By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published June 2, 2006
Father Neil J. Herlihy was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta on May 28 at the Cathedral of Christ the King as those who know him very well—from his mother, brothers and sister, to his friends from parish ministries in Marietta—witnessed and prayed, filled with obvious affection and pride.
Father Herlihy has the distinction of being the first priest ordained in the archdiocese by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who called him “my dear son … now to be my brother in Christ.” Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, who ordained him to the transitional diaconate last year, was a principal concelebrant.
A native New Yorker, the 54-year-old priest is a Georgia transplant, who has belonged to Holy Family Church in Marietta for many years. There he has been active in pro-life work, in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, on the RCIA team assisting people becoming Catholic, and in the Ultreya made up of people from Holy Family and St. Ann Church who have experienced a Cursillo. His job as an accountant for Arthur Andersen brought him from New York to Georgia more than 15 years ago.
He is a 1973 graduate of Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in accounting, and he received his master of divinity degree in 2004 from St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., with highest honors.
“Neil is no stranger to this community, although his New York accent betrays his origin in the Empire State,” Archbishop Gregory said. “His professional career brought him here, and his faith has kept him here … Today he becomes a priest, attaching his life to ours forever.”
The archbishop linked the joy of the ordination to a sense of grace at this time of the liturgical year, after Easter and before the Eucharistic Congress, saying, “Today the church in North Georgia is filled with joy because the Spirit of the Lord is so obviously apparent in our midst … We are a fortunate people.”
Hundreds of people filled the Cathedral and over 40 priests concelebrated the Mass, while current seminarians were out in force, assisting at the liturgy. Two of the candidate’s brothers, Daniel, who works in Japan, and Dennis, a New Yorker, were lectors.
When, following the reading of the Gospel, vocations director Father Brian Higgins presented the candidate to the archbishop and the archbishop formally accepted him “for the order of the priesthood,” the congregation gave him a standing ovation, one man shouting, “bravo, Neil.”
From a family of six children, who grew up with two uncles as priests, Father Herlihy has been shaped within his family, Archbishop Gregory said. He reassured Herlihy family members in the front pews, “He will still remain your brother, your uncle, your cousin …”
“There is an awesome pride in the family of a priest,” he said. “Continue to support and care for him in the same life-giving ways.”
At the same time, he said, “the church itself is so grateful to all the members of the Herlihy family for all your care for Neil.”
Speaking to the candidate, he said that Christ chooses certain men for the priesthood not because they are more exceptional than other people but “simply because he seeks to accomplish his will in us.”
“Thank you for saying yes to his choice and to his design for your life,” Archbishop Gregory said.
The life of a priest is one of sacrifice, he continued, an offering of one’s life to God the Father along with the offering of the life of his Son Jesus.
At all times, but especially at this time in the history of the church, Archbishop Gregory said, the priest’s commitment to celibacy must be lived radiantly. “Your celibate witness must shine a bright light upon this way of living.”
Archbishop Gregory also encouraged the candidate to “be a confessor with a tender and gentle heart,” to have a fiery zeal to help those who need reconciliation with the Lord, and to remember that “the Eucharist must be the very heart of your day.”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon you today, Neil, and upon the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” he concluded. “Oh, how grateful we are for (the Spirit’s) presence and his gifts.”
Following the homily, the rite of ordination took place, as the candidate knelt before Archbishop Gregory and promised obedience to the archbishop and his successors. While he lay prostrate before the altar, the Cathedral Choir and congregation prayed the Litany of the Saints on his behalf. Then Archbishop Gregory laid hands on him, praying in silence, an action that signifies the conferral of God’s Holy Spirit through whose power the church ordains those who are to serve in the order of priests.
Subsequently, Archbishop Donoghue and each of the priests present individually laid their hands in silent prayer upon the candidate. The ordination process then concluded with a prayer of consecration prayed by Archbishop Gregory.
Father Herlihy was vested in stole and chasuble for the first time, assisted by Father Jacques Daley, OSB, and his mother, Grace, and his hands were anointed with chrism by Archbishop Gregory, signifying the priest’s ministry in the church to heal, sanctify and pray for God’s people.
