40 years of forgivenessWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Originally published Sept. 16, 2011.
The Rev. Robert McGrath — “Father Bob” to his legions of friends and relatives — was born to be a