EAST ROCHESTER — Father Aaron Kelly saw so many familiar faces while celebrating his first Mass July 3 that he was asked afterward if the entire town of his native Horseheads was on hand.
“Pretty close,” he said with a laugh.
Well-wishers from the Southern Tier made up a sizable portion of the congregation for the momentous occasion at St. Jerome Church, roughly a two-hour drive from the Tier. There also was strong Tier representation at Sacred Heart Cathedral one day earlier, when Father Kelly was ordained to the Diocese of Rochester’s priesthood.
Father Kelly noted that he selected St. Jerome Church to celebrate his Mass of Thanksgiving due to having logged a summer assignment there in 2019, just after completing his first year of seminary at Pontifical North American College in Rome. He added that he opted for a location near Rochester’s airport in light of the many people who were flying in from out of town for the weekend.
Thus, the worshipers who filled much of the East Rochester church represented a mix of Father Kelly’s recent and distant past — from his home town (he grew up in the Chemung County hamlet of Breesport), to other parts of the diocese, to the people he’s befriended while attending seminary over the past nine years in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Rome.
“It was all the parts of my life coming together,” the 27-year-old Father Kelly remarked.
St. Jerome was like home to Fr. Kelly during a summer assignment
Father Kelly acknowledged that his hands were shaking slightly when his Mass of Thanksgiving began, but he quickly calmed down and proceeded to celebrate the liturgy without a hitch.
“There was a peace, and it felt very natural. I felt like I’d been doing it for years,” he said.
Just before Mass concluded, Father Kelly took a few minutes to address the congregation. He thanked his family and friends for their encouragement and support, singling out his childhood parish of St. Mary Our Mother.
“This journey (to his priesthood) is as much about you, and you have made it what it is,” he said.
Bishop proud of Fr. Kelly, who is predicted to be a loyal servant
The July 3 Mass of Thanksgiving was the first of what may well end up totaling thousands of liturgies that Father Kelly will celebrate in the years and decades to come. Father Matthew Duclos, who gave the homily, predicted that Father Kelly will be a loyal servant in all aspects of his priesthood going forward.
“The person on my left is one who we can count on, one who will never abandon us and one who will love us,” said Father Duclos, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, who was ordained in 2021 and is a close friend of Father Kelly’s from seminary in Rome.
Father Duclos was among several concelebrating clergy at Father Kelly’s first Mass representing different phases of his priestly journey. Also on hand was Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, who had ordained Father Kelly less than 30 hours earlier.
“The diocese is very proud of you,” Bishop Matano told Father Kelly while making brief remarks to the congregation after Communion.
All in all for Father Kelly, July 2 and 3 were a blur of long-anticipated milestone experiences packed into one weekend.
“It was everything I ever could have imagined it would be,” he said. After a pause, he added, “I’m still speechless.”
The church and priests have something to offer a divided society
As he sets out on his priestly ministry, Father Kelly emphasized the importance of priests — as well as the Catholic faith as a whole — in a present-day society that has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic as well as deep social and political divisions.
“The world always can use more priests, and God is always calling, particularly in this moment when there is so much confusion, seemingly chaos. The priest and the church, we have something to offer,” he said. “And so, we need priests in particular to help draw people into that, to bring people along the way and bring them into a life that will bring far greater joy, far greater peace than anything the world has to offer.”