Cleansing Fire

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A Priest Forever: The Life and Times of Father Robert F. McNamara

February 22nd, 2016, Promulgated by benanderson

The January 4, 2016mcnamara email edition of the Catholic Courier contained a banner advertisement to a book that immediately caught my attention – “A Priest Forever: The Life and Times of Father Robert F. McNamara”. I was excited to read it as I have copies of his history on “The Diocese of Rochester in America” 1868-1968 and then a subsequent edition covering up to 1993.  They make for quite interesting reading.

I found Fr. McNamara’s life to be very encouraging and a great example to us all. It’s hard to comprehend how much of an impact this man had on the Diocese and American Catholicism in general given the length of his tenure and the amount of writing he left behind. A good portion of this book contains some of his writings including meditations on the Rosary. I also recall that Rich Leonardi has linked to his Saints’ Alive series hosted by the St. Kateri parish website.

He died just less than 7 years ago (May ’09) so perhaps some of our readers knew him.  Feel free to share an uplifting story in the comments section.  I don’t have time to give a more thorough review, but if you click the “Read the rest of this entry” link below, you can see some of the snippets that I highlighted as I went through the book.  I give no context to the snippets, so you’ll have to buy the book yourself and read it.


“I first informed my family of my vocation in a letter to my mother from Cambridge, Massachusetts, dated early in the week of Sunday, November 6, 1932. She replied with a special delivery letter at the end of the same week. A single sentence of it summarizes her tender reaction: ‘If God really called my son to serve him, I rejoice; but I feel so unworthy of such a blessing.’”

Bob McNamara became Father McNamara with his priestly ordination in the beautiful little Roman chapel of the North American College on December 8, 1936, the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

My mother’s blessing stayed with me in 1933 when I left for Rome to begin my studies for the priesthood. I wish parents in today’s world would be as supportive to their sons and daughters who are discerning a religious vocation as my mother was to me.

the young professor became so engrossed in his new field of study that he was happy to learn Church history “in the saddle.” World War II hampered graduate studies in general, and in the postwar period obligations towards his family made going back to school impracticable. The seminary rector never raised the issue of the postponed degree again, nor did Father McNamara; but he did lament his lack of rigorous historical training. “I guess God did not want me to earn a doctorate in history,” he has said, “and rightly so. I would probably have become a total snob.”

he resided and taught Church history at St. Bernard’s Seminary, Rochester, from 1939 to 1981. While there, he had little contact with the city of Rochester around him. But inside the seminary walls he spent himself generously in the formation of other “priests forever.”

Father Frank Lioi (Rochester, class of 1967), who would later serve as the last rector of St. Bernard’s, also looks back fondly on his studies there with Father Bob. In 1989, on the occasion of Father Mac’s golden jubilee as a teacher, Father Lioi wrote to him: “It is only as I get older that I realize the tremendous amount of knowledge that you imparted to us as students of St. Bernard’s Seminary. What were at one time only facts and dates have become, over the years, tangible realities and vivid experiences. I thank you for planting the seeds of an appreciation of history and art which are still coming to fruition.”

“Don’t ever miss your daily prayers; go to confession individually, and frequently; be faithful about attending Sunday Mass (and go to weekday Mass, too, as you can). Don’t forget voluntary acts of self-denial. And especially remember to confirm your faith each day by an Act of Faith; or by reciting the Creeds (Nicene and Apostle’s); or at least say to Jesus: ‘I do believe. Help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24).” Father Bob concluded his remarks with a little Italian prayer to Mary that he learned in Rome: “Vergine Immacolata aiutateci” (Spotless Virgin and your dear Son, bless and keep us every one). (“Add this to your own aspirations if you like,” he told me. “There’s no copyright!”)

“A priest is one who is ordained to pass on the truths Christ taught and administer the sacraments Christ initiated. A historian is one who records both the good deeds and the misdeeds of his fellow human beings. Whenever, in the discharge of his priestly duties, any priest is called upon to report an event or advocate a candidate he must observe historical objectives. But there are also many priests who can be called eminent professional historians, like Pope John XXIII who specialized in Italian Church history. In 1960 I met this great pontiff as one in a long line of pilgrims to the Vatican palace. Speaking Italian I told him I was a professor of Church history in Rochester, NY. The Holy Father commented in Latin: ‘Historia testis veritatis!’ [History bears witness to the truth.] A kiss of his ring, a minimal dialogue, and a blessing given and received: all this took only a few seconds of his time; but he handed on to me and other priest historians a fruitful new motto to ponder. Memorable!”

