HARRISBURG, Pa. — A lone young priest in a cassock walked in a downpour toward the scene of a horrific wreck of tractor-trailers and cars on a Pennsylvania interstate and gave the last rites to a truck driver, the lone fatality of the crash.
Unbeknownst to him, a bystander photographed the moment, which captured the imagination of social media and went viral. The priest, Father John Killackey, was identified as a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter at the Mater Dei Latin Mass community in Harrisburg.
In this interview with the Register, Father Killackey discusses the fateful day of the crash, his own vocation to the priesthood and understanding of what it means to follow Jesus Christ as a Catholic priest today, and what he would like Catholics to learn from that photographed moment.
Father John, what happened on the day of that crash on I-81, when someone took a photo of you walking in the rain giving last rites and seeing if people needed help?
I was on my way back to the parish — I'm stationed in Harrisburg right now — and I just got from I-78 to I-81. And there had been these small thunderstorms in the path, so you had to put on the hazard lights and that kind of thing, and as I was going down the highway I saw this silhouette of a tractor-trailer wreck. I had to come to a quick stop and get over on the side. It had just happened, I guess. So I wasn’t too far — just two or three cars behind the wreck there.
And there were many wrecks along the highway that day. I don’t know exactly how many. But I remembered I had my holy oil for the sick in the back of my car. So I just grabbed that and thought, “Well, this looks pretty bad.” There were four or five tractor-trailers that had been involved, and a lot of other minor accidents, so I just got out and tried to see if I could find anybody that was seriously injured or needed the last rites.
So what happened next?
So then, I circled around and was asking some of the truck drivers if there’s anybody that needed attention. Somebody there brought me to one who did. I think he had already passed on at that time, but we do not know the exact moment when the soul leaves the body; and whatever we can do to help the soul prepare to meet God is so important. So I gave him last rites right there and then cleared away because the EMTs were starting to arrive at that time.
What was that moment like for you?
It was definitely an emotional moment. They taught us at seminary to memorize the forms of the last rites and apostolic blessing for moments like this, but I was glad for a little card I had in my wallet that had them written out, since my memory would have faltered. I used the oil of the sick that I had with me to make the Sign of the Cross and pronounce the form. I was just trying to do my part right and get out of the way so that the EMTs, police and firefighters who had responded so quickly could do their good work. It was a moment I will never forget.
A priest is ordained to bring Christ to people in those solemn moments. I’m sure any priest in my situation would have done the same thing.
Did you imagine this is what you would be doing when you became a priest?
Well, one priest told us during seminary that when you are ordained, you write God a blank check. And I thought that was interesting. Just because you don’t know what you’re going to get, you just have to be ready to sacrifice your life, or just to give yourself in whatever circumstances come up. Sometimes it’s not much going on: on a quiet summer day at the parish; or sometimes it can be busy, with teaching and writing sermons. But other days — you know I thought I was just going to go back [to the parish] for our evening Mass. And then this is what Providence put in front, and it was to be there. So I guess the answer is I don’t know what’s going to come up, but I always remember what that one older priest told us: to be ready for anything.
Father John, where did your vocation to the priesthood begin? When did it start to form in your heart that this is where Jesus was calling you?
In high school. We started attending a Fraternity of St. Peter apostolate. I was just really struck in particular by the model of the priests that were there. They were young guys; they liked playing soccer and that kind of thing. So it warmed me up to the idea that they’re not weird people. They were really inflamed with an ideal, an ideal of Christ. So that was something that made me think a lot about [priesthood]. But I knew I wasn’t ready, so I went to Christendom College for four years, which was a great experience, and then I worked a year.
I wanted to ask you more about that, since we both went to Christendom. How did your experience there have a hand in forming your vocation or helping your discernment?
I would say in particular the academics really helped me. I had an emotional attachment, of course, because I love the faith, but I felt in particular the philosophy, theology and history gave me a good intellectual foundation for the faith, to show that this is not just something we hold onto emotionally but harmonizes with reason, as well. I felt like our four years there helped me really appreciate that factor.
Also, I just felt by and large it was a place where the faculty and my peers were trying to live out the ideals of the faith. No place is perfect, and we are all human, but it was particularly powerful to have professors and peers who were concrete models of what they were teaching.
We’re all called to be disciples of Jesus Christ. How have you seen that concretely work out in your own priesthood?
I just felt I needed at least to try out the seminary, because I felt like this is where God wanted me to serve him best. But I remember one priest telling me early on, and late in seminary, too — I didn’t really believe this right away, maybe it was an error thinking ‘I’m looking forward to get busy with things and do stuff,’ and don’t get me wrong, the secondary ministries now like youth groups or mission trips are great things — but he said, “You know what, the very first thing you have to appreciate as a priest, and as a new priest in particular, is your particular relationship that Our Lord wants to have with you.”
The Lord wants to have a relationship with everybody, but in a particular way with the priests (because he acts in persona Christi with the sacraments and the other things) so that you really go to him. Because if you’re not — you know, like keeping your daily Holy Hour or trying to celebrate Mass well — if you're not, then you can dry out quickly and forget who you are without him. And I’m sure you can see this similarly in marriage, as well.
You were ordained in 2019. What drew you to become a priest in the Fraternity of St. Peter?
We started going to their apostolate in New Jersey — that’s where I grew up — and I just was seeing their examples at that age. I just saw “you’re a priest” and looked up to them really much, seeing their faith and their well-roundedness. So I always felt that if I wanted to be a priest, it would be with one of them.
I’d like to say that, starting out, entering seminary is not signing your name on the dotted line. It is a place where we can honestly look at the question, and many good guys discern that God is not calling them there. I’ll always be thankful for the example of all my confreres during my seminary training, especially the model of the priests who were there helping us in discerning what God’s will was for us. There are good and bad days wherever you go, but I always had the sense that God wanted me there, despite my unworthiness.
Father John Killackey is shown on his ordination day.
In your eyes, if you were going to sum it up, what does it mean to be a Catholic priest, particularly today?
I would say to be a Catholic priest is to be another Christ, or just to try to be another Christ, at least as best as you’re able to, and in whatever circumstances God sends to you.
Our Lord likes to use fragile vessels, I guess, to bring himself to [others]; and we just kind of have to get ourselves out of the way and let him do the work. And the more we can do that, the more we can bring him and be that other Christ to the world.
Bringing us back to this moment captured of you as a priest in the rain walking to give last rites — in the final estimation, what would you like Catholics to really take from this photographed moment?
Well, that people will have that faith we need Our Lord. That’s what priests are ordained to do. It’s not for their merits or their skills. Again, I was somewhat embarrassed about that [photo], because there were dozens of other people — EMTs, policemen and firefighters — getting drenched and really working hard to save people’s lives. What they were doing — I couldn’t do that. I’m not trained to do that. And they deserve so much credit for the work they do every day. But all of us, and myself included, can easily get focused on the day-to-day tasks and forget to see things in the eternal scheme of things: through the eyes of faith. We will also all leave this earth, and we need to pray that we are ready to meet Our Lord.
No matter who we are, we should expect suffering to find us in one way, shape or form. The question simply then becomes: How do we respond to that? We can have a bleak attitude that none of this matters and get bitter; or we can bring these sufferings to Our Lord and unite them to his sufferings, which he willingly undertook for our salvation.
So we live for Christ, and we try to bring him to other people. And that’s what the priest tries to do. His labor is for Christ and to do what he can to bring him to other people in all moments of life.
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.