A Retired Priest? Canon John McDonald

An interview with Canon John McDonald, as he retires, reflecting on his vocation to the priesthood and the process of discernment that brought him there.

When were you first aware of a sense of a calling to the priesthood?

Very early on in my life. I had a very pious grandmother who would often talk to me about the priesthood. Looking back I can say that I had this ‘inclination’ to go into the priesthood from a young age. I first tested this possible vocation with the White Fathers and I stayed with them for about 3½ years and then I decided after the novitiate over in Holland that I wanted to come back to the ‘home mission’. I had a strong devotion to the English Martyrs so I realised that this was where God was calling me to be, although I have always kept my tremendous love and respect for the White Fathers and pray for them still.

Where did you go when you came back to England?

I went to see my old headmaster, Canon Parsons, at Finchley Catholic Grammar School, and he said “Well, we’ll have to see what we can do to help you in this”. So with his help I went to St Edmund’s seminary in Ware in Hertfordshire. Those were good years for me as I felt very strongly that this was the right way for me to go and St Edmund’s was a great community to be a part of.

I was ordained in 1955 and was sent as a young curate to Harrow with Canon Williams, who was a real father to me as I was only 25. I was lucky not to be sent to a “curate crusher” – quite the opposite in fact. I was there for 8 very happy years and from there I went to St Joan of Arc’s in Highbury.  I had only been there for about 3 years when I was invited to Archbishop’s House where I was told that Canon Harvey wanted an assistant at the Crusade of Rescue and pretty immediately. So I went up like Nicodemus at dead of night to see Canon Harvey and he explained what the work involved and I told him that I always did what the diocese wanted me to do and so it was agreed. I thought that I would do this for about 4 or 5 years but stayed for 20! I enjoyed it immensely – there was a lot of office based work but I also did a lot of travelling around the country interviewing potential adopters even though most of the babies were in fact in the London area as girls came there from all over the world. I used to help the prospective adopters to understand better what lay ahead of them.

I also used to coordinate with the social workers. In the beginning I told Canon Harvey that these were professionals who had been doing their job for years and as a simple priest, I wasn’t really on the same wavelength. But he said a very important thing to me, “You are a priest and you are not a social worker so never forget that.” I took that to heart and found it very encouraging.

20 years is a long time – did you have much contact with parish life during those years?

Not a lot – indeed, when I eventually came back to parish life, I felt myself completely out of the swing of things – for example, I didn’t know any of the new modern hymns. This was at Our Lady of Lourdes in Acton, where I was very happy. After about 4 years or so there, I was then asked to go to Ruislip. I was there for 5 years but while I was there I had quite a serious stroke and for a time was paralysed all down one side. It was a very difficult experience – I was actually driving a car and then suddenly felt numb like after an injection at the dentists. Somehow I managed to drive home but I had no speech so I wasn’t able to phone anyone and was on my own until Fr Rigby came in the next morning. I was told by the doctors to do nothing for 3 months – gradually the feeling began to come back although it took longer for my speech return. The diocese decided that I should go to a less arduous parish and so I went to Corpus Christi in Maiden Lane where I stayed for 13 years – my last parish. Then in 2005 I was 75 so had to retire so I was asked if I would become chaplain to the Knights of Malta at St John’s Wood. I lived and helped out a bit in the parish and was chaplain to the hospital , so in some ways I didn’t really feel that I had retired!

When I was at St John’s Wood I was still on the board of the Crusade of Rescue – Bishop Longley was our chairman. After one meeting he asked me to stay behind and told me that St Anne’s residential home was being re-opened and he asked me if I would like to become chaplain there. A bit cheekily I said, “Well, I’m very happy where I am!” but he replied very quickly, “Well, I think you will be just as happy where you are going!” Again I agreed to do whatever the diocese asked me to do.

So I came here to St Anne’s but after about 2 years I became quite seriously ill and was in bed for about 3 or 4 months. At the end of this it was obvious that I couldn’t continue with the chaplain’s role so I came over to this ‘residents’ side’, where they gave me a lovely room where I have been ever since.

So do you feel that you have finally retired?!

Well, I’m not sure that you can say that a priest ever really retires. It is wonderful that we can still celebrate or concelebrate at Mass here every day and be with the other residents so there is still something of an apostolate, albeit much gentler than during the years of full-time ministry. In fact here at St Anne’s, I was a bit more isolated over on the other side in the chaplain’s accommodation where I was amongst the independent living residents – now here on this side I think I’m much more thrown in with all kinds of other people, which I enjoy.  All the time I keep on thinking, “I’m beginning again, I’m beginning again” and you never quite know what God has in store for you next!

Has your prayer life changed since you became less active?

A key moment in my spiritual journey happened about 6 years into my first parish when I met a lady from Opus Dei. The spirituality of St Jose Maria Escriva has had a major impact on my life ever since. This involves a plan of life which you keep and this includes weekly spiritual direction which helps you to reflect on how faithful you are being to this plan. This has been an absolute anchor for me and I continue to benefit enormously from this discipline and formation. This has made it much easier for me to pass through all the various stages of change, including retirement, because I have had this constant element to my life to see me through the changes. It gives me great peace.

What advice would you have for a young man testing a possible vocation to the priesthood?

Very simple - it is very important to get the advice of a good priest- whether you see him as your spiritual director or not. Spiritual advice from people who already know something of the journey you are beginning is essential.

And finally, some advice for a priest about to retire?!!

I suppose that I would give the same piece of advice as for the young man – you need someone to talk to, even if it is just someone you can go to for a chat rather than more formal spiritual direction. We are not supposed to travel alone on the journey of life – we need fellow pilgrims to help us.  

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