NEW YORK — Steven McDonald lived the Gospel message of life, love and forgiveness until his passing Jan. 10.
He was 29 years old and married just eight months to wife Patti Ann when he was shot in the line of duty as a New York police officer in 1986. Three bullets hit him during a robbery, one piercing his spinal cord. He wasn’t expected to live.
But live he did — for 30 years — as a pro-life hero who forgave his 15-year-old assailant and who never gave in to self-pity, even for a moment, despite living as a quadriplegic on a respirator.
In the days after the tragedy, New York Cardinal John O’Connor came to his hospital room to say Mass daily.
The McDonalds were told that Steven would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, unable to lift a finger and unable to eat apart from tube feedings.
During one Mass, the Host was placed on Steven’s forehead, as he was unable to swallow it.
Those present sensed a change in Steven right then.
He later said, “It was God’s love that put me back together. Jesus was with us in that hospital room. I have come to believe that in life there are no such things as coincidences, only ‘God incidents.’ Blessed John Paul II said, ‘In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.’ I believe in Jesus because I was raised to; but I know him because I experienced God in action in those days.
“A week after I was shot, the media asked to speak to my wife. Though still in shock, Patti Ann bravely told everybody that she would trust God to do what was best for her family. That set the tone not only for my recovery, but also for the rest of our lives. When things like this happen, people sometimes distance themselves from God. Patti Ann taught me that you don’t do that. You trust God.”
As Patti Ann said, “Through faith, I saw that God had a different plan for all of this. There was a bigger purpose for this senseless act of violence.”
Forgiveness was more than just a message for Steven. “Cardinal O’Connor encouraged me to open my heart to the grace that was there to forgive. I know that forgiveness is something you have to work for at times. You have to live forgiveness every day,” he said.
On the day of his son’s baptism, Steven publicly forgave his assailant, Shavod Jones, and asked for prayers for the young man.
“I forgive [the young man who shot me], and I hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life. I ask that you remember the less fortunate than I am, who struggle for the dignity of life, without the attention and without the helping hands that have given me this life. God bless you all.”
As he also said, I “wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me — the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us. I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.”
He hoped to help the young man after he got out of jail, but Jones died in a 1995 motorcycle accident shortly after his release.
Preacher of Truth
Steven’s earthly journey ended following a heart attack.
At his funeral Jan. 13 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, the McDonalds’ son, Conor — named for Cardinal O’Connor — said his father was a true superman, who “wanted to make sure his time on earth wasn’t wasted” and who “made it his mission to have us all realize love must win. ... My parents created such a remarkable life out of such suffering.”
Following his injury, Steven spoke to all kinds of groups, up to five times a week, from hundreds of school students and confirmation classes to those in jails and rehab centers. He packed more evangelization into a week than most of us do in a lifetime, by all accounts.
And he did it all from a wheelchair, on a ventilator. He often said that he believed what happened to him was God’s will and that he was meant to become a messenger of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in the world. Steven proclaimed to anyone who would listen that Jesus Christ is the only way and that forgiveness is the only path to peace.
And people listened. When Steven spoke, everyone listened closely, partly because he spoke with a tracheotomy tube, but mostly because he exuded such love with every word. He regularly mentored rookie NYPD cops and attended every new class’ graduation. He was an advocate of peace in war-torn areas, too. In the late ’90s he made several trips to Northern Ireland, as part of a peace mission called “Project Reconciliation,” meeting with young people on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant violence. He was made a citizen of his beloved Ireland and is credited with helping bring about peace there. One person who accompanied him to Ireland was Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, the New York Fire chaplain who was killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Father Judge had been one of the priests on rotation to say Mass in McDonald’s hospital room.
McDonald also brought his message of prayer and forgiveness to Israel and Bosnia. He untiringly spoke of the dignity of all human life, wearing a tiny “baby feet” pin, the popular pro-life symbol. In addition, he and his wife started a weekly prayer group at their home, which quickly outgrew the space and was moved to a local American Legion hall.
And the beloved cop was also devoted to Divine Mercy. The McDonalds are featured in the new Knights of Columbus documentary, The Face of Mercy, which will air on EWTN Jan. 29 at 10pm. As film producer David Naglieri recalled: “We were reminded of their devotion when we were at their house filming, and he asked to take a break so he could pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at 3 o’clock.”
In the film, Steven says, “There’s a purpose and a plan for us being here, and that plan is love.”
Just recently, following a talk to the confirmation candidates at St. Anne Church in Garden City, New York, the pastor, Father Tom Harold, commented that Steven looked stronger than when he last saw him 20 years ago. McDonald replied, “Father, what did you expect? I pray every day!”
Joanne Von Zwehl is a New York artist who attended the McDonalds’ prayer group and went on a Marian pilgrimage with the McDonald family. “Anybody who met him was inspired to be a better person. Christ’s light shone through him and touched your very soul,” she said. “It was not possible to meet him and not want to be a better version of yourself.”
The Sisters of Life, the pro-life order founded by Cardinal O’Connor, had a close relationship with Steven. “I remember being very moved by the witness of love and fidelity between Steven and Patti Ann. They were a striking witness that love is possible, even amid suffering,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth, “and that, actually, suffering, united to Christ’s cross, has a mysterious power to release love and transform us. Steven was a living icon of that reality. New York City has lost one of its brightest lights. But I am sure that he will be interceding for us all.”
“He loved to pray the Rosary,” she added. “He was so devoted to Our Lady, I can only imagine how she welcomed him home into the heavenly Father’s embrace.”
The Gift of Steven McDonald
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, told the Register about his own relationship with the heroic police officer — forged after the cardinal became archbishop of New York in 2009 — and the heroic officer’s constant witness of faith and forgiveness.
“He would be everywhere in his police uniform,” recalled Cardinal Dolan. “He would be at every parade, he would be at every charitable event, he would be at schools, he would be at churches, he would be in church praying, and it was always just a gentle message of forgiveness — most dramatically illustrated in his decision publicly to forgive his assailant.”
Added the cardinal, “And, wow, what he did internally — you know, there at the bedside of dying officers, there with the grieving families of officers killed in the line of duty, there in some of that reconciliation and mediation procedures between victims and the criminals — what he did was phenomenal for this community, and there’s a great sense of loss here.”
In his eulogy, family friend Father Seamus O’Boyle said the witness of Steven McDonald was a gift to all.
“Even though our hearts are broken, we give him back to the Giver of the gift. And if Steven is the gift, what does that tell us about the Giver, our Creator?”
Patty Knap writes from Long Island, New York.