By Michael Harker
ORLANDO – Bishop John Noonan told students participating in last month’s Focus-11 vocations event that when he was younger, he had his entire life planned out.
He decided he wanted a change of life from his home in Limerick, Ireland, and moved to New York and then Boston, where he studied in college. On spring break one year, he fell in love with Miami and the University of Miami, and moved to Florida. He spent his time doing research, traveling around Florida, so that he could accomplish a lifelong goal.
“I wanted to be a scientist,” Bishop Noonan said to more than 1,700 sixth graders and high school juniors over three days at Holy Family Parish in Orlando. “I wanted to work in labs, and I wanted to find the cure for cancer.”
But he also wanted to be a good Catholic. He volunteered as a lector at his parish and helped out preparing students for Confirmation and leading high school retreats. He found an interest in working with children and teenagers and helping to form and strengthen their faith.
One day, a parish priest, Father Brian O’Reilly, asked him if he had considered the priesthood. Bishop Noonan said he thought Father O’Reilly was joking. Not long after, Father O’Reilly asked Bishop Noonan again if he was interested in the vocation. Bishop Noonan was surprised and replied no.
“Then why do you do this work?” Father O’Reilly asked. “You love working with people, you love working with young people.”
That conversation took Bishop Noonan back to his formative years in Ireland, around the time he attended second grade, when he and his friends received the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist for the first time. During that time, he would play games with friends, and sometimes, they would reenact Mass together. Sometimes, they would dress as priests and bishops.
“I began to think about it more seriously,” Bishop Noonan said after revisiting his childhood memories. “I thought about what really makes me happy inside, what gave me real peace.”
As time went by, Bishop Noonan discerned and considered it a possibility. But he had other interests too. He was a sports fan, enjoyed going to the beach and doing research. He felt unsure of what he was being called to do.
Finally, Father O’Reilly asked once again. Bishop Noonan said it drew parallels to Jesus asking Peter if he loved him three times.
“I had been thinking about it,” Bishop Noonan answered.
“Well, you better hurry up and make up your mind,” Father O’Reilly stated, “because I am not going to ask you again.”
Bishop Noonan thought more clearly about becoming a priest. He asked himself why he moved to Florida, who he loved, and what really gave him peace. The answers to those and many questions influenced his decision to join St. Vincent de Paul Seminary.
“I realized that what gave me peace was helping other people,” Bishop Noonan said. “Not just helping people in ordinary ways, but helping people in a very special way – when I started teaching them who Jesus is.”
Bishop Noonan was ordained to the priesthood Sept. 23, 1983, appointed a Titular Bishop on June 21, 2005, and became the Bishop of the Diocese of Orlando on Oct. 23, 2010. He continues to love and serve the Lord by his love of working with people.
“In the process of becoming a priest,” Bishop Noonan said, “you start wearing clothes that looked like the clothes Jesus wore, because you start to become more like Jesus. You put on Christ. I try to be a person who tries to be like the Lord.”