Deacon Thomas Olson Pilot photo
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This is the seventh in a series of articles profiling each of the nine men who will be ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on May 21. Earlier articles in the series are available at TheBostonPilot.com.
"A salesperson for Christ" -- that's what a Jesuit father at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester suggested Deacon Thomas Olson might be called by God to become.
It was 2003. Deacon Olson had graduated the year before from the Jesuit college and was working in the sales department of a Marlborough-based company. Although he was happy with his job, and was regularly exceeding sales quotas, he felt unfulfilled.
"I was working 70 or 80 hours per week, but I kept thinking, 'What is it I truly want?'" he recalled. Occasionally, he would find himself daydreaming about becoming a priest.
"At first I was horrified at the thought," laughed Deacon Olson.
According to Deacon Olson, although he had been raised in a strong Catholic family, "the notion of me becoming a priest was foreign to me."
Together with his two brothers and his parents, he had been active in his faith, first in Bolyston -- where he lived until he was 12 -- and later in Rutland. When he left for college, he had a clear plan for his life: receive his political science degree, attend law school, marry his girlfriend, have a few children, and make money. He even thought he might pursue a career in politics, one of his life's passions.
And yet, thoughts of the priesthood kept lingering. Unsure of what to do, he turned to a Jesuit priest who had been his professor at Holy Cross.
"These days, I would call it spiritual direction, though at the time I had no idea what it was called," he said. After meeting with him every few weeks for several months, it became clear to Deacon Olson he was called to become a priest.
Because the Jesuits had left such an impression on him during college, in 2004 he entered the Society of Jesus novitiate.
As a Jesuit, Deacon Olson received a master's in philosophy from St. Louis University in Missouri in 2009. He also worked for several years as the development director for St. Francis Mission, a Jesuit mission in South Dakota that ministers to the Lakota, or Sioux Nation.
"That mission fit naturally into my skill set," he said. "My job largely consisted in raising the money necessary to do what we did there."
In 2012, Deacon Olson left South Dakota to attend Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, where he received his master's in divinity in 2014. While at Boston College, he was asked to serve at St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton.
"To me, that was very fortuitous," he said. "Father Richard Fitzgerald, and the entire parish community at St. Columbkille's, have really been instrumental in my journey."
At St. Columbkille Parish, Deacon Olson began the Young Adult Commission (YAC), a program designed specifically to minister to young Catholic adults living in Brighton. It has been recognized both locally and nationally and many other parishes have followed that model and implemented similar programs in their parishes, he said.
"That has been a tremendous part of my experience at St. Columbkille's," Deacon Olson said.
In 2014, he discerned that God was perhaps calling him to serve as a parish priest, not as a Jesuit father. He praised Father Fitzgerald for helping him through the transition from the Jesuit novitiate to becoming a seminarian at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary.
Today, Deacon Olson, 35, continues to serve as a deacon at St. Columbkille Parish.
"My experience as a deacon has confirmed in me that this is what I am meant to do," he said.
"I really enjoy preaching each week," he said, noting that he has made a habit of preparing his homilies at a Starbucks, wearing his Roman collar.
"I cannot tell you how many people come up and start talking to me," he said, "which proves that there is such a thirst out there."
He sees the challenges ahead as twofold.
"First there's an internal challenge -- which is experienced by all men and women of the Roman Catholic faith -- and that is being able to foster internally that which the teaching of the Church is. To preach and show that the consequence of a faithless life is real, and to make sure that people have a personal connection to Jesus, to the liturgy and to the sacraments," he said.
The second challenge, he continued, is a societal challenge. "As our world becomes more and more secular, there is a challenge that the Church be respected. I am very concerned that Catholics are going to lose their fundamental right to worship, and I am prepared to speak with a loud voice and with authority if and when that time comes," he said.
Deacon Olson added that he is "looking forward to being a shepherd to the people of God," noting that he is very interested in creating "effective centers of the new evangelization" at his future parish.
"We are called to go out, to be bold and to speak of God in a clear and confident way," he said.
"As a priest, I am looking forward to employing my own work ethic, my energy and everything I can offer for the sake of God. It's not in my name, or in the name of the company that I once worked for that I will go out, but in the name of Jesus and of his Church," he said, and after a pause concluded, "and I'm ready."