Ordination 2020: Father Ryan Mahar says priesthood is "the way for me to be fully alive in the Lord"

For years Father Ryan Mahar ran from his call to the priesthood, until one day the Lord caught up with him as he was pushing cattle across a ranch in Wyoming. “As I was sitting on the horse and looking at a little Catholic mission church up ahead,” he says, “I realized I was moving the wrong herd. I had an absolute peace. I quit my job and moved back to Grass Valley and applied for seminary.”

As he neared his ordination to the priesthood on June 6, Father Ryan felt full of peace and joy. Over his seminary years, “I have seen growth in myself, losing insecurities, learning more of who I am, a courageous growth, a growth to serve the Lord as I can at this time.

“I’ve always felt called to be something different, not a super hero,” he says, “but to be more the person God is calling me to be, to become a greater me. The priesthood is the way for me to be fully myself, to be fully alive in the Lord.”

Ryan felt the call to the priesthood in high school. Unsure of the calling, he enlisted in the Army, then went to the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. After graduation, resisting the call, he ran to the most remote region of the United States to work on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. “I was running from my vocation,” he says, much as Francis Thompson described his flight from God in the poem “The Hound of Heaven.”

“Nobody talked to me about a vocation — not my parents, not my grandparents, not the vocations director, not the parish priest,” he says.” I’m certain I had a calling but — this is funny — in Grass Valley I grew up in St. Patrick Parish with the idea that to be a priest you had to be an old Irishman. That’s the only priest I encountered.

“I think people are afraid to talk about a vocation to the priesthood. The world thinks you’re weird. It takes vulnerability to be open with another person about your love of God. I would encourage young people to talk to someone they trust, a Catholic who understands prayer. It can be a lay person who will lead them in the right steps. In the long run, it takes prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit.”

In the process of formation, Ryan says, “I have grown in my sense of the priesthood: how I should be a man of God; a man who prays; grounded in a reality of what the spiritual life is; a life of prayer; grounded as much as I can be in the life of the Holy Trinity and the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a deepening in spirit and mind and even body.”

Prayer and the Eucharist are at the heart of the priesthood and of his own life, Ryan says. “A craving for prayer, it’s always been there, a craving for quiet prayer with God, where he calms my soul. It might seem counterproductive for a diocesan priest. Why not be a monk? I sometimes even fantasize about being a monk, but I love the idea of having a day busy with the concerns of the world, all the problems of the faithful and the religious, and taking them to the Lord.

“In the morning I love a time in quiet prayer, and in the evening I settle myself in the love of the Lord, the calmness of the sea. He is the only one who can calm the rocky seas. I love the rising sun. I love the calmness of the night. The middle of the day – that’s the tough spot.”

The busy part of the day is the other key element of the priesthood for Ryan: “Being connected to the faithful, to their lives, over a parish barbecue, a visit to a hospital, being immersed in their lives. In the celibate life I don’t have my own family, I desire to be part of your family.

“I have been invited to homes for parties and festivities and parish life and that is great. I do enjoy laughter and food. It’s wonderful when it does happen. But I can only take so much, then I want to go back to my room or the chapel to pray.”

People more often come to the priest with their sorrow than their joys. “I want to grieve with people who are suffering. I don’t like suffering but I’m glad to be part of that moment for them. It fulfills me, being part of their hurting world.”

Celibacy frees the priest to share deeply in the lives of their people, Ryan says. “The celibate life intrigues people but no one talks about the beauty of it. Being able to give myself completely to the Lord has redirected my heart and my body and my mind. I feel freer than I ever felt in my entire life. I feel more alive. In that freedom my prayer life has increased.”

Ryan went to Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon, for his studies and promptly fell so in love with the state he thought he was being called to leave the Diocese of Sacramento. “The thought was heavy on my heart when I came home at Christmas and joined a group of 50 to 80 young Catholics to hike up a mountain near Truckee to celebrate Mass.

“We had a Mass on the ridge. It was beautiful, praising God on the mountain. After Mass we went to the summit. We were able to see Lake Tahoe, the expanse of the Sierra Nevada, the most beautiful mountains in the world, but I still had this heaviness in my heart. ‘Do I leave?’ I asked. God spoke to my heart: “I give you all of this, all of this beauty. I give you everything in it, the creeks and rivers and streams and woods, the people, their lives.”

“At that moment I knew I was going to serve, live and die in Diocese of Sacramento. I became radically joyful, and when I went back to Oregon, I always longed to come home and live in a place where I grew up and serve the people I have lived with, to die with priests who served here. I am at peace with that. I am joyful.”

Learn more

Interested in priesthood? Contact Father Guillermo Hernandez at 916-733-0261 or ghernandez@scd.org

Catholic Herald Issue