When they were kids, Brendan Rowley’s three older brothers would practically be crawling under the pews during Mass.
Brendan, meanwhile, would be sitting on his mother’s lap, listening to the homily.
“If any of them was going to be a priest, I knew it was going to be Brendan,” Deborah Rowley, Brendan’s mother, said during a family get-together on Memorial Day Weekend in the Narragansett home where she and her husband, James, raised their four sons.
The latest family get-together, which now includes grandkids, was just a couple of weeks before Brendan was scheduled to be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Providence.
“I really feel it’s a very special person who takes up the calling,” Deborah said. “It’s very brave, especially today.”
Deacon Brendan Rowley, 34, said his seminary formation over the last six years has prepared him well to be ordained a priest on June 8. The next day, he will celebrate his first Mass, 5 p.m., at St. Thomas More Church in Narragansett, with a special reception to follow.
“I can’t wait to celebrate the Mass, hear confessions, to bring the sacraments to people who are in need spiritually,” Deacon Rowley said.
Deacon Rowley and his brothers all attended Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick. His brothers - Tyler, Travis and Kyle - all went on to attend Brown University, where they played football. Deacon Rowley attended Rhode Island College, where he studied elementary education.
He had plans on becoming an elementary school teacher, get married and start a family. But even while he was in high school, the seeds of a priestly vocation were already taking root.
“The idea was in the back of my mind, but I was resistant to it,” Deacon Rowley said. “I was involved in the Church, at my parish, at Hendricken, at the CYO Center in Cranston. I was doing all those things, and the Lord was tugging at my heart.
“The idea was always lingering in my mind,” Deacon Rowley added. “People would always encourage me to think about it. They thought I would be a good priest.”
As a kid who enjoyed attending Sunday CCD classes and participated in Church activities, Deacon Rowley stood out as “the religious one” among his friends, including those who were Catholic but did not accept or understand the Church’s moral teachings.
“I was always attracted to the teaching of the Church,” Deacon Rowley said. “I always found it very easy to believe what the Church taught. It made sense. It was logical and rational. I was always the one among my friends defending the Church’s teaching, trying to explain it to people and stick up for it.
“I guess I just had that inclination,” Deacon Rowley said. “The Holy Spirit was always kind of leading me in this direction. Before I entered the seminary, I said, ‘Alright God, I’ll give it a shot. You’ve been persistent. You’re keeping this on my heart for a reason.”
Deacon Rowley entered seminary in the Fall of 2013, after a brief teaching career where he also taught fulltime for a couple of years at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Academy in Central Falls. At the end of his second year at that job, he decided to enter seminary after some “intense discerning.”
He had an idea of seminary life being ultra-pious and structured. But meeting other seminarians at Our Lady of Providence Seminary, he was struck at how normal and down-to-earth they were.
“They were regular guys trying to follow after the Lord and discerning what the Lord was calling them to do,” Deacon Rowley said. “They’re holy guys for sure, but they were also approachable, normal and easy to talk to.”
Deacon Rowley settled into seminary life, which included philosophy and theology classes, as well as daily Mass, common prayer in the mornings and evenings and daily Eucharistic Adoration during the week. He developed “great friendships” with his brother seminarians.
“The fraternity is probably the most special thing about seminary,” Deacon Rowley said. “Those friendships will last the rest of my life.”
But even as he adjusted well to life in the seminary, the idea of becoming a priest often seemed like a distant and abstract concept. It wasn’t until a few months before he was ordained to the transitional diaconate last year that the reality of his vocation began to sink in.
“It was in those few months where I thought, ‘Yeah, this is gonna happen. I want to do this,’” Deacon Rowley said. “At that point, the discernment was kind of over. Certainly there was second-guessing, doubts and uncertainties along the way, but by that time, when I was ready to make the promises for the first time at my diaconate ordination, is when I was absolutely confident in my vocation.”
As Deacon Rowley grew confident in his calling, his parents saw some changes in their son. They noticed his knowledge of the Church’s liturgy deepening at the Masses where he served. When he delivered his first homily as a transitional deacon, James and Deborah Rowley saw a glimpse of the priest he would become.
“I always joke when I ask him, ‘Can I still yell at you? Can I still boss you around?’” said Deborah, who added that Brendan told her and James during their 35th wedding anniversary dinner that he was leaving his teaching job to enter the seminary. That announcement at first shocked her.
“I couldn’t process it,” she said.
James Rowley, a retired Rhode Island State Trooper, said he was not that surprised, especially since he has several relatives on his side of the family who entered the priesthood and religious life. He added that his own father studied in the seminary for a year.
“I think God’s got a plan for everybody,” James Rowley said. “God’s plan for Brendan was the priesthood. Brendan has a lot of work ahead of him but we’re all very proud of him.”
Though they like to tease him, especially when asked if they will ever call him, “Father,” Deacon Rowley’s brothers also said they feel great pride that their kid brother will soon wear the Roman collar of a Catholic priest.
“The Church needs more priests, specifically the Church needs more good priests who believe in what the Church teaches, men who become priests for the right reason,” Tyler Rowley said. “Brendan is a good man and he believes what the Church teaches.”
Deacon Rowley is well aware that he is becoming a priest during a troubled time in the Church’s history. Just before his last year of formation began, the clergy sex abuse scandal broke out again on a national level. The scrutiny that the priesthood now faces, however, is strengthening his resolve to become the priest that God has called him to be.
“Now more than ever, the Church needs good, holy, hard-working priests that are willing to lay themselves down for their people,” said Deacon Rowley, who added that he is looking forward to communicating the beauty and truth that he says the Church still has to offer.
“I think it’ll be a great life,” he said. “I have no regrets.”
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