As you looked at him, Father McDonald might have reminded you of one of those early Celtic monks: tall, spare, rugged, with fine, clear features and piercing blue eyes, which could yet be so gentle, or so twinkling with humor. He was immensely strong, and in early days he could bend a large iron nail with his bare hands, or tear a pack of cards in two. Even in his last days in the hospital, the grip of his hand was firm. He loved to walk, with a long, swinging stride, and in early days most of his visiting our hospitals and homes was done that way.
Poverty for him was fundamental: it was a vow he had taken and he kept it to the utmost. He never imposed it on others to such an extreme, but he wanted to be the poorest of the poor—and so he was. People would give him new shirts, new habits, new coats—but he would just hang them up and retrieve some old, frayed, ragged things which others had discarded. As one man who was very fond of him used to say, “he never enjoys any new clothes until the moths have a chance at them!”
Perhaps that love of poverty and the poor was one reason why his years in Korea were so happy. He and Father Morse, S.S.J.E. lived there in complete poverty, just like the native people whom he loved to visit in their little houses with mud floors, kneeling beside the sick or the dying right on the floor with them. Those simple years were some of the happiest in his life.
Like those early monks, and like St. Francis of Assisi whom he loved, his heart went out to all of God’s creation, all living things. Beauty touched him deeply: the beauty of God’s world—flowers, trees, mountains, the sea, the meadows. It pained him to see a lovely stretch of land being ploughed up and readied for a supermarket or a new gas station, or trees cut down for some new super highway. Children and animals were all dear to him, and they responded instinctively to his love.
One of his great joys was the Camp children at St. Margaret’s, South Duxbury, when he was Chaplain there, during some summers. He was so simple, so childlike himself, that he could enter into their fun and play. Once, at their private beach, he told them solemnly that he could stand on one finger. “Oh no, Father,” they cried, “You can’t do that!” “Oh yes I can,” he answered, “Now watch very carefully; give me plenty of room.” As they stood there with eyes popping, forming a circle around him, Father carefully put one finger on the sand, leaned over, and put his foot on the finger, amid squeals of “Oh Faa-ther!” from the delighted children.
Another of his greatest joys was his many, many years as Chaplain of St. Monica’s Home. Thursday afternoons, with the little Service, and then his visits with the patients, especially the very sick in their rooms, was a highlight of the week for him over the years. He loved them one and all, he prayed for them; many of them he buried. The love they all gave him was an immense happiness for him.
He was devoted to animals—all dogs, big, small, thoroughbreds and mutts, and perhaps even more to cats. “Dogs demand your affection,” he used to say, “but cats never ask for it—they just give you their affection;” they always did, to him! One of the small joys which brightened his last days in the Monastery, was the newly acquired kitten, which became his special friend. When later, the kitten grew to cathood and became over-adventurous, it got out on Memorial Drive once too often and was killed by a car but by then Father was in the hospital and fortunately never knew about it.
And then Father was so like the Cure of Ars, who was one of the Saints he used to invoke, every day. Here again was that utter simplicity, that extreme poverty, and also that gift of intuition which made him see into peoples’ souls—often far more than they realized! Like the Cure, he would spend hours in the Confessional, guiding, enlightening, cautioning, comforting, urging souls forward on their earthly pilgrimage. All the vocations to the Priesthood and to Religious Orders that he fostered; those that he guided, and sustained, and comforted and saved, on the steep ascent, are known only to God. His patience with souls was incredible. By nature he was nervous, high-strung, prone to be irritable. It annoyed him to be stopped by a red light, or to be held up in traffic. But with souls his patience was unbelievable. So it was, in his calls on the sick and the lonely. He was never bored or irritated by their complaints about trivialities—their little aches and pains, their little spats with their families or their neighbors. Usually one had to drag him away from such visits, as he was so afraid of being unkind. Even with those who perhaps did something of which he disapproved, he would always say, “We mustn’t be nasty to them; we must be loving.” He was always ready to help the lonely, the unloved, those that others considered disagreeable, and cranky. “You must see Our Lord in them all,” he used to say, and he would joke with them, make some puns, as he loved to do—get them laughing. Some people, of course, thought all that was “corny.” But it wasn’t. Father was not at all naive, though he may have appeared so. “If you can make people laugh, even by a silly joke,” he used to say, “you have helped them; you have lifted them out of themselves; you have stopped their thinking about themselves: that is what is important.”
Someone who drove him over a period of years always said, “You can tip your hat to Father McDonald: it is never the prominent or the rich that he goes to visit; it is always the poorest and the most needy ones he goes after.”
