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The feeling of incredible grace overwhelmed transitional Deacon Anthony Hollowell as he stood right next to Pope Francis.
He watched in awe as Pope Francis raised the Eucharist toward the heavens during a Mass earlier this year at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. And the power of that moment continued minutes later as the 34-year-old deacon prepared to share a sign of peace with the pope.
“I laid my head on his shoulder and squeezed his arms hard, and I felt the embrace of a holy man,” recalls Deacon Hollowell, who has been in Rome the past four years, studying and preparing for the priesthood.
It was all part of a moment that he considers as “one of the greatest days of my life”—a moment that reflects his complete embrace of the Catholic Church and his approaching ordination as a priest in the archdiocese on June 25.
It was also a moment that Deacon Hollowell never imagined seven years ago. At that time, he was so restless and so lost about what to do with his life that he bought a one-way ticket to Mexico “to travel, to continue to learn Spanish and to get certified in scuba diving.”
And yet even that time of restless searching is one of four defining moments that helps explain the person that Deacon Hollowell is, and the priest he will be.
Before he boarded the plane for Mexico in 2009, he had lived a life frequently marked by successes and adventures. These successful adventures occurred even when his plans, as he says, “followed a very strong pattern in my life which can be summed up in the phrase, ‘Ready … FIRE! … Aim.’ ”
Deacon Hollowell was a captain of the 1999 state championship football team at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. He has earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. During his years there, he was the captain of the boxing team, and he spent part of a summer leading seven classmates on a bike ride across the country from Los Angeles to New York.
His joy for travel also led him to spend a summer in Chile learning Spanish, a goal that later enabled him to connect better with Latino students and their parents during the two years he taught and coached at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.
One of his few plans that wasn’t a success involved the four months he spent in the Dominican order, exploring the possibility of becoming a priest.
And he admits he didn’t have much of a plan when he landed in Mexico. For four weeks in Puerto Vallarta, he focused on eating well, improving his Spanish, attending daily Mass and earning his scuba certificate.
Then came the night that changed his life, a night when he had a conversation with God.
“I literally gave up my will,” he recalls. “I told God, ‘I will do whatever you want me to do in my life. Just tell me what you want me to do.’ ”
The next day, he opened his laptop and began writing a letter to the vocations director for the archdiocese. He stunned himself because he was writing to inquire about starting seminary to become an archdiocesan priest.
“As I’m writing, I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘What are you doing?!’ I thought, ‘If you send this, you’re going to do this for a year, even if you don’t become a priest.’ And I sent it. I told myself that no matter what happened, I’d offer up that year for all of my young friends who were getting married and starting families. I prayed for these families every day in the seminary. And it ended up being a wonderful first year.”
In his third year of priestly formation, he was assigned to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He had a transformation of the heart during his second year in Rome in 2014.
“It wasn’t until then that I began to understand my call to the priesthood as an incredible gift from God, and not as a laborious duty that I had to learn somehow to accept.
“Deep in my heart, I thought, ‘This is it! This is the adventure you’ve always longed for! This is the desire you’ve been waiting to have fulfilled!’ It’s all there for me in the priesthood.”
Sarah O’Connor has no doubt that Deacon Hollowell will become a “wonderful, holy priest”—a belief she bases in part on the way her friend reacted when one of the worst disasters in the United States in the 21st century was about to happen.
They both were teachers in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program at Resurrection Catholic School in Pascagoula, Mississippi, when Hurricane Katrina was about to hit in 2005.
Less than 60 hours before the hurricane struck, O’Connor and five other ACE teachers who shared a house with Hollowell were trying to decide what they should do. No conclusion was reached until Hollowell returned late that evening.
“We all immediately barraged him with questions about the situation and what we should do,” O’Connor recalls. “He stood and listened for a few minutes, asking a couple questions. Then, he said, ‘We leave this house in 10 minutes.’
“That was the end of the conversation. We all immediately got up and started getting ready. Tony is someone who can—and will—make challenging decisions with the best interest of others in mind. Thankfully, we were then all safe when the hurricane did hit and flood the town we lived in, destroying one of our schools and gutting the others.”
O’Connor also considers it telling how he responded and reacted when, during their quick packing to evacuate, one of the younger ACE teachers asked, “What all should we take?”
“Tony’s response was, ‘Anything you don’t want to lose.’ Then Tony walked out the door wearing the clothes on his back and carrying one small computer bag containing his computer, an extra pair of underwear and a book. That was all he ‘didn’t want to lose.’
“This is the type of person Tony is. He is detached from earthly possessions, enjoying them only to the extent they lead him to Christ. He helped me learn about my own faith—challenging me to learn more, and frankly making being Catholic look fun in a way that I didn’t see before.”
She believes he will have that same impact in the archdiocese.
“He is simply a light,” she says. “Maybe this is partly because you never know what he is going to do next. He could take off sprinting around the block or busting out dance moves the kitchen floor has never seen.
“He loves his faith. He loves the Lord. And he is a regular guy who enjoys living the life God has called him to. He seems to be the perfect embodiment of St. Catherine of Siena’s quote, ‘Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.’ ”
The full force of the fire that is Deacon Hollowell blazes through in a story that his brother Matt Hollowell shares—a story that unfolded in the days following the devastating wrath of Hurricane Katrina, which severely damaged Resurrection Catholic High School.