Ann: “Father Bob, I have a question. One criticism I have heard of you is that when you write about any person or situation you always look for the good. Sometimes it seems you tend to sugar coat things rather than say anything negative. I understand that Bishop Sheen was alleged to have said that Father McNamara’s version of history was made up primarily of sugar. I also heard that if a recipe for writing history were to be offered on your behalf it would include certain empathy, upliftedness, and gentleness; that you took care to be charitable in all situations. In your career as a priest, writer/author, and historian you would have been in a position to see many situations that were at best terrible; yet, you always found something nice to say. As a historian shouldn’t you have been more open about the negativity?”
Father Bob: “You’re right, Ann. I have seen many less than desirable situations in my life. Yet I remember what Jesus said about loving those who do not love you or who you find it hard even to tolerate. ‘Love one another’ was an example I tried to teach through my writing, and there is nothing that says the truth can’t be stated positively. I’m also a person who likes peace and harmony. In the end the final judgment is left up to God. As you know, I prefer to stay non-judgmental, even in my writing. Besides, Ann, a little sugar isn’t bad for you!”

Father Bob: “For thirty-nine years, while I was teaching at the seminary, I was a ‘weekend warrior’ at St. Salome’s in Irondequoit, where I said one Mass each weekend. After the seminary closed, Monsignor Burns invited me to move to St. Thomas the Apostle where I lived twenty-one years. Another activity I was involved in at Saint Thomas the Apostle was the Legion of Mary. I opened and closed the Adoration Chapel every day. I also wrote Rosary meditations for the Legion of Mary.”

“After his beatification I remained involved in his cause for sainthood. I worked with the Turan family to promote Blessed Grimoaldo’s cause and I commissioned an icon of him. I gave the icon to Holy Cross Church, where it is today. It is used every year on November 19 for the celebration of his feast day.” At his request Father’s complete homily from that Mass is included in the appendices.

Ann: “Father Bob, were there other people whom you surmise could be ‘champions of the church’?”
Father Bob: “Yes, Ann, there are three more that I can think of quickly: Father Nelson Baker, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, and Catherine McAuley. Let me start with Father Baker.
“Father Baker had been a priest stationed at St. Mary’s Church in Corning. While he was there he was alleged to have performed three cures. One of these was a woman named Katherine Dwyer (Kate). When she was about 18, she caught typhoid fever. Father Baker blessed her with holy water from Lourdes and she recovered. This was of great interest to me, as later on she married my father and had five children with him. Father Baker was in Corning for about one year before he returned to the Buffalo area where he continued his ministry, which included building a basilica to Our Lady. Today it is known as Our Lady of Victory.


6 Responses to “A Priest Forever: The Life and Times of Father Robert F. McNamara”

  1. avatar christian says:

    I will have to get hold of that book. Thanks for sharing Ben!

  2. avatar raymondfrice says:

    I studied with him and found him to be one of those great anomalies that are rarely found in the Christian Catholic Church: both a Christian and a gentleman. You could tell that Harvard had had the first influence on him.

  3. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Thanks for the great post, Ben. Father McNamara is indeed deserving of this attention. His contributions to Diocesan History are careful, reliable and well-documented. Both his volumes stand on my shelf, between the Code of Canon Law and Diocesan directories.

    He is often mentioned by people at St. Thomas who have been around for a while. One would think he had just popped out for a bit of a walk, and is expected at any moment. I do look forward sometime to delve into this book you reviewed.

    I wish the title were a bit different, only because there is a wonderful book entitled “A Priest Forever” by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, RIP, which documents the story of the cancer-stricken young seminarian, Eugene Hamilton, and the tortuous waiting to see if the letter will come from Rome allowing him to be ordained before he dies. I found it also very inspiring.

  4. avatar Jim says:

    Yes, Fr. McNamara was a familiar presence at St. Thomas the Apostle for many years. He spent several years in residence there, as he wrote his weekly column for the St. Thomas bulletin entitled: “Saints Alive.” When St. Thomas Church was completed and was first introduced to the parishioners in 1965, Fr. McNamara created a “walking tour” of the Church, describing in great detail every facet of the Church building : the stained glass window pictures, the carving of the Last Supper onto the main altar, Our Lady’s chapel, separated from the main altar by a large iron grid, the Stations of the Cross, the balticino (the large covering of the church high altar),the Church layout in general…the large domes, the baptistery, and the infamous “missing brick” that reminds us that the work of the Church is never finished. Fr. McNamara was a very brilliant man, a scholar, who wrote many books, but was as personable and as approchable as any priest could possibly be.

  5. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Fr. McNamara created a “walking tour” of the Church

    Jim, are you referring to this?

  6. avatar Jim says:

    Ben, Thanks for finding and posting the tour. I had forgotten that the whole tour was online, and could be searched to read. There was a lot more detail in there than I remembered!

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