BY JAMES ROBINSON
The idea of becoming a priest has nagged Robert Kinnally for a long time. But the nagging got louder in the summer of 1996, when Kinnally -- then working for a New York parish as a church organist -- was at a parishioner's home preparing for a funeral.
"When I found myself in the home of a family whose members had been killed in TWA Flight 800, I faced one of my greatest challenges. How do you talk with mothers and fathers who lost their children and grandchildren so suddenly?" the outgoing dean of admission and financial aid recalled last week in Memorial Church, speaking as part of the "What Matters to Me and Why" series.
"I just didn't know what to say or where to begin. Someone sitting at the kitchen table, though, knew exactly what to do. I listened as the parish priest, Father Tim, spoke calmly about the hope that the Resurrection brings and how we might select music that speaks about that message. I marveled at how he listened and how he cared. How he helped them smile a bit. How he loved them."
Kinnally's announcement in January that he will leave Stanford in July to study to become a Catholic priest has garnered him national press: Why would someone, at age 39 and at the pinnacle of a career in college admissions, leave such a setting as the Farm for Bridgeport, Conn.?, the reporters asked.
Speaking in Memorial Church's side chapel, Kinnally told friends and colleagues that while the questions focused on what he was leaving behind, he wanted to explain how he came to his decision to attend St. John Fisher Seminary -- and to aspire to become a priest like the many he has revered throughout his life.
Kinnally, who grew up in the New York suburb of Yonkers, comes from a churchgoing family. But he clearly felt an attachment to Catholicism that went far beyond being a dutiful son.
"I liked going to church. I soaked in all the catechism I could, and even asked for additional books, mostly about the saints. The saints are really cool when you're like 8 or 9 years old -- even the ones who kind of got fried on the grill and all that," he said in one of the many moments of his talk that had his audience chuckling.
He was very active in his chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization and recalled the time he composed a CYO convention theme song, "Climb Till Your Dreams Come True" -- a tune, he added, that "never made it to the Diocesan Top 10 list." He immersed himself in CYO efforts, going to nursing homes and designing "those '70s psychedelic vestments we used to make the priests wear." In the meantime, he was teaching himself how to play the organ, working at a toy store and teaching the learning disabled.
Kinnally wound up enrolling at a Catholic school, Manhattan College, because he said its representatives were the nicest in encouraging him to enroll. There, his ties to the church grew even stronger. "In college, I went to Mass every Sunday, and more frequently during Lent," he said, adding that he became more involved in planning liturgies.
"It was really during this time that I thought I had a vocation. I felt that full-time priestly ministry might be for me. Naturally, I did nothing about it except pray," he said. "Prayers have been a relatively constant part of my life, but I long to make it a more frequent and richer experience."
Kinnally went on to get a master's degree in English and American literature from New York University (after turning down Stanford's offer of graduate school admission) and pursued a career in college admissions at Pace University, the State University of New York, College at Purchase, the University of Bridgeport and Sarah Lawrence College, where he was dean of admissions.
At the same time, however, he continued to work on the side playing the organ, including at the cathedral in Bridgeport, "where I met priests who loved what they were doing. There was something about these guys -- they had amazing smiles on their faces all the time and they were clearly deriving some kind of joy that I hadn't seen in a long time in anybody doing a job."
When he came to Stanford in 1997 he quickly became involved in the campus' Catholic community, where he has been a member of the chapel choir and an accompanist -- on organ and piano -- for the choir. He credited members of the Catholic community with helping him to reach his big decision to enroll in seminary.
"Something was just nagging at me," he said of the tug that kept pulling at him. "Was this some kind of illness or something?"
Kinnally is proud of his parents, whom he says he can only hope to emulate. His mother, who he says unconditionally reaches out to others, has worked as a pastoral counselor and family therapist. And his father "is like the nicest person in the world. He's never said anything negative about anyone in all the years I've known him, and I wish I could be like that." Both parents have been social activists, his mother working to promote day care and his father helping to get a drug rehabilitation facility opened.
"One thing my parents knew is what was right and what was wrong, and they poured an incredible amount of energy into trying to fix things that were wrong. I know the values I acquired from watching and listening to them couldn't be acquired by reading any book," he said.
Responding to a few questions from the audience, Kinnally acknowledged that the church is a little "funny" on the issue of gender discrimination. He said he thinks the role of women in the church "should be much broader. My mother would be a great priest herself."
But even if he doesn't agree with everything the church represents, Kinnally is comfortable about a decision he used to only pray about.
"I'm ready to go back east to heed
the call I've heard," he said, his eyes welling up slightly. "I
long to experience the challenges, the wonders and the surprises
that the Lord has in store for me. Right now, I cannot imagine a
greater joy." SR