue.
And Bishop Stika presented the new priest with linens to be used as Father Donahue administers the sacraments.
Father Zach Griffith and Father Alex Hernandez were last year’s priestly ordinands in the diocese. Father Griffith attended Father Donahue’s ordination.
“Father Zach, by decree of the diocesan bishop, you are no longer the rookie priest,” Bishop Stika said.
Father Donahue said he was glad to see his ordination day come.
“It was so exciting, especially after COVID, things seemed a little bleak for a while. It’s such a joyful occasion and such a day of hope and love,” he said. “Things are always uncertain in COVID times. Having it finally appear is reassuring in many ways.”
More than 30 of Father Donahue’s family attended the ordination Mass, including his sister, Sister M. Elizabeth Grace, newly professed with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
Father Donahue said he found concelebrating his own ordination Mass was “in many ways, unbelievable, but I just lived through it, so now I can believe it. But it was such a joy. It’s such an image I’ve had in my head for so long, for so many years. It’s such a blessing to finally be here and celebrate that.”
The new priest, homeschooled by his mother all the way through high school, will be “going for canon law at the Gregorian University there” in Rome, “so I’m following in the footsteps of Father David Carter before me.”
Father Donahue talked about his vestor, Monsignor Garrity.
“He was my pastor over at St. John Neumann for many years throughout the seminary life, and we became very good friends over that time. He’s been a great pillar of the faith here in East Tennessee for many years now,” he said.
Mrs. Donahue said her son considered the priesthood “pretty early on.”
“It was probably always part of what he thought about, but I think it was more serious in 10th grade and then 12th grade,” she said. “He went on a retreat that Father David Carter led, and he had a real good conversation with Father David in talking about if you feel called to the priesthood, you should enter seminary and see where God is calling. So when Matthew was in 12th grade, I remember the day he came to us and said, ‘I want to enter the seminary.’”
After his ordination, Father Donahue celebrated his first Mass at his home parish of St. John Neumann in Farragut. Neil Donahue, the new priest’s father, as well as Mrs. Donahue and the Farragut parish, are fully behind Father Donahue’s vocation.
“I think it’s hugely important and not only to the parents but also the church community. St. John Neumann is a wonderful place for our seminarians, being part of it, making the young men feel part of the fraternity, the brotherhood, of priests,” Mrs. Donahue said. “I think it’s important to have that extended family, the Church at large, praying for him.”
Mrs. Donahue said she was “over the moon” on her son’s ordination day.
“I kept thinking back to when I first found out that I was going to have a baby, I went to church. That was the first place I went to, before I told anybody else. He was our first [child]. I went to church that day. I went to Mass and have always prayed for him just to do God’s will. I used to kiss his little feet and say, ‘Go wherever God leads you’ and really pray that for all my kids.”
Mrs. Donahue said she may have shed a tear “or two” when her son blessed her at the end of Mass.
“Absolutely, it’s an amazing moment to see your son, but now he’s a Father, the wisdom of the Church behind him and the wisdom of the Apostles behind him, just the whole Church that goes along with that,” she said. “It’s definitely a moment I think I felt very close to Our Lady, not in the sense that he’s Christ but just that gift of your son giving to the Church. That’s all I could focus on even during Mass was Our Lady and how that was to give your son.”
Neil Donahue had one word to describe his emotions on his son’s ordination day.
“I’m just so proud. There are no other words to say just how proud I am of him,” he said.
Both parents of the ordinand are most supportive of their son’s vocation.
“All you can ask of your children is to do God’s will, and he’s doing it to the utmost that he can do. He’s had this calling for a long time, and today it came to fruition. I’m just so proud of him,” Mr. Donahue said.
Father Donahue is the 23rd priest ordained by Bishop Stika and the 56th priest ordained for the Diocese of Knoxville since the diocese was erected in September 1988.