Brendan O’Leary Devotes Himself to Global Service

by | Nov 14, 2014 | Non-Profits

Brendan O’Leary stands with students at a school in Mandeville, Jamaica. Photo courtesy Arlington Catholic Herald.

By Christine Stoddard. First published November 12, 2014, as From Sitting Out to Stepping Up on CatholicHerald.com.

Even a pancake breakfast can turn ominous.

Brendan O’Leary, 26, remembers being 12 or 13, hanging out at the activity center at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Fredericksburg when the morning’s mood darkened. After finishing his meal, O’Leary stepped outside and found the parish’s Blessed Mother statue shattered to pieces. A chain and tire marks indicated that someone had uprooted the statue by chaining it to a car.

“It was a bizarre, surreal moment,” said O’Leary, who has spent most of his life in Fredericksburg. It was one of several experiences that made O’Leary wary of anti-Catholic sentiments on the fringe of the Bible Belt.

“Growing up, I had a more internalized spirituality,” O’Leary said. “I wasn’t comfortable vocalizing my faith at a young age. It was almost like living in two worlds.”

O’Leary started going to St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg when it was founded in 2003. There he became an altar server and an active member of the high school youth group. In 2006, he graduated from high school and became an Eagle Scout.

The child of two University of New Mexico alumni, O’Leary chose to attend his parents’ alma mater and pursue a degree in anthropology. He started attending Mass at the campus Aquinas Newman Center.

“I began to explore faith as something that was my own,” O’Leary said. “It was no longer just something that my parents made me do. It was a big step for me.”

As O’Leary became more active at the Newman Center his sophomore year, he was offered a position as a peer campus minister, but had to decline due to plans to study abroad his junior year. When he arrived at the University of East London in England the following spring, he joined the newly established Catholic student association.

“At this point, I was really kind of passive in ministering,” O’Leary said. “When they mentioned they were looking for someone to be responsible for the music, I remember praying and telling myself that I wouldn’t do it.”

He was approached right after Mass and agreed to help.

The summer before his senior year at New Mexico, he was asked again if he would serve as a peer campus minister. This time he accepted.

“It’s funny how in four years, I went from someone who wanted to sit on the sidelines and be really contemplative to someone who was a leader,” O’Leary said.

It was also funny, he thought, to go from an area like Fredericksburg, where Catholics were in the minority, to a predominantly Catholic area such as New Mexico. On a campus where more than 500 students were registered in the ministry database, O’Leary felt supported in a community of faith.

As graduation neared, he started to research and plan for life after college. After much reflection, he decided he wanted to focus on opportunities that combined service, faith, travel and cross-cultural interaction.

O’Leary went through a catalog produced by Catholic Volunteer Services and discussed options with his mother and pastor. Though he applied to several organizations, it wasn’t until O’Leary posted a profile on the CVS website that he got a hit. Passionist Volunteers International, an organization he had never heard of, reached out to him directly.

“Within a month,” O’Leary said, “I was on a plane to Chicago to talk about (serving in) Jamaica.”

PVI’s emphasis on the accompaniment model, where missionaries are encouraged to “walk with the crucified of today” and “see Christ crucified in the margins of society,” as O’Leary defined it, convinced him to commit to one year of service in Jamaica.

In preparation, O’Leary trained with a community in Pittsburgh for a month. In June 2010, he was in Mandeville, Jamaica, as part of the first PVI group to serve there.

“In the beginning, (the Jamaicans) were really skeptical about why I was there,” said O’Leary. “I was a young white man in a black country. But because of the accompaniment model, (my mission) was to be with (the people). The more time I spent with them, the more we could look past the differences and see the value in each other.”

Because O’Leary had no particular assignments in Mandeville, he assumed a variety of responsibilities. One of his main efforts was visiting the Catholic College of Mandeville, a training school for future teachers, to listen to students voice their concerns about their studies. When not teaching Bible school, he also assisted at a poor house for the elderly. Sometimes he would play dominoes, the national game, with the men. Other times he would give them haircuts or sit and listen to the radio with them.

“When people are abandoned like (those men), it’s really easy for them to feel forgotten,” O’Leary said. “But I recognized the gift of self that I could bring. To be someone who came back, to remember them, to give them a value of self, to have them feel loved.”

When O’Leary had the choice to renew his commitment in Mandeville for a second year, he “flip-flopped about where God was calling” him. But thanks to supportive mentors at PVI, he went through with the reapplication process.

“Brendan has what the church needs in missionaries,” said Father Lucian Clark, director of PVI. “He took more risks than we asked of him.”

Serving in Jamaica pushed O’Leary to pursue what he hopes will be a lifetime of serving the poor. During a two-week vacation between his first and second-year terms in Jamaica, he took the GRE and applied for graduate schools in Washington and New York.

“By the time I graduated from college, I thought I was over school,” O’Leary said. “Going to Jamaica made me see the value of education. I saw single mothers taking care of their kids and doing their homework by flashlight. It made me think that I should further my education.”

O’Leary chose to attend Fordham University in the Bronx for the International Political Economy and Development program.

While there, he spent a semester interning at the United Nations doing research on development issues, writing statements on children’s healthcare and performing other advocacy work. For his last semester, O’Leary interned in the programming department at Catholic Relief Services in Cameroon. There, he assisted Muslim refugees fleeing religious persecution from Christians in the Central African Republic.

“It was an interesting dynamic,” O’Leary said. “People in the name of Christianity had taken so much away from these people, and here we were in the name of Christianity helping them.”

O’Leary recalled many colorful memories of Mass in Cameroon. People would dance down the aisle, offering gifts of live rabbits, chickens or cooking oil. Videographers at baptisms were a common sight at Masses that would run three hours long.

O’Leary returned to Fredericksburg from Cameroon last June. At the end of November, he will start a new position at Operation Blessing International, a nonprofit in Virginia Beach.

Throughout his burgeoning career in international relations, O’Leary believes that one of the most rewarding lessons has been learning that “we are all connected as a universal church.”

Stoddard can be reached at [email protected].

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