Father John Antonelle, parochial vicar and campus minister at on the campus, is interrupted by a text message. It's from a student seeking an appointment to make confession.
The technology is modern, the ministry traditional. Antonelle, known as Father John, is comfortable with both.
After his ordination and assignment to parishes with youth groups, the bishop asked him to come to UConn. Antonelle felt he didn't have the experience and wondered how he could be effective.
“I tricked myself that I was going to a parish with a humongous youth group,” Antonelle recalls. “I put a lot of trust in God to do this well.”
And the approach seems to be working. The Sunday night at 7 service for students is standing room only, and the weekday noon Mass regularly draws about 25. On the recent finals week, it was more like 40-50, he says.
But that spike in attendance is not a frantic appeal for divine intervention at the time of test-taking.
“I have not seen a panicked student go to pray to do well on an exam. No not at all. Their faith has been consistent,” Antonelle says. In fact, he calls it inspiring to a priest, when students “do church in the midst of the frenzy” on campus.
Antonelle's style is to develop a rapport with students and be sensitive to the challenges of their first time away from home. He sees them when he exercises at an area gym. He serves at the Midnight Breakfast that kicks off finals week at the UConn Student Union. (“I was giving out trays and trays of brownies so I was very popular,” he says.) He joins them on Alternative Spring Break trips to Kentucky where they build homes in Appalachia.
Other volunteer work includes community outreach through a student-run group called Tom's Leadership Council, or TLC, singing for the choir, assisting priests during the Mass and teaching the younger children in the parish.
“I believe when we are judged, we will be judged for how much we have loved and cared for our brothers and sisters,” he says. “'Whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me.' The students know that quote.”
Always a Calling
He first thought of the priesthood at age 7. He recalls watching the priest, dressed in green vestments, officiating at Mass and thinking, “I could do that.”
During his upbringing in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway, Queens, his family steered him toward the life of an observant Catholic in the secular world. “It was get an education, find a good job, get married, have a family, but always remain close to the church and my faith.”
In later years, he did join a community and pursue a vocation that led him to Europe, but “the fit was not right.” He returned to the United States and, on the feast day of the founder of the community he left, he found a graphics art job at a Long Island pharmaceutical firm.
“I considered that a sign, that the saint [Vincent Pallotti] was still a patron for me,” Antonelle says.
The job he thought was a way station turned out to be a great one. He stayed for almost 18 years, living in Manhattan, making a good wage and enjoying his work colleagues and lifestyle.
He went through the publishing transformation from paste-up and page mechanicals to computer design. He was one of the ones who successfully embraced the change.
But he knew there was something else, something more.
“The call was always there, but I was saying, 'Not yet, not yet.' At one time I tried to bargain with our God and say, 'I'll be a deacon' – best of both worlds. But after one meeting with the diaconate class, it wasn't for me, and I knew that God wanted the whole package.”
But then when a mentor who was like a second father to him died, he realized the enormity of delaying choices in life. “That rocked my world. That was my St. Paul experience of being knocked off my horse,” he says.
He decided in June to enter seminary in the fall. He had two months to notify work, tell family and friends and get his life in order. “It was remarkable how all the pieces fell together. It happened all on its own,” he marvels.
He later attended a secular diocesan seminary in Cromwell, CT, geared toward older vocations. He was ordained in 2006, worked in Connecticut and Rhode Island churches, and came to St. Thomas Aquinas in 2009 with Father Gregory Mullaney, the senior pastor at the church.
A Challenging Journey
He had just begun seminary training when 9/11 happened. He was worried about his brother, who worked near the Twin Towers, and spent the day trying to reach him and praying with his fellow seminarians. That night he found out his brother and niece met in Midtown and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to safety and mass transit.
Soon after that trauma, the sex scandal in the Catholic Church heated up, and Antonelle's family worried that he had changed careers at a bad time. But the seminarians believed it to be a chance to strengthen their faith. “It made us want to be better priests,” he says.
In step with Bishop Michael R. Cote of the Norwich Diocese and Father Mullaney, Antonelle encourages UConn students to spend some time on the same kind of discerning about life choices, whether for a role in the secular world, a marriage or a religious calling.
And, in the 2½ years the Pallotines have been at St. Thomas, one UConn graduate is studying in Rome, eight students are in discernment for the priesthood and a few women are considering a commitment to religious life. During the previous eras at St. Thomas under the Jesuits and the Paulists before them, no students pursued discernment for the priesthood, Antonelle says.
Many of the students considering a religious vocation are involved in a missionary group called FOCUS, or Fellowship of Catholic University Students. In that nationwide organization, recent college graduates commit to spending two years on campus to make personal connections with students and evangelize. The UConn chapter is very active, he says.
Much of Antonelle's ministry is upbeat, but he does face the inevitable tragedy or tough situation among the students. He never expected, for instance, that he would attend a half dozen student funerals, due to violence or accidents, in his 2½ years at St. Thomas.
And the message is more difficult to deliver, on some subjects, such as abortion.
“You have to stay firm to the teachings of the church, in a way that isn't harsh, but still you have to teach the truth,” he says, noting that most of the students know what they will hear. “I have never had a real difficult resistance,” he says of his ministry.
He works at finding a meeting ground with students, and recalls a story from an Alternative Spring Break trip to Kentucky. He and some students were going from one building to another on a starlit night. The students stopped to admire the heavens.
Antonelle broke into a popular song with lyrics by Eminem, singing “I could really use a wish right now (wish right now, wish right now).” The students were taken aback and one asked, “Father John, how do you know that song?”
That's his way, to keep up with his younger parishioners and share in their culture.