From the green to the Gospel: Inside Fr. Jonathan Kelly’s journey to college seminary rector

fr jonathan kelly seminarian
“God chooses us for particular times,” Kelly said. “I am confident that He will help me and the priests at SJV to respond generously and courageously at this time.”

On January 22, 2021, Fr. Jonathan “Jon” Kelly, formator and spiritual director, received a phone call from Archbishop Bernard Hebda informing him that he had been chosen to serve as the ninth rector of Saint John Vianney College Seminary.  Kelly thanked the Archbishop and the Lord for this new opportunity before slipping into the barber chair to get his hair cut.

The poignant and the mundane. Kelly smiled.

“God chooses us for particular times,” Kelly said. “I am confident that He will help me and the priests at SJV to respond generously and courageously at this time.”

Kelly succeeded Fr. Michael Becker, who concluded his tenure as rector at the end of May 2021.

In the beginning

Baby Jonathan took his place in the Kelly family in 1973 behind five sisters and one brother. His parents, Richard and Mary, raised their family in the Diocese of New Ulm in Southern Minnesota.

His father was an attorney and a judge; Mom was a homemaker. Spare time was spent together on the family’s hobby farm.

Kelly went to Catholic grade school through fourth grade and attended public and private schools until he transferred to Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit boarding school in Rockville, Maryland as a sophomore. Kelly ranks among a list of distinguished Georgetown Prep alumni that includes Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

It was during high school when Kelly began to sharpen his skills as a golfer.

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Kelly is pictured with his family near the grotto on the farm in Southern Minnesota.

Returning home to Minnesota for college, Kelly attended the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business and became a walk-on member of the men’s golf team. By the end of his first semester, Kelly had a full golf scholarship.

He later earned the team MVP award and was named team captain by his senior year.

The Catholic faith instilled in him by his parents remained with Kelly through college.

“I would always go to Sunday evening Mass at the university parish after a weekend golf tournament,” Kelly recalls. “But faith did not inform all of my choices at that time. There were inconsistencies in my life and faith.”

Upon graduation in 1996 with a degree in finance, Kelly qualified for the Professional Golf Tour in Canada and South Africa, where he competed against some of the world’s top golfers.

“It did not go very well,” Kelly recalls with humor. “A local reporter once described my game on the Canadian Tour, ‘As Kelly went north, his game went south.’ God very clearly closed that door for me. I am glad because I would not have been mature enough to handle that kind of success.”

Two-and-a-half years later, Kelly left the golf tour and returned to his high school alma mater to work as a prefect. From there, he joined an investment banking firm in Baltimore and then Piper Jaffray (now Piper Sandler) in Minneapolis, giving him the opportunity to live closer to home. After four years, the world of finance called him back to the East Coast once again.

“The insanity of New York woke me up, and I realized I was at a crossroads,” Kelly said.

The road to ordination

In a 2011 interview with the Catholic Spirit prior to his ordination, Kelly looked back on his experiences in the finance industry with gratitude and recognized that time as a turning point on his journey to the priesthood: “I liked what I did and had the fortune of working with people of great integrity,” he told the Spirit. “But I felt a sense of growing unfulfillment in the work. So, I started asking deeper questions.”

Kelly regularly attended Mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa in Jersey City, where he got to know the pastor, Fr. Tom Iwanowski. Through Iwanowski’s encouragement, Kelly registered in the parish, joined the finance council, and got involved in other parish activities.

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Kelly competes in the Pro Golf Tour in 1996.

“The seeds were being planted,” he said.

In 2004, Kelly’s brother, Joseph, invited him to go on a five-day retreat in Croatia. There he met for the first time Fr. Michael Becker, then-pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in St. Michael, Minnesota.

“The retreat was a powerful experience,” Kelly recalled. “I was 30 years old, and I experienced the peace of Jesus, the peace that the world does not give. I knew He had to be the foundation of my life.”

Kelly left his job in New York, moved back to the Twin Cities, and began to consider the priesthood. He spent the summer living at a rectory with Fr. Becker and three other members of the Companions of Christ, a fraternity of priests and seminarians in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. His time with them confirmed his decision to pursue the priesthood, and he entered The Saint Paul Seminary in the fall of 2005.

