As an undergraduate at UD, Father Jonah never seriously thought he would become a priest, though he would discuss it with friends. However, looking back he finds hindsight very helpful and sees how the seeds of his vocation were being planted: “The pursuit of truth and belief in the power of truth certainly meshes with the Dominicans, but we also had the example of good priests in the Dominicans and Cistercians on and around campus at UD, and could see the priesthood being lived out well — joyously, powerfully. When I started thinking of becoming a priest, I looked back at these examples.”
He and Brother Simon particularly remember Father Matt Robinson at the Dominican priory; frail and in his 90s, Father Matt taped a piece of paper on the priory’s front door that read “Confessions, 9 - 5.”
“You would ring the doorbell and hear an old man’s voice say ‘Hello?,’” recalled Brother Simon. “You would tell him you were there for confession, and he’d say he’d be right down; then about 10 minutes later he’d come to the door, an old priest with a walker, wearing his stole. And he had prayers that he would hand out … ”
“Cardinal Manning’s Prayer to the Holy Spirit,” said Father Jonah. “One time he enlisted me to help cut out hundreds of these prayers on pieces of paper that he could just hand to you. He was a beautiful example of how to be a priest your whole life long. Technically he was retired, but he was still able to tend to souls — to hear confession, to offer Mass. He was a very steady, strong light in my life at UD.”
Father Jonah also found sources of light and significance in the friends he made at UD.
“You could form really vibrant, virtuous friendships, and through those friendships get healthy encouragement and build up for each other your pursuit of what’s good, what’s true, what’s noble, what’s beautiful — if you know people you love believe in the goodness of something, it gives you an additional impetus toward pursuing it,” he said. “I knew my friends thought the priesthood was a great thing, so I also thought the priesthood was a great thing — and that’s helpful too, that you don’t have the sense of being a lone voice or having to be an explorer on your own without anyone else; that’s really not a healthy model.”
Much of Father Jonah’s experience at UD resonates with Brother Simon as well. “My time at UD was largely characterized by hanging out with friends and having fun, but there was also something deeper that rooted our friendships — the pursuit of virtue: the good, the true, the beautiful. It wasn’t just relegated to the classroom, but it was actually something people were striving for in their own lives; there was this sense of not wanting to just spend the rest of our lives studying the good, the true, the beautiful — at UD, people are striving to live out these ideas, not just know about them. UD opens you up and instills in you the pursuit of truth, and not an abstract pursuit but a pursuit that is meaningful for your life.”
“My first impression of UD was that these people are serious about what they’re doing,” agreed Father Jonah. “The professors and the students were convinced that it was important to be there and important to be doing what we were doing. One of the great joys of my life was to see this proven true in my four years at UD.”
Father Jonah and Brother Simon come from a musical family; music was a significant part of their household growing up. At UD, music persisted in enriching their lives; Brother Simon and some friends formed the band The Stillwater Hobos, playing for three summers in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as on campus (and in the Old Mill woods). Happily, upon joining the Dominicans they discovered that music could be incorporated there, too: With some of their fellow friars, they make up the group The Hillbilly Thomists (the name referencing a quote from Flannery O’Connor in which she referred to herself as such) and recorded an album of folk music in 2017.
After its release by Dominicana Records, their self-titled album quickly became the No. 1 best-selling folk-music album on Amazon. Its 12 songs — which include bluegrass classics, folk standards and Scotch-Irish instrumentals and feature banjo, fiddle, guitar, washboard and the bodhrán (an Irish drum) — include well-known tracks such as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “What Wondrous Love Is This” and “Amazing Grace,” as well as some original works. Recently, The Hillbilly Thomists recorded a second album in the order’s retreat house in the New York Catskills. This new album consists mostly of original compositions, and the brothers are excited about its release in January.
“As far as The Hillbilly Thomists being an extension of Dominican life, a way of preaching, do you think about that differently now that you are a priest?” Brother Simon asked his brother.
“Perhaps in the sense that your ministry, the toolbox you have, is greatly expanded now,” answered Father Jonah. “One of the things you feel when you’re not a priest is that you can’t really seal the deal — you can’t have a great conversation with someone and then hear confession, you can’t say Mass or give someone a blessing or anoint the sick — basically the sacraments, the sacramental ministry of a priest, gives you a greater sense of being able to be used for the good of others. It’s not so much that I’ll go play a concert and therefore have a priestly experience, but I know that I can walk into a situation with the sort of subconscious awareness that if somebody randomly needs me to hear their confession, or God forbid, has heart attack and they need to be anointed, anything like that, I would be able to do that.”
