Diocesan News

One Left Social Work, Another the Military, and Another Journalism, to Answer the Call to the Priesthood

Father Michael Panicali took part in the Collars vs. Scholars game at Maimonides Park during Catholic Schools Night this year. (Photo: Courtesy of Father Michael Panicali)

Editor’s note: This is the third article in the Tablet’s series “Before They Were Priests,” a look at the interesting and diverse professions priests held before they answered God’s call to the priesthood.

HOWARD BEACH — As a young man, Father Michael Panicali flirted with the idea of being a news reporter, even going so far as to major in journalism at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York. He ultimately decided to become a social worker and dedicated himself to that before entering the seminary in 2011 and being ordained in 2017.

“I have a bachelor’s in journalism, but my last semester at college, I had taken a social work elective. I had always been drawn to the idea of service to other people and couldn’t figure out how I would do that in my professional life. But I was always moved by the high profile cases of child abuse that I heard about. They really touched my heart,” he recalled.

So he decided to forgo dreams of journalism in favor of social work. “I felt that I could do something in a concrete way to alleviate some of the burdens on people in our society,” he explained.

Father Panicali found a job with Goodwill Industries, where he ran a social club for adults with intellectual disabilities. He loved the job, so much so that it gave him the impetus to pursue a master’s degree at Hunter College’s School of Social Work.

Over the next several years, he worked for nonprofits such as Lifespire and Catholic Charities.

“I did home visits to families that were known to the child welfare system that had investigated. A key part of the job for social workers on the master’s level is to provide counseling with a goal of alleviating some of the issues that had arisen within the family that caused child welfare to become involved in the first place,” he explained.

Father Panicali worked primarily in Harlem, Inwood, Washington Heights, the South Bronx, and East New York.

There were heartbreaking cases, he recalled. “I did sometimes have to call Child Services in the course of my working with a case when it became apparent that abuse was continuing to occur,” he explained. “There’s some families that have experienced generations of domestic violence, alcoholism, drug use, and sexual abuse.”

In fact, there was one troubling case that helped propel him into the priesthood. 

While he had been thinking of becoming a priest for many years, he had not yet acted on it. Through much of his social work career, he was active in his parish, St. Athanasius in Bensonhurst, even serving as the music director. Still, he put thoughts of the priesthood aside.

But there was a 16-year-old girl from a troubled family who was pregnant and was being pressured to have an abortion.

The girl’s family became angry with Father Panicali when he tried to talk to her about the various charities that help pregnant teenagers and that would have enabled her to choose life for her baby. 

“I just remember a family member screaming at me at a conference saying, ‘Who do you think you are, a priest?’ In the back of my mind, I remember thinking, ‘No, but I would love to be,’ ” he recalled.

The girl ultimately had the abortion.

Father Panicali answered God’s call to the priesthood and entered the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation. He completed his studies at the Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, a place specializing in later-in-life vocations. Father Panicali was ordained six years ago at age 42 and is now parochial vicar for St. Helen’s Church in Howard Beach.

However, he hasn’t left his social work training behind. “​​I bring so many of my skills as a social service advocate and counselor into my work as a priest,” he said. “People within the parish come to me with social service issues, but also mental health and also problems at home. I counsel them as best I can.”

Father Christopher O’Connor

Father Christopher O’Connor, pastor of Blessed Virgin Mary Help of Christians Parish in Woodside, knew what he wanted to do at a young age — follow a family tradition of military service. 

His grandfather was a World War II Navy veteran. And his dad had served in the Air Force during the early days of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.

Christopher O’Connor boldly convinced his parents to let him enlist in the Air Force at age 17. “I had grown up very patriotic,” he explained. The minimum age is 18, but a younger recruit can enlist if they have their parents’ permission.

Father O’Connor spent basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and then served in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he learned about radar systems and communications equipment. It was 1986, a time when the Cold War was still raging.