One of the most pivotal players in Kelly’s ordination story, in addition to his parents, his brother and Iwanowski, is Becker: “From the beginning, I knew Fr. Becker was alive and fulfilled and he invited me into that kind of life as a priest.”

Priestly ministry begins

Six years later, Fr. Jon Kelly was ordained on May 28, 2011.

He asked Becker to vest him during the Mass. Kelly was assigned to All Saints Catholic Church and School in Lakeville under what he describes as the prayerful and dynamic leadership of Fr. Tom Wilson.

“For three years, I lived a beautiful, broad experience of parish life,” Kelly said. “I was able to minister through all of the sacraments, from baptism to anointing of the sick and the funeral Mass. I was privileged to participate in many ‘story-of-a-soul’ experiences.”

In 2014, Kelly was assigned to serve as Formator and Spiritual Director at SJV, where Becker was serving as rector. Their personal and spiritual relationship, firmly rooted in the Lord, set the stage for their professional relationship at the college seminary, Kelly says.

“Fr. Becker and I had already built our relationship on what was most important,” Kelly said. “We could seamlessly transition this into our life and work at SJV.”

Kelly was excited to work with undergraduate men discerning a call to the priesthood. “So much in life is timing,” he said. “I can think of other priests who would be great in this role, but the most important question is not who is the best candidate, but rather who is God calling to do the work. When I got the call, I had confidence that God would bring out the needed capacities for whatever He was calling me to do.”



A vision for SJV

Like his mentor, Kelly became a member of the Companions of Christ in 2010 and models this way of living at SJV. Praying, working, and sharing the rhythm of life with the same cohort of priests and seminarians allows him to go deep which fits his personality and makes space for meaningful formation.

“Authentic Christian community and strong priestly fraternity are so important for our seminary,” he adds. “And we enjoy each other. I want to give us space for creativity and even healthy conflict, which, if we are committed to seeking God every day in prayer, will always be resolved. My hope is that this example blesses the whole seminary.”

During a virtual Vianney Visit for prospective seminarians and their vocations directors during COVID-19, Kelly explained it to the young men this way: “Seminary life is not a 9-to-5 invitation. Rather, it is a call to live in community where home and school are one and formation permeates the environment. It is a meal together, a floor meeting, a moment to throw the frisbee or the football, or a spontaneous conversation in the hallway.”

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Kelly is congratulated by Fr. Juan Miguel Betancourt, SEMV, on his ordination day in 2011. Betancourt is now Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

Kelly is also focused on building upon a solid program of formation begun by Becker and his predecessors, one that responds to the needs of today’s seminarians.

“Our high school and college men are in a different place today than their counterparts were five to 10 years ago,” he said. “Technology, secularization, and family dynamics present more and more challenges. We are sensitive to that and yet we embrace the fact that God has chosen us to live in such a time as this.”

Also recognizing that significant cognitive development takes place between the ages of 18 and 24, SJV sits at the nexus of where a young man is discerning the priesthood or married life. Kelly believes that human formation is critical for success and the very place where priest mentors can make the greatest impact.

The vision for formation includes SJV’s 20,000-square-foot chapel renovation that began earlier this year.

Drawing upon the wisdom of the University of St. Thomas’ patron saint, “St. Thomas Aquinas said that grace elevates and perfects nature. We want to create the best environment for a young man to attain self-awareness so that he can make a gift of himself in service and love,” Kelly said.

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Kelly succeeded former rector Fr. Michael Becker, far left, in 2021.

To enhance his own gifts of formation, Kelly has earned certificates in Spiritual Direction and Seminary Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF) in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Seminary Formation Council in Boynton Beach, Florida. He has also served as a formator and adjunct faculty member during the summer programs of the IPF for priests and seminarians.

Another goal of Kelly’s is to translate these skills into contemplative leadership at SJV.

“The first line of my job description is to be the leader and spiritual father of the seminary,” Kelly says. “I love that! It is such an honor for me to walk with these courageous young men. I am humbled and thrilled for the opportunity to encourage them to not be afraid and to form them to be men in Christ, men of the Church, and men for others.”

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