Seminary Secrets of the Priest Maker

Msgr. James McDonald is known to his fellow priests as the “vocations pastor.”

He was appointed rector of the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception earlier this year and presented his first candidates for ordination June 10 at the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.’s St. Agnes Cathedral.

Msgr. McDonald, 64, has never taught in a seminary and holds no advanced degrees in theology. But Rockville Centre Bishop William Murphy said he tapped the long-time pastor because Msgr. McDonald holds “a doctorate in priesthood,” and is “an extraordinary mentor and leader of the men,” as demonstrated by his tireless recruitment of vocations.

Msgr. McDonald spoke to Register correspondent Joe Cullen in the run-up to the ordination and as rector and seminarians took part in a diocesan-wide Eucharistic Congress held from Pentecost Sunday to the feast of Corpus Christi.

In appointing you as rector, Bishop Murphy opted to tap a pastor, not a theologian or professor, to lead the seminary.

That’s true. The idea is that an experienced pastor is a model for future priests.

The parish priesthood?

Yes, because they are being trained for parish work. This will be the exclusive work for almost all of them.

How do you do this modeling?

I have encouraged many boys and young men to become priests, so encouraging seminarians to persevere is a natural thing for me.

And how many of these men have become priests?

I’m not sure of the total, but three from my last parish since going there in 2000.

Three priests from one parish in six years?

I have the best job in the world. I like to talk about it.

Is this the source of your zeal?

Where else can you be so involved with people, able to make a mark on them for ages? Where are you able to do something every day that really matters? The priesthood enables me to be as much like Christ as possible, to say Mass, forgive sins, to be involved in the salvation of souls.

What is the secret to being a good parish priest?

The key is to have a burning interest in the immortal souls of the people, and you must be willing to serve them at all times. The priest must be absolutely convinced of the importance of what he is doing, his mission.

How would this show itself?

The parish priest should be there for more than the obvious times. He should be involved with the sick, giving them time. My first pastor gave me a good tip — go to all the wakes you can. The people never forget that.

Is interest in youth work and teaching of a piece with vocational promotion?

Teaching is a great way to get to know kids, to plant the seed. The first priest to be ordained from St. Matthew’s, my last parish, was in my eighth grade class. Three men from St. Matthew’s have gone on to the priesthood.

That’s quite a record. What is your secret?

Nothing beats personal interest.

When did you first start to talk to others about vocation?

Right away, even while I was in the seminary.

Is teaching also an apostolate unto itself?

I have always taught CCD, and taught in the parish school where possible. Last year, I had a summer program for 130 kids, and one boy went home and told his Jewish mother all about what he was learning. She took an interest and later became a Catholic.

Would you introduce the subject of vocation in class?

I bring it up all the time, to whole classes, to small groups, in sermons, one on one.

Does that undermine marital vocations?

If you have strong priestly vocations, you will have great marital vocations. I worked in the [marriage] tribunal. I still work as an advocate in the tribunal so I have great interest in fostering the marital vocation.

Is the inverse also true — do good marriages generate vocations?

Yes, my parents were extraordinarily happy. Our vocations shortage today stems from the breakdown of family life, a weakening of the relationship between families and the Church. The Mass is what’s saving the world, and non-attendance at Sunday Mass is at the heart of all of the Church’s problems. In our diocese, people are getting married in the Church in large numbers and baptizing their children at a similar rate, but the numbers for Sunday Mass drop off.

Is this because, as some research has shown, many Catholics simply no longer believed that missing Mass is a sin?

There is also a lack of clarity about Church teachings; a lack of understanding of what the Mass is, a trend in which we have lost sight of the Real Presence.

As a pastor, you promoted reverent liturgy and Eucharistic adoration. Have these helped?

Yes. I have also preached at some of the Youth 2000 events, which have drawn many young people to adoration, and here at the seminary we recently restored a chapel on the second floor for private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. We also have a weekly Holy Hour with the Eucharist exposed.

Getting back to vocations, do you ever worry that your mentioning the priesthood to young men will be met with laughter or rejection?

Not in the least, but one could be afraid and that could prevent the seed from being planted. There’s always going to be some rejection of the will of God. You don’t get all of those who you feel might have the vocation. Still, the reaction to the question has always been respectful.

What do you think the future holds for vocations?

There’s a turn in the Church, and we are going to find more and more interest in the priesthood and in renewed forms of religious life in which religious stand out with great devotion, with community apostolate, clear identification [as religious], clear ideas about the vows, their commitment to Christ.

How does the immediate short-term look?

Bishop Murphy asked me how we are going to get more priests. I told him, “From the Blessed Mother, who gave us the first priest.”

So prayer is key?

Yes, along with a focus on the Gospel and works of charity. That’s why the seminary day is wreathed in prayer, centered on the Mass and Divine Office.

And your own prayer?

I’ve always had a great devotion to Our Lady, and somewhere along the way I decided to pray all the mysteries of the Rosary every day. It’s very important to me.

Why is it that the great priests — the saints, priests like John Paul II — always have this love for Mary?

The people who are attached to Mary are usually devoted to the Eucharist and the Pope. Devotion attaches you to the Church.

I saw the emphasis on devotion at the website of your last parish. I also noted the mission statement, which talks about “saving souls,” and not contemporary buzz words like “sharing” or “community.”

The best mission statement is “The salvation of souls is the supreme law.” Salvation has to be communicated, which is why Christ said, “Preach the Gospel to every creature.” A priest is an icon of Christ, consecrated to the salvation of souls. If he is just that, God will be the source of all his zeal, he will be happy, and he will affect the lives of his parishioners.

Joe Cullen writes from

Floral Park, New York.