In Memoriam: Dan McGinn

I got word that a very important person in my life died on March 6th. His name is Fr. Dan McGinn. Like me, he was a member of the Society of St. Columban. Dan was 15 years older than me. He came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Before I met him, he had been a missionary in Japan for seven years. I studied with him in Rome from 1968 through 1972.

Dan and I hit it off as soon as he arrived at Corso Trieste 57, my second year in Rome. There, while I was studying moral theology at the Academia Alfonsiana, he worked in the Vatican – at the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

Dan usually sat directly across from me at our long dining room table, where the 20 or so men stationed with us in Rome ate three times each day. Three of us were Yanks, the others were Micks, Aussies, Brits and New Zealanders.

It was there that we all had such lively and memorable conversations about our studies, the church, theology, politics, and world events in general. Dan usually took great delight in playing the provocateur. The resulting discussions were intense. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything as consistently stimulating since those heady days following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).

Dan used to say that if he ever became a bishop (fat chance!), he’d do the expected and adopt an episcopal coat of arms for himself. He never described the shape of the shield he’d design.

But he was clear about the motto he’d have emblazoned on the banner below it. It would read, he said, “No More Bullshit!”

That was the kind of priest Dan was. He was a rebel. And, I guess, so was I. In many ways, I wanted to be like Dan. I considered him my mentor.

More than anything else, he taught me how to say Mass. I remember the first time I concelebrated with him in our chapel at the Columban house. There were probably five of us participating, and Dan had the lead role. He astonished me. He made the whole thing up.

No reading of prayers. No following the prescribed and inviolable eucharistic scripts. Instead, everything was ad-lib. For instance, even at the consecration – the most sacred part of the Mass – Dan said something like: “On the night before he died, Jesus was there in the Upper Room eating supper with his friends. He took a piece of bread and broke it like this (Dan broke the host) and asked them, ‘Do you see how I’m breaking this bread? This is the way my body will be broken for you. Yes, I love you all that much. This is my body which will be given up for you.’”  The form varied each time Dan said it.

It all struck me as so natural – as the way the Mass must have been celebrated before the Roman obsessive-compulsives established such complete control. I resolved then and there that I’d celebrate my Masses like Dan from then on. And that’s what I did.

Even when I got back to the states and worked in Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), that’s the way I celebrated Mass. And, like me, most of the people in the parishes I served there found it all so natural, very meaningful and completely acceptable. Even now, I marvel that I got away with that.

Dan also helped me when (towards the end of my time in Rome) I found myself re-evaluating my decision to remain a priest. I broke the news to him during a retreat we were on together at the Mundo Migliore Center at Roca di Papa on the edge of Rome. I remember walking together and discussing my “crisis,” and Dan’s advising that it might be a good idea for me to do a year of discernment before taking a final decision. I followed his advice and spent that year I just mentioned working in central Kentucky with the Christian Appalachian Project.

After I finally left the active priesthood and was working at Berea College, I spoke with Dan a few times on the phone. He told me once that he thought President G.W. Bush was “absolutely the worst we’ve ever had.” (At the time, of course, neither of us knew it could go down-hill a lot  further.)

During those years, I also got on Dan’s mailing list for the poetic political commentary he wrote on what amounted to his blog. Then, at the reunions the Columbans held every three years or so at their former seminary-turned-retirement-home in Bristol Rhode Island, I visited Dan each time I attended – once with my wife, Peggy. At one point he was volunteering as a docent at a local museum.

My last encounter with Dan McGinn came last summer during our most recent Columban reunion. By then he was confined to a nursing home. He no longer remembered me, nor our time in Rome. I found that both sad and threatening. He had been so bright, so engaged, so witty and daring. I admired him so.

With that deep admiration, dear Dan, I send you off. Thank you for your friendship and for being such a good priest. Thank you for teaching me how to celebrate Mass. Thank you for your kind guidance. Know that I’ve tried to adopt your motto as my own. I’m trying to remain, like you – committed to a “no more bullshit” life. You succeeded at that for sure! Thanks again.