“The school was flooded, sewage and mud caked the floors and walls,” Matt says, adding how stoves and refrigerators in the school kitchen “had been lifted in the flood water and were displaced.”
The damage was so extensive that a decision to close the school was discussed at a diocesan-wide meeting.
“Tony had other plans,” Matt says.
At the meeting, Deacon Hollowell stood up and told the bishop and others, “I will be at the school tomorrow at 7 a.m., and we are getting to work, and my Dad is coming with a bunch of equipment. If you want to help, show up.”
Joseph Hollowell, the longtime president of Roncalli High School, soon arrived from Indianapolis with power tools, cleaners, pressure washers—all kinds of equipment that were sold out within a 300-mile radius of Pascagoula.
“About 30 kids and parents showed up the next day, and we worked all day, every day, for four weeks,” Deacon Hollowell recalls. “Then things began to settle, diocesan infrastructure and insurance adjustors kicked in, and they finally had crews working on the school.”
The school opened six weeks after the storm—a re-opening that Matt credits to “the efforts of Tony Hollowell and God’s grace.” Then Matt shares another story about the fire within his brother.
“On the first day back at school, Tony gave a speech to all of his high school students about how ‘no college in the entire country has a question on their application to see if the student has missed out on six weeks of school, so it is time to get to work.’
“Tony is one of the most natural leaders I have ever met.”
Matt also believes all his brother’s adventures will add to his priesthood.
“Those adventures were intended by God to happen, and Tony will be a better priest because of them,” Matt says. “So many people, myself included, go to priests looking for direction in life. To have a priest who can say, ‘I have wandered, too,’ will make him all that much more relatable as a person.”
Those adventures have dramatically increased as Deacon Hollowell has prepared for the priesthood. Before entering the seminary, he visited Mexico, Chile and England. During his seminary years, he has traveled to 25 countries.
“To see the human condition, to see how the Church operates in all these lands has been an incredibly enrichening experience,” he says. “God has used that adventurous spirit in my life to help me.”
One defining moment occurred in 2013 during his summer-long journey to three continents and six countries, including Vietnam. There, he was sitting on a bench after lunch when a stranger named Hung approached him.
“I was listening to music, getting ready to lie down because the sun was hot and my stomach was digesting a few spring rolls when a Vietnamese asks to sit down exactly where I was already leaning to lie down,” he recalls. “I very angrily say, ‘Sure.’
“Luckily, God prevents me from screwing up the entire thing. We begin to talk about school. He is studying engineering. ‘Cool,’ I say. ‘What do you do?’ he says. ‘I am studying to be a Catholic priest,’ I say.”
Then the conversation took a turn Deacon Hollowell never expected. When Hung didn’t know what a Catholic priest or a Catholic is, Deacon Hollowell asked him, “Do you know who God is?”
Hung said no again, so Deacon Hollowell led him to the nearby Catholic cathedral. Inside, he showed Hung a crucifix, explaining that Jesus is God and he died to save people from their sins. He also showed Hung a statue of Mary.
When Hung said, “That is Maria!” Deacon Hollowell noted: “This guy doesn’t know anything about Catholicism, religion or God, but he knows about Mary.” So he showed Hung the Mass schedule and told him he could come to the church any day to pray to Mary. He also told Hung the church is where Catholic priests minister, and he could talk to one in Vietnamese if he wanted.
Outside the church, the new friends continued their conversation before exchanging e-mail addresses and saying goodbye.
Deacon Hollowell later reflected on that connection: “I am convinced that it was not only for the good of my soul, but also for the people I will one day serve.”
After his ordination, Deacon Hollowell will return to Rome for another year of study in moral theology. Yet he is already excited about “coming home” to serve the archdiocese in 2017.
His roots are deep at Roncalli and Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ Parish in Indianapolis, where he will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving on the evening of June 25, just hours after his ordination. Yet his roots are most deeply connected to his parents. He says they have never stopped nourishing the seeds of faith and family that they planted in him and his 10 siblings, including Father John Hollowell, who serves as a priest in the archdiocese.
“It is only because of the love that they gave me that I have any clue about what it means to love, to serve and to be a Father,” Deacon Hollowell says. “Without the faith and love of my parents, I would never have become a priest.”
Even during his restless years, his parents kept the faith that their third child would find his path with God’s direction.
“He has a good head on his shoulders so I knew he would make good decisions,” his mother Diane says. “To see a young man stand up and give his life to the priesthood is beautiful. Tony is excited, and our family is thrilled for him.”
His father says that one of the gifts that Deacon Hollowell has is the ability to “relate to people in simple language the deep truths of our faith.”
“He’s had multiple opportunities to preach as a deacon, and people have gone out of their way to tell me how moved they’ve been by his homilies,” Joe Hollowell says. “He knows what he’s called to do, and that’s significant for anyone. When you know your will is in synch with God’s will, it doesn’t get any better. There’s a deep peace for him.”
As his ultimate adventure as a priest is about to begin, Deacon Hollowell gives his heart—and the credit—to God.
“I have always had a restless heart, but something is different now,” he says. “Every day of my life, I woke up tired, with a small feeling inside me that there was something else I was called to do in my life. For the past six years, I have never once had that feeling.
“God has loved me for so long, and I’ve been late in responding to his love. But in his mercy, it’s not too late for him. Not only is it not too late for God, I have the sense it’s the perfect time.”
(For more information about a vocation to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, log on to www.HearGodsCall.com.) †