A journey of faith with Father Matthew Donahue as he answers ‘yes’ to the priesthood
By Gabrielle Nolan
Generations of a faith-filled family inspired the Diocese of Knoxville’s newest priest, Father Matthew Donahue.
“My family has always been Catholic. My grandparents, great-grandparents, as far as I can tell, they’ve always been a part of the Church,” said Father Donahue. “Growing up, my parents always went to Sunday Mass every week, and I was right there with them.”
“I’d always grown up considering it or at least thinking about it, having a lot of examples of the priesthood in my life,” he added.
One example was his own uncle, Father David Mary Engo, OFM, who is currently living as a Franciscan hermit in the Diocese of Helena, Mont.
“He was so joyful, a very happy person. I was always intrigued by him, by his life,” Father Donahue said.
Father Donahue, 26, is the oldest of five children and the only boy. His younger sisters are Brianna, Meghan, Clare, and Mary.
Brianna, who now goes by Sister M. Elizabeth Grace, recently made her temporary vows with the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
Though Father Donahue was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., parents Neil and Lydia moved the family to Tennessee when he was 11 years old. He started serving at St. John Neumann Church in Farragut, where he eventually met then-pastor Father Patrick Garrity.
“Monsignor Patrick Garrity — at the time, was only Father Garrity — came and became pastor at St. John Neumann,” he said. “We really became close; we became good friends. Talking with him and going along through that, he was another example of the priesthood in my life. That really kind of moved me to consider it.”
In addition to his family and parish relationships, Father Donahue found that his personal hobbies also oriented him toward learning more about God.
“I’ve always loved reading,” he said. “Since I was a kid I’ve read many, many books. I really found a lot of interesting themes and ideas that can lead to God as well. That always has been a personal hobby that I enjoyed, and I do think has led to a lot of spiritual growth.”
Father Donahue also enjoys nature and keeping up with science and technology.
“You know, just enjoying God’s creation in a very special way, and I think there’s a lot of that in science and some of the things we can do with technology. There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of wonder about that stuff – about God’s world and about creation, and what we can learn about Him through His creation,” he said.
When it became time to discern his college options, seminary seemed like the standard choice for Father Donahue.
“At the time, I had taken dual credits, so I had enough availability to not only go to seminary but to dual major, as well, in psychology. So, I said, well if I can go to seminary I can try it for four years, see what happens. And at the end of it, if I want to move on to a degree in psychology, I can just switch to that,” he said. “But throughout those four years, and throughout that time, I really felt that God continued to call me to the priesthood, that the priesthood really fit with my own skills and abilities.”
Father Donahue described his ordination day, Saturday, Aug. 7, at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, as “dream-like.”
“It’s a very long-expected day, but at the same time, it’s still kind of amazing when it comes,” he said. “I think ‘peaceful’ would be kind of the word I’d use most for it.
“The beginning of the priestly ministry is a beautiful thing as well, so to realize I’ve made that commitment to this life in a very strong way is a beautiful thing,” Father Donahue continued.
For young men and women discerning a vocation to the religious life, Father Donahue recognizes there is often fear and anxiety.
“I have to echo, I think, John Paul II — ‘Do not be afraid.’ We don’t need to hold back from it because of fear, because we don’t think we’ll be happy or something like that,” Father Donahue said. “God will lead you where he wants you to be. God will lead you into the life he thinks is best for you,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about sort of making the wrong decision and falling into the wrong life, we don’t have to be afraid of that. We can trust — trust God and trust in His guidance.”
Now that he is a priest, Father Donahue most looks forward to celebrating the Mass and being present to the people of God.
“I think [priests] really are with people at some of the most important moments of their lives, and in a way that is very unique and very special,” Father Donahue said. “For me, I think that’s the priesthood – that connection to people, that relationship to other people.”
“What I look forward to the most is to be there for others, to be there to support them and really to bring them to God,” he added. “To bring God to them is for me the utmost importance. And of course, the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Mass is always central to that, the most intimate moment we have with God and with his people.”
Instead of immediately being assigned to a parish in the diocese, Father Donahue will return to Rome later this month to live at the Pontifical North American College, where he completed his seminary studies.
Father Donahue will continue his studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University for a licentiate degree in canon law, which is a three-year program. He will then return to the Diocese of Knoxville as a canon lawyer and serve in the Office of the Tribunal, with the potential to serve the diocese as a parish priest.