Like Pope John Paul II, Father Owen Keenan shows the glory of God by being a “man fully alive.”
The famous phrase of St. Ireneus, which the Pope included in his very first encyclical, is an especially apt description of both the Holy Father and the priest who was ordained for the Archdiocese of Toronto shortly before that city hosted the 2002 World Youth Day presided over by John Paul.
Like Father Karol Wojtyla in postwar Poland, Father Keenan hikes and canoes with the young people to whom he ministers on a deep level. He is a pastor who, like the Pope before him, seems destined to also teach in a university setting.
True to his role model in Rome, the busy associate pastor at St. Ignatius Church in Mississauga, Ontario, maintains a spiritual regimen that is fostered by the contemplation of nature, scholarly reflection and an intense life of prayer grounded in the Mass and the faithful observance of a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament.
He is also an active promoter of the Pope's theology of the body and is the author of a graduate dissertation, The Spirituality of the Diocesan Priest as Found in the Writings of John Paul II, which was published by the U.S. National Catholic Education Association's seminary journal.
“The Pope emphasizes that, in addition to the priest's sacramental role, the people benefit from his closeness to Christ and Mary, from his commitment to prayer and asceticism, to celibacy and chastity,” Father Keenan says. “A priest has to be holy before he can ask it of others.”
According to those around him, Father Keenan, 31, is a faithful disciple.
“He possesses a holiness beyond his years,” Dr. Maria Kraw says, “but he's also a fun person, an attractive personality; he likes to laugh and joke. The two things are great together.”
Kraw, a specialist in reproductive health, is one of five doctors who are founding members of a monthly discussion group led by Father Keenan to mine the insights of Love & Responsibility, the 1958 book by the Pope that examines Catholic sexual teachings.
Like many of the “John Paul II generation” of priests, Father Keenan was drawn to the Pope's authenticity — and has been formed by his thinking, which is based on perennial truth expressed in a new language.
“Father Owen is mastering that language,” says Father Tom Lynch, academic dean at Toronto's St. Augustine Seminary and Father Keenan's spiritual director. “Today's seminarians come from a hyper-sexual culture and they want to find deeper meaning, which is why the Pope resonates with them.”
One of four sons, Owen Keenan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, to devout Irish immigrants, Owen Sr. and Carmel Keenan. The local parish was staffed by Holy Ghost Fathers “who were always a part of our lives,” the priest recalls. “They were funny, charming — and manly.”
When Keenan was 13, the family moved to Toronto, where he graduated from St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto.
“I wondered about the priest-hood in those days but I also thought about a family,” Father Keenan says. His pastor submitted his name to the archdiocese's “Called by Name” vocation program, which led to a private meeting with Toronto's Cardinal Aloysious Ambroszic.
“The cardinal said he thought I should become a priest,” Father Keenan recounts. “It was very humbling that he would see something in me.”
A major impetus in favor of a vocation came from attending the 1995 World Youth Day in Manila, Philippines, which opened the young man's eyes to the reality that so many young Catholics were passionately dedicated to their faith.
He returned to the Philippines to teach philosophy, and he gave thought to becoming a missionary. He also visited the American novitiate of the Legion of Christ.
While Father Keenan ultimately decided on the diocesan priest-hood and in favor of working in the “missions” of modern Canada, a Legionary pamphlet helped spark the youthful generosity that would help him to decide in favor of the priesthood.
“The Legionary piece turned me around,” Father Keenan says, ‘because it said something like, These men are giving Christ the first shot at their young lives.’”
Throughout the adventure that has led to the demanding life of an apostle, Father Keenan credits the Holy Father with being “a large part of why I am a priest” and for being a certain kind of priest — one “who knows the great joy of entering people's lives to serve them.”
“He's real, down to earth, witty,” says Patrick Yeung, an old friend of Father Keenan's. “We used to sing a cappella at old-age homes; he would get the old people to smile.”
“He is,” Kraw says in agreement, “a man fully alive.”
Joe Cullen writes from Floral Park, New York.