“There’s a way in which music is ultimately supposed to be a path leading to God — it opens doors to people who have closed themselves to religion,” said Brother Simon. “Music can soften them and open them to God in a unique way.” He noted that now that Father Jonah has been ordained, the combination of being a priest and playing music puts him in a good position to be available to someone who has been put in a certain disposition by the music.
“It is fascinating how music creates a common ground that puts people at ease with each other,” agreed Father Jonah. “I think that’s especially important now in our country, where everyone essentially falls into one of two camps, and as soon as you realize that somebody is in the other camp, there is this chasm that can’t be crossed. But things like music and the good elements of culture sidestep all of that and create another space where people can be united to each other, and the fact of being together and sharing a good thing makes you, in a way, friends with that person, so you can actually talk to each other and actually want to hear what they’re saying, or just walk away with a greater esteem for somebody else.
“It’s a very healing and powerful thing to be able to have that happen with people you also know you may be fundamentally in disagreement with over other important things,” he added. “Especially if you’re wearing a habit, this happens ALL the time. But it’s great to be able to play music and have somebody talk to you about the music, and that at least establishes a natural plane of goodwill that’s really important for anything else God wants to work in.”
Now that he’s a priest, Father Jonah in many ways feels like he’s once again a novice, first figuring out how to be a Dominican: how to do everything while wearing a habit, how to pray, how to adjust to life as a priest in general.
“It’s like going from being a senior in high school to a freshman in college,” he explained. “I’d gotten good at being a non-priest Dominican; I was relatively experienced in that. When you’re a priest, you’re a priest forever, and in every way that you’re configured; your soul is sealed, and you become conformed to Christ in a new way, so that the conversations you have, and the things you do, have a difference to them that takes some getting used to. It is in many ways a new world. Big, concrete changes are that I celebrate Mass everyday, and hear confessions regularly; those are huge, life-changing experiences, and things that will take a lifetime to grow into.”
Father Jonah’s ordination originally was supposed to be held at the Basilica at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., but after that church shut down due to COVID-19, it took place at the chapel at the Dominican House of Studies instead. Eight men from Father Jonah and Brother Simon’s province were ordained — six there and two others in Providence, Rhode Island, and New York City.
“It was a very different event from what all of us who were preparing to be ordained were expecting,” explained Father Jonah. “But it was a beautiful, profound Mass. Of course it was sad to not have family and friends there, but more than anything, we realized the importance of the thing itself happening.”
One of the other new priests put it well: “When we’re preparing a couple for marriage, we don’t call it wedding prep, we call it marriage prep; in the same way for us, it’s not ordination prep, but priesthood prep.” The point is to become a priest; it’s not about the “wedding” day but about the life that follows.
“An ordination is beautiful,” said Father Jonah. “The most powerful moment, of course, is the laying on of hands, when the bishop puts his hands on you and says a long prayer; this constitutes the sacrament of ordination. But one of the other most powerful moments is right after that, when you’re still kneeling, and all of the priests who are concelebrating (often it’s hundreds; in our case it was dozens) come and without saying anything, lay their hands on your head and move down the line of all of you. That’s a really profound experience, just to be kneeling there, not doing anything, and having all of these different hands coming down and being placed on your head.
“Also, you think about the action of the bishop placing his hands on your head, and you know that between him and the apostles, there’s an unbroken line of actual hands being placed on actual heads throughout history, which goes back to Christ; this is really stunning to think about,” he added. “I will say that there were tears.”
“We love UD, absolutely,” said Father Jonah. “We’re so happy to have President Hibbs now, and all that he’s doing — it gives such a great sense of confidence, reading the messages he sends out; I now actually read alumni mail and look forward to reading what the president says. It’s good to know that we have one of our own who is president now, and to have the sense that UD is a good place worth fighting for and committing to.”
“UD has given students something that they can’t repay,” added Brother Simon. “There’s a special sort of gratitude that you have toward people you can’t repay — the same as you have for your parents, God and country.”
“Really, when I think about it, UD gave me more than I can articulate in one or two sentences: the regular availability of the sacraments; the many wonderful friendships; and a faculty and student body that is still convinced that the task of searching for Wisdom is still a noble goal worthy in itself,” said Father Jonah.