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How does an eager young altar server get from Brownsburg to living in the shadow of the Vatican in Rome?
The circuitous route that seminarian Sean Danda took to the Eternal City included stops in Indianapolis, where he was a student at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School, and at St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
Now a second-year seminarian at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Danda is a little more than two years away from being ordained a priest.
Along his path to the priesthood, Danda, who grew up a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, has experienced the heartache of his mother’s debilitating illness, but also the blessings found in the care given him by his grandparents and the companionship of teenage friends and diocesan priests.
Through it all, his desire to serve God as a priest has never wavered.
In an e-mail from Rome to The Criterion, Danda said that he thought about being a priest as early as the second grade.
During that same time, he was forced to confront at a young age many deep questions about life and death as he learned about his mother’s illness, scleroderma, a debilitating and potentially fatal disease that causes a hardening of the skin and connective tissues.
“I remember lying in bed one night and asking myself quite vividly, ‘If we are all to die one day, why are we here today?’ ” he said. “And I heard very clearly an answer that said ‘to love and serve the Lord.’
“I do not remember this from any classes at St. Malachy at the time, but I asked another question confidently, ‘How can I do that?’ And, I heard, ‘You can be a priest.’ ”
Throughout his grade school and high school years, Danda’s grandparents, whom he described as “a second set of parents,” did much to raise him because of his mother’s illness and his father’s work schedule.
Pauline Danda witnessed how her grandson’s difficult family circumstances brought him closer to God.
“Being the type of child that he was, he was a very caring person,” she said. “And [since] his mother was not in good health, I think that brought him closer to [his] faith. I think it inspired him, too.”
Danda’s closeness to his faith led him to be an enthusiastic altar server.
In 1994, he was preparing to serve Holy Thursday Mass at his parish when the associate pastor, then Father Joseph Schaedel, asked which of the servers were going to become a priest.
Danda eagerly responded, “I am.”
In the ensuing years, Msgr. Schaedel took an interest in Danda, who often served Masses for him after he became the pastor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis in 1999.
Danda said that Msgr. Schaedel and other diocesan priests have been fatherly role models for him.
“Many children find father figures in coaches, teachers [or] a friend’s dad,” he said. “I found father figures in the priests that I knew, and I desired to imitate and take on that same fatherly role.”
However, Msgr. Schaedel said that while he was pleased with Danda’s interest in the priesthood, he also encouraged him as he entered his teenage years to have “a normal high school experience.”
And Danda did that at Ritter, having fun with a steady group of friends throughout his four years there.
One such friend was Jonathan Anderson, a member of St. Malachy Parish and currently a student at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis.
“We did anything any normal high school friends would do,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t like it was different because he was going to be a priest. We didn’t even think about it, honestly.”
Anderson recalled with pleasure the many afternoons that he and his friend whiled away lounging next to the pool at Danda’s house.
Since Danda has been in Rome for the past year and a half, he hasn’t had the chance to relive those lazy high school summer days for a long time. But he’s scheduled to return home this summer, and Anderson is looking forward to spending time with his friend.
“I know he’s definitely going to be busy next summer, but we’ll get together … and we’ll have to sit down and relax for a while,” he said.
But while Danda knows how to relax and enjoy life, he also has benefited from life’s challenges.
From the time that he was in grade school, he has coped with a reading disability. Yet Danda has overcome it to excel in the academic sphere of his priestly formation.
His mother’s continuing illness has been a struggle as well.
Danda has approached these and other crosses with faith.
“I always knew God was there and trusted that he was,” he said. “The thought did not change, but it affected me differently at different stages in my life.”
The next stage for Danda will be when he is ordained a deacon and then a priest. He believes that his faith, which grew through the challenges he faced as a young man, will be a blessing to him and those he will serve after ordination.
“I imagine that this perspective will bring me great peace and grace to persevere, and I hope to bring that to others as well,” he said. “I hope that I will be able to rely more fully on Christ and remember that I am only an instrument for his use.”
Although Danda has traveled the world in his priestly formation, he knows that his future life and ministry as a priest will rest on how Christ has worked in his life.
“It is true that the Lord has led me many places, but I am who I am,” he said. “I am different [because of my travels], and I should be. When we stop changing, we die. I hope that I am always growing and turning toward the Lord.” †