Like the Curé d’Ars, too,—and so many of the saints,—Father had a kind of “sixth sense,” a sort of ESP, which was very startling. On one occasion he dropped in to call on an older woman he visited frequently in a Nursing Home. When he came out, the man who was driving him said Father seemed very disturbed and distressed. “Did anything go wrong, Father?” the driver asked, “you seem troubled.” Father didn’t answer, so the driver persisted. “Father, what is the matter? Tell me and maybe I can help.” “Well,” said Father, “that woman is going to die very soon, today, and I did not have the Sacraments with me.” “We’ll go right back to the Monastery and get them,” the driver said. Father’s face lit up and back they went. Father got the necessary things, they flew back to the Home and Father anointed the patient, prepared her, and gave her the Sacrament. She was fully conscious and said to him, “Father, I can’t thank you enough!” In less than an hour she became completely unconscious and died shortly afterwards.
Another time, when Father was about to leave on his annual holiday, a friend who had been going with him to call on an elderly patient in another Nursing Home said to him, “Father, Miss F. is failing fast. If anything happens to her while you are away, whom shall I call to take over and attend to her?” Father replied, “You won’t have to call anyone; she will live until I get back.” And so she did, dying just a week after his return. That sort of thing happened time and time again.
Of course the centre of Father’s life was the daily Eucharist, the Divine Office and his prayer. Daily Mass was his joy and his strength. He loved the Sung Masses and Liturgy, and he was gifted with a very lovely voice. When the Trial Liturgies were introduced, he found them very difficult. “They certainly were inspired when they named it the “Trial Liturgy,” he used to say, with a twinkle and a smile, “That’s just what it is!” But he did his level best to comply and to follow, hard as it was for him.
Prayer was his life—and his life was the expression of his prayer. Father Hanlon, S.S.J.E. used to say, years ago, that it was amazing that anyone of such a highly active temperament, who had to be up and doing, could kneel upright, absolutely motionless for an hour every day for his private prayer, and often again during the course of the day, especially when they had a Retreat. It was very difficult even in the latter days before his last trip to the hospital, to make him sit down for his prayer instead of kneeling. And in his prayer, Father was completely and wholly absorbed, lost to all around him. He never talked about it or discussed it: it was the well of life for him.
At night, in the quiet of his cell, between twelve and one, or one and two, he would kneel and say some of his intercessions. “It is always nice and quiet then,” he would say, “and I can think about them without interruption.” Oh the numberless souls for whom he prayed! He had two small notebooks literally filled to capacity with the names of those he remembered before God, the living and the dead, day and night.
His devotion to our Lord’s holy Mother was deep and constant: his two lovely little pamphlets about her show us something about that. He never left the Monastery without stopping at her Shrine in the Chapel for a prayer; he never returned to the Monastery without going there first. “Mary has presented Jesus to us,” he tells us in his little booklet “Benedicta Tu,”: and has shown us how to keep Him ever and always in our hearts.” That was what he always strove to do.
Father was no plaster saint; no exotic stained-glass window saint. He was very human, very warm, very simple: full of fun, quick of wit, with a wonderful smile for everyone. His generosity was immense—everything given to him he gave away if he possibly could. And if he could pick a few flowers, or find some odd-colored pencil on the sidewalk which he could give to somebody, he was overjoyed.
He believed firmly that every Christian—and above all, the Priest and the Religious—should aim at being an “Alter Christus,” another Christ. That was his whole life. For him the Gospel was everything: his spiritual nourishment, his guide, his personal rule. Like St. Therese of Lisieux, he could say—and often did—“I find in the Gospel all I need.”
Life was not always “one grand sweet song” for Father; rather, it was the Way of the Cross, lived simply and undramatically. There were many great joys in his life, and many, many small ones: the years in Korea, in Brooklyn, in San Francisco and Boston; happy visits with some members of his family each fall; and the deep affection of his host of friends everywhere. But there were also many trials, many little and big disappointments and problems, and in the last years, his illnesses. Yet none of them ever destroyed his fundamental peace of soul, his deep joy, his wit and his smile, because basically “God was the strength of (his) heart and (his) portion forever.”
Though naturally sensitive and rather shy, he could be adamant when he considered that a matter of principle was involved. Obviously that did not always make life serene and smooth for him. As someone has said:
Saints are very difficult
For lesser souls to bear . . .
We are so apt to be irked by the steadfast example of holy ones because our own weaknesses stand out by contrast, and so our mediocrity rebels. That is a part of the Way of the Cross which all the saints have traversed in the steps of their Lord and Master.
“As sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich; as having nothing and yet possessing all things” . . . how perfectly St. Paul’s description of the early apostles fits Father McDonald! And how good it is to think now of the joy he has surely entered: that eternal peace of God which is his sure reward: “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors and their works do follow them.”
—From Cowley, October, 1973, pp. 29-34.