Members of the family, including the priest’s mother, brought the offertory gifts of bread and wine to the archbishop, who presented them to Father Herlihy as “the oblation of the holy people of God.”
Concluding the rite of ordination, Archbishop Gregory, Archbishop Donoghue and all the priests present welcomed their new brother priest with a sign of peace and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist was celebrated.
During the post-Communion time a male soloist sang “Ave Maria.” Then, just as Mass concluded, Archbishop Gregory asked Father Herlihy to give him a blessing, and knelt as the new priest gave the traditional first blessing to him in front of the altar.
As the procession left the sanctuary, spontaneous applause broke out as people saw Father Herlihy coming down the aisle for the first time vested as a priest.
Father Herlihy’s first assignment as a parochial vicar will be at St. Thomas More Church in Decatur, under pastor Msgr. Paul Fogarty, where he will begin June 16. His first Mass was celebrated at Holy Family Church.
Elaine Ness of Holy Family Church and her husband, Bill, a convert, have known Father Herlihy for about 10 years, particularly through his involvement on the RCIA team.
“He was such an inspiring guy. You could see Jesus was speaking to him in one ear,” Bill Ness said. “He is a great priest. He is a great ambassador for Christ.”
Close friend Jim Viney said that the new priest is strongly pro-life and became a member of the Knights of Columbus after the local council formed a pro-life committee. For many years he was part of a small committed group of people who prayed silently every Saturday outside the same abortion clinic in Chamblee.
“He is very strong in his principles, compassionate, but convicted,” Viney said.
He was also active in the Holy Family St. Vincent de Paul Society and faith sharing in the Ultreya initially brought out his awareness of his vocation to the priesthood, Viney said.
Members of the Ultreya said Father Herlihy is the third person to become an archdiocesan priest from their faith-sharing group.
His entrance into seminary was postponed as he returned to New York to help his family when his brother Dennis’s wife died and when his father became ill. He entered the seminary in 2000 after his father died.
Grace Herlihy said with five sons she used to hope that “at least one will be a priest, but,” she said with a laugh, “after about 20 years I gave up!”
Her surprise and joy that her son Neil is now Father Herlihy is matched by her poignant wish her late husband, Thomas, was at her side for the ordination.
“I can see him smiling down and saying, ‘well done, good and faithful son.’ He would have been so happy if he were here,” she said, her bright eyes tearing for a moment.
Her late brother, Patrick, was a New York diocesan priest, and her husband’s late brother, Joseph, was a Dominican priest. Always in their family apartment for visits, “we knew the trials and tribulations” that came with being a priest, she said. The family always prayed a daily rosary together, following the guidance of the time given by Father Peyton, “the rosary priest.”
Being at the ordination Mass “was overwhelming,” she said. “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”
Paul and Millie Heffron from Holy Family Church, who worked with the new priest in the St. Vincent de Paul Society, were not at all surprised at his vocation.
“I think he was just meant to be a priest,” Mrs. Heffron said. “He really cares about people and is going to be able to put all his feelings into practice. It is not easy making a decision like this later on after you’ve embarked on a career. I think we are all going to benefit from this.”
Dennis Herlihy said after his wife’s death his brother was a godsend to him, the most helpful person and a man who will bring a lot to the priesthood.
“At my lowest point in life, he was the one who helped me the most and I’ll be forever grateful to him,” he said. “He’s got a heart of gold. The church is fortunate to have him and he is fortunate to have the church.”
His brother Patrick said that it was their parents who by example and by teaching instilled in all the family a love for the Catholic faith.
“Any bit of faith or spirituality we have came from our parents,” he said.
Their three bedroom apartment, where the five brothers shared one bedroom, wasn’t materially rich, he realized later as he got out in the world. But “I realized I had something a lot of others didn’t have. The values that you’re taught young and your parents set as examples are far more important than anything you get from the material world.”
The children had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother “instilled in us,” he said. They were taught that when times are tough “cling to your faith; your faith will sustain you.”
“I think he was destined by God to be a priest,” he said of his brother.