A Gothic landscape, dotted with spires, imposing stone structures and winding lanes … It sounds like something from a Harry Potter book, but it became the setting for a calling to the priesthood. For down one of those winding lanes was a chapel where the Eucharist — tucked away in the tabernacle, lit softly by a burning candle — conveyed “a mysterious presence” to a college student whose heart was about to open as never before.
“My faith came alive in that chapel,” Father Grayson Heenan says of St. Mary’s Chapel at Boston College, his undergraduate alma mater.
Though he’s a cradle Catholic, Father Grayson says he was “acquiring new eyes” through which to see aspects of his faith, especially the Eucharist. “God was reaching out into the world to be in fellowship with me,” he recalls. “I was essentially falling in love with God.”
And so along that winding path in Boston continued a journey that had begun — without Grayson really knowing it — when he was a child in Michigan before it meandered through his young-adult musings and led ultimately to his ordination as a priest for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2017.
“The Eucharist is the heart and soul of everything we do,” Father Grayson says. “Then hopefully everything we do becomes eucharistic.”
The first signs
Grayson had a loving Catholic upbringing with his parents, Earl “Rusty” and Anne, and regularly attended Mass at St. Paul on the Lake in Grosse Pointe Farms. Grayson played hockey and soccer and swam in the north Michigan lakes.
At school, he occasionally got called down to the principal’s office — and occasionally got teased by his older sister, Liz.
In the weeks leading to his ordination, Liz couldn’t help but remind her brother of his first attempt at assisting at Mass, when he was about 9.
“I could barely make it through my first intention,” Father Grayson recalls. His nerves made him stutter. “The p-p-pope, the p-p-pope” became something his sister loved to tease him about.
But it was at about this age that Grayson first heard a calling.
“It was a kind of thought, a kind of feeling, a kind of tug, a kind of attraction. You could even say a kind of excitement,” he says, describing the moment at Mass when he looked up at the priest and thought, That will be me one day. A separate unspoken voice seemed to be agreeing, “That will be you one day.”
Grayson’s young age meant there would be plenty of time to consider his response to the calling. “He gave me time to weigh it and consider it, and I wrestled with it. And then joy broke through,” he says of God’s timing.
Grayson experienced a pivotal moment in college thanks to Father Chris Collins, a Jesuit priest who asked him, “When you catch yourself daydreaming during class or walking across the quad, what are you daydreaming about?”
The question resonated with Grayson, who realized his daydreams showed his heart’s desires. “It was a good question, because what I was daydreaming about was saying Mass, hearing confessions and doing priest things.”
He adds, “It was a sign of God’s grace moving my mind in that direction.” He was also pleasantly surprised to find that these daydreams gave him joy.
But there was also an attraction to married life and the idea of having children. “It’s a dramatic price to pay,” Father Grayson says. “You start to awaken to the sacrifice of becoming a priest.”
But Father Grayson says he discovered something about celibacy. “It’s a paradoxical ‘yes’ to both a certain kind of loneliness and also a certain kind of closeness with Jesus,” he explains, “and therefore, his close relationship with the Father.”
Father Grayson adds, “Our loneliness should plunge us deeper into the search for God the Father.”
This concern about loneliness initially made his family hesitant to support Grayson’s vocation. He remembers his family thinking that the priesthood would be “a lonely, miserable, difficult trial of a life.”
Yet when Grayson was attending Sacred Heart Major Seminary, his family could see his joy and friendship with his fellow seminarians. They saw that he was part of a community, and he would often bring his seminarian friends over to the house to be with his family.
“They saw really good friendships,” he says. “They’ve come around to support me greatly.”
Father Grayson notes that he needed to witness examples of joyful priests to be completely satisfied with his decision.
“I have a lot of great priests to thank over the years who modeled the priesthood of Jesus and who lived their celibacy in a way that was fruitful,” he says. “I think (God) respected my need to see happy, joyful priests living out their priesthood, and I think he put those people in my life at the right moments.”
These priests were a reflection of God’s love, Father Grayson says, embodying Galatians 2:20 in which St. Paul says, “Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”
This is Father Grayson’s life goal. “If I visit people in their homes or hospitals,” he says, “I hope it’s as St. Paul says.”
Animating the real presence
One child making his First Communion told Father Grayson, “This is the best day of my life.” And Father Grayson agrees: “In a mystical way, it makes them an extension of God in the world.”
He explains, “When we celebrate the Eucharist, we bring ourselves before the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. We receive that presence, and therefore when we go out from Mass, we in some way communicate that presence to those we come in contact with.”
A coffee with a friend or saying hello to a coworker becomes eucharistic the more we live our Catholic faith. “I think our Christian faith is meant to animate our lives even in the simplest of things,” Father Grayson says. “People come to value your presence, and you become a bright spot in their day. You can lift them up.”
Father Grayson acknowledges that a recent Pew Research report says that just one-third of Catholics believe in transubstantiation and the Real Presence.
“When you immerse yourself in the cynical realism of the world, you lose touch with the living and breathing faith,” he says. “And you lose out on the beauty and fullness of what it offers.”
The message of Unleash the Gospel is about communicating this mystery of the Eucharist to those we meet, often without words, he says. “It’s communicating that presence that we receive. It’s doing the same things we’ve always done … but with a greater faith.”