Story by Mary Morrell | Correspondent
When asked to reflect on a highlight of his 50 years as a priest, Father Michael S. Vona shared a story, one that has framed his understanding of holiness for most of his life.
The retired pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Farmingdale, remembered a phone call from a doctor who wanted him to visit a woman in the hospital. He would soon discover the woman, a young wife and mother only 22 years old, was scheduled for surgery, one she might not survive.
Father Vona, who had only been ordained a year or so, admitted, “I was scared. What do you say?”
When he got to her room, their eyes met, they took each other’s hand for several minutes. Neither of them spoke right away.
“Then it was she who spoke to me,” said Father Vona. “She thanked me for coming and said to me, ‘Life is a gift from God and I am grateful to Him ... He gave me a wonderful husband and beautiful child, and I know God will provide someone to love him and to raise our child,’” Father Vona said as he recalled the woman’s complete faith in God.
“She saw life as a gift and was ready to die. Her example stood out for me as a person who summed up holiness,” said Father Vona. “She talked to me and I listened. I left enriched and humbled by an experience that is the whole point of priesthood,” said Father Vona, sharing that he still thinks of her and speaks to her in prayer.
“I believe she is a saint.”
Looking back over the many years of his vocation, Father Vona is clear that it is people who have always been most important to his ministry – during his years as an associate pastor; CYO director; teacher in St. Leo College, Fla.; as a pastor, and since his retirement in 2011 as chaplain in Christian Brother’s De La Salle Hall, Lincroft, and as an assistant in Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune.
Noting the challenges of meeting the needs of different people who come to a priest for help, Father Vona said he was often grateful that “they worked it out well.”
Having been ordained at 36, Father Vona acknowledged, “I never expected to make 50 years,” but said he was blessed to have spent 24 “wonderful, wonderful years” as pastor in St. Catherine of Siena, especially during the exciting time of building a new church.
One of the gifts of serving in a parish for many years is experiencing the growth of families. “I may have baptized a child, and then they are getting married. You wonder, ‘Where did the time go?’” said Father Vona, who is 86.
In speaking of his time in Holy Innocents Parish, Father Vona points to the warmth and caring of the parishioners. “They are a wonderful mix of people, good and humble people, a cross section of the world,” he said.
Moving forward, Father Vona has given up his regular parish commitments and plans to spend time doing some of the things he enjoys, including attending Mass in a variety of parishes.
“I’m curious,” he said simply, punctuating 50 years of priestly life with an observation: “As homilists, we have a long way to go.”
Prior to the seminary, the South Amboy native spent time in a Trappist Monastery in Spencer, Mass., and was then drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. That experience earned him the G.I. Bill, which he credits with helping him earn a higher education. Father Vona graduated from Mount St. Mary College and Seminary (now Mount St. Mary’s University), Emmitsburg, Md. He completed graduate work in Princeton Theological Seminary and received master’s degrees in theology and religious education.
Father Vona was ordained May 25, 1968, by Bishop George Ahr in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton. He served as pastor of Ascension Parish, Bradley Beach, from 1984 to1987 before being assigned as pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, where he served until retirement in 2011.