By Kathy McGee Burns
If you want to know the measure of a man’s life, ask his friends.
And, so I did.
I set out to write about John P .McNamee, the priest, a man who many others have written about before. I wanted to make this different.
When I went to St. Malachy’s to interview him, I was struck by the people around him, the hustle and bustle of the little office. He had invited me to have lunch with him and so we sat at the long dining room table with the Friday volunteers and the regular staff. I felt the power of the people, devoted to Father Mac, their great love for him, and how he absorbs their connection to him and wears it as a mark of his humanity. I also met Father Kevin Lawrence, who replaced him as the new Pastor. I mentioned to Father Kevin that he had big footsteps to fill. “Ah, I’ll not walk in those footsteps”, he said, “I’ll walk beside them”. He knows that Father Mac is a hard act to follow.
I spent time with three of his devotees, Sister Cecile Reiley, Shelagh Bradley, and Olga Richardson. There were many lovely stories told about this “City Priest.” Here is what they said about him:
Generous, generous beyond means! He receives in one hand and gives it all away with the other. The ladies tell of Father taking flowers off of the table, vase and all, to give to a visitor. It doesn’t matter if it was Waterford or Woolworths. He has stolen many minutes, out of a busy day, to write little notes of gratitude to people.
Humble, yes, he always manages to shift the focus from himself to others. He has a love affair with the words of great writers, like Dorothy Day, Father Dan Berrigan, and Thomas Merton. He incorporates their writings into the thread of his own life.
Father McNamee loves all equally, unconditionally. He sees the face of Jesus in everybody who knocks on his door.
He’s an inspiration. He sees everyone as a child of God. Watching him be good to others, inspires one to also be good.
Father loves to be hospitable. Sister Cecile tells the story of a retirement party he was giving for a fellow priest. She asked how many should they plan on. He said about 150 guests. Sister called 15 friends and asked them to make enough lasagna for 10 each, exactly 150 servings. However, on the Sunday of the party, Fr. McNamee, invited everyone at the 10 and 11 o’clock mass. In the long run it didn’t matter, all went well. and the miracle of the loaves and fishes occurred anew.
Olga, who is the chair of the Worship and Service Committee, talks about his humanity. Always faithful to attending meetings, she missed one. Father called immediately and asked why. She said she wasn’t feeling well. He said, “How about I take you to the doctor.” He did and then proceeded to nurse her through a bout of colon cancer. He saw her through her chemo treatments and was always attuned to her needs.
Shelagh says that Father goes out to the school playground and mingles with the children. One young boy was so excited to see him. He said, “Father, you’re the Man”… I mean you’re the priest but you’re the Man!”
The story I really loved was one told by Sister Cecile. They were driving in West Philadelphia when a homeless man was thumbing a ride. They drove past and then Father Mac suddenly put on the brakes. “I should have picked him up.” Sister looked at him in puzzlement. Father McNamee said, “That could have been Christ.”
I then turned to Father Edward Hallinan, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish, and good friend to his mentor. He called him a Priest, a Prophet, and a Poet….all wrapped into one. Extremely generous to anybody; there are no boundaries.
When retirement for Father Mac was nearing, Father Ed was concerned that he would come crashing into it. He begged him to slow down and take it softly at the end. But no, John McNamee came roaring into retirement at about 100 mphs. This is his nature. That’s what makes him great.
Father McNamee is spending the summer in Ireland. Ed Hallinan hopes that when John gets off the plane, God is waiting for him, ready to embrace him in his arms and spend the next 6 weeks nurturing him.
And then there is Jim Martin. They formally met in 1963, when the Martin family chose Father McNamee to baptize their son, Eugene. Throughout the years their meetings were infrequent. And then lo and behold, Eugene Martin bought the right to McNamee’s book, Dairy of a City Priest, and turned it into a movie. When they went to the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, their friendship was rekindled. Jim has been responsible for developing the financial network, raising lots of money to keep St. Malachys alive for a long time. Jim sees his friend as a spiritual skeptic, nonjudgmental, never dogmatic or hard-nosed.
John McNamee has character and a depth of spirituality very few have. Father looks behind the confines of church dogma. Anybody not accepted by the strict structure of the Catholic Church, is welcomed to Father John McNamee’s church.
Now you know the measure of this man’s life.