He became a radar technician whose job was to ensure that various military members could communicate with each other. This was an important task because tensions between the U.S. and Russia were heightened during the Cold War and military preparedness was vital.

Christopher O’Connor reenlisted in the Air Force, but his second stint was cut short by his desire to answer God’s call to the priesthood. (Photo: Courtesy of Father Christopher O’Connor)

Father O’Connor was then assigned to an Air Force base in Germany, where he continued his work as a radar technician. It was an exciting time for him, he recalled: “I was 20 years old and I was getting a chance to see the world.” 

His military service helped further fuel that love of travel.

Father O’Connor served during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s and later marched in the parade New York City threw to thank military service members.

But Father O’Connor, who had not gone to church much growing up, found himself growing closer to God while in the military. He started going to Mass every Sunday during basic training and continued the practice while he was stationed in Germany. There was a small chapel on base where he would often serve as a lector at Mass and help the priest.

He was particularly moved by the Masses he attended during Holy Week. “I was very impressed with the Church,” he said.

Father O’Connor reenlisted in 1990, but he soon realized that going to church on a regular basis was leading him on a different path. He started to hear God’s calling to the priesthood. 

So, with permission from the Air Force, he left the military in 1992, before his second enlistment was up. The Air Force let him go so that he could enter the seminary.

On his first day as a civilian, he drove to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York, and enrolled. He was ordained in 1999.

Father Eric Cruz

Father Eric Cruz, administrator of St. Luke’s Church in the Bronx, recently marked the 20th anniversary of his ordination.

In addition to his parish administrative role, Father Cruz is also the director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York for the Bronx and Westchester and Putnam Counties.

But the priesthood was a long way off for him many years ago when he began his career as a teacher at junior high and then high school in South Bend, Indiana. 

Born and raised in the South Bronx, Eric Cruz left New York City behind to attend Notre Dame University. When he graduated, he decided to stay in South Bend, where Notre Dame is located, and got a job teaching in a middle school. He then moved on to work at James Riley High School.

At both the middle school and high school, he had a full plate, serving as a guidance counselor in addition to teaching classes.

“It was mostly migrant populations. We were dealing with high truancy. We offered community support services, academic support services. We were trying to keep the kids with the support of the family on track, academically, as well as socially and emotionally as best as possible,” he recalled.

At times, it was an uphill battle to get students on the right track. “Nomadic was an unstable lifestyle for the families. They were in and out according to season. These were literally seasonal farm worker families that were seeking some type of stability in the South Bend, Indiana, area at the time,” he explained.

Father Eric Cruz, who worked with migrants as a teacher in South Bend, Indiana, finds himself working with migrants again in New York City as a director of Catholic Charities. (Photo: Courtesy of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York)

After several years, Eric Cruz changed careers. “I went into journalism. I stayed in South Bend and began a newspaper media career with the Tribune Broadcasting Company, the Chicago Tribune and the South Bend Tribune. Most of my work was in the print media,” he recalled.

He worked on the police beat covering crime. But he also got to write stories on local politics, as well as lifestyle pieces. “I did a lot of community- based feature stories. I was very much involved in the community,” he said. 

Eric Cruz loved being a journalist, looking at it as a public service. “I wanted to help people, whether it be an individual or a family, or a community. That was really the goal at the time. That’s really an aspect that I have always held on to,” he explained.

He was also immersed in charity work. “I was very involved in parish work, nonprofits, charitable-type work around Chicago and South Bend. And those relationships gave me the greatest joy of anything I could do,” he remembered.

His journalism career continued after he returned to his hometown of New York. He wrote for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. The newspaper ceased publication last year.

Then, he answered the call to the priesthood, enrolled in St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Dunwoodie, and was ordained in 2003.

These days, Father Cruz calls upon his previous experiences in his priestly duties. But he said that’s what any priest does. “You have to call on your past, I think. It’s an obligation,” he explained. “By not doing it, you’re ignoring perhaps other than God himself the greatest font of graces available to you. They’re there at the ready. They’re inside of you.”