A Snapshot of 35 Years

by Fr. David May

This is the 5th article in a series of six that recount how God’s words to me have guided and shaped my life. This article covers from my ordination to the priesthood (1981) till 2016.

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By early May 1981 I had completed the last of my theological studies, and I made ready to go on the required pre-ordination retreat from around May 8-14.

The ordination was scheduled for Saturday, May 16. I had picked the 16th since it was the closest I could get to the Madonna House foundation day in Combermere, May 17 (1947).

The ceremony was scheduled to take place in the local parish church of Holy Canadian Martyrs, and in addition to the people at Madonna House and personal guests, the entire parish had also been invited.

We had also obtained permission to use the school gymnasium across the street for the reception afterwards. As we had no facilities at that time big enough to hold the expected numbers wanting to attend, we were grateful to the pastor, Fr. Joe Legree, and parish for their generous hospitality.

I spent the days of my retreat in one of our poustinias, meeting once a day with my spiritual director, and coming down each evening for a one-on-one supper with one of our elders, including Fr. Brière and Catherine Doherty.

On Wednesday, May 13, nearing the end of the retreat, I felt moved to ask the Lord for a word for my coming years as a priest. I knelt down and had just articulated this thought, when I had a striking sense that the prayer was about to be answered.

At that very moment there was a knock on the door. It was my spiritual director, who then opened the door and said breathlessly, “David, I have terrible news: the Pope (John Paul II) has just been shot!”

Of course, the whole world lived through those dramatic days, and everyone living at that time has his or her own memories about them. But I will always remember those words as also God’s word to me about living as a priest of his in the coming years.

I didn’t give in to imagining what that offering might look like, but I was made freshly aware that the coming years would require some kind of total offering in order to bear witness to Christ authentically.

Of course, the next few days consisted of the whirlwind of activity that usually goes with an ordination to the priesthood. Family came in from Maryland and from Canada. With the whole Madonna House community I was journeying from one era in my life (as a lay member of the community) to another.

The bishop of our diocese, Bishop Windle arrived just in time for the ordination Mass. He had returned to Canada from Rome late the night before and had actually been in St. Peter’s Square when the Pope was shot.

The bishop took a few moments after Communion to describe his impressions of those terrible moments, and he also recounted the intense prayer that went up to heaven from around the world that the Holy Father’s life be preserved. Praise God those prayers were heard!

In this series of columns up to now, I have been trying to describe how God’s ‘word’ to me consistently called, directed and shaped my soul during the course of a few years of my life, from roughly ages 21-30.

None of these words “died off” in my coming years as a priest. Rather, each one has been like a wellspring inside, continuing to guide and to sustain me.

The words about serving the poor, acknowledging my own personal poverty, and above all, Christ’s communion with me (us) in my (our) suffering have been ever at the forefront, as well as the call to seek the lowest place.

After ordination, no further words came to me for the next 15 years.

The Lord had laid the foundations; it was up to me to build a life in accord with the gifts I had received. Yet I must also add that receiving such graces from the Lord did not in any way eliminate the usual struggles with human weakness that all of us must endure.

Those struggles don’t necessarily ease up over time, and how the mystery of sin is overcome by grace is a life-long lesson whose outcome is never sure. We can only live in hope of God’s mercy and never give up the battle to be faithful, even as the Lord never gives up on any of us.

At this writing I have been a priest over 39 years. For convenience sake, my own particular journey can be divided into three periods. The first 15 years: new, shiny, and busy.

During that time, as the youngest priest in Madonna House for a lot of it, I was given responsibilities like being editor of Restoration (12 years) beginning with the death of Fr. Callahan in 1984 and director of training for priests (10 years), which meant helping with the formation of our applicants.

And from the very beginning, a steadily growing amount of spiritual direction. Retreat work, classes and such rounded it out. Weekly poustinia became important.

It was all good, and I gave it my best shot, but by 1996, I was getting tired out and needed some kind of change.

I guess the next 2 ½ years might be called an interlude. This word has two parts: “inter,” meaning “between,” and “lude” coming from the Latin word ludus, meaning “play.”

I was sent to MH England, in Robin Hood’s Bay, truly one of the most beautiful spots on earth, to be the priest in residence at our mission there in the diocese of Middlesbrough.

I participated fully in the mission of that house, but it was also in many ways a time of “play” between assignments carrying somewhat heavier responsibilities. I will always be grateful for the graces I received in that place.

Living by the North Sea, in a small house (relatively speaking—there were usually 5 of us in residence), and coming to know and to love first-hand England and its people were like balm to my soul.

Poetry blossomed in my life once again, and I came to discover in a way I had never known previously God as Abba, Father. This “word” would serve me well in the coming days.

The second phase of life as priest in Madonna House lasted from 1999 to 2016. I call it ‘Three in One and One in Three.’

During that time I served as assistant to the Director of Priests for about 5 years, and then was elected to that office 3 times for terms of four years each.

During those 12 years as DG of Priests, I worked closely with the same two lay people for the vast majority of that time—Susanne Stubbs and Mark Schlingerman.

We were graced with the gift of sobornost (unity) throughout those years, which was a tremendous gift of the Lord, for which we three prayed and also worked hard.

When the time came for our first visit together to Rome and the Vatican congregations, we three introduced ourselves as the directors of Madonna House. “Three as one” and “one as three” was a new concept to those we met at that time (2011).

One monsignor exclaimed with exasperation: “But there must be one who is over the other two! How can this be?!” But gradually, they have become more accepting of this particularly Russian aspect of our community.

About halfway through my second term as director general, I noticed a sudden tremor in my right leg one Sunday during the liturgy. Some time later I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. While I have mentioned this now and again in this paper, I want to try next time to write more about this “third phase” of my priestly service.

Its symptoms started slowly enough that I was able to complete the second term and also a third and final one that ended in 2016.

Next, I was scheduled for some time in the poustinia…and facing the reality of an increasingly debilitating illness. I wondered if the Lord might have yet another “word” to speak concerning this new phase of my life. A time of listening and waiting began.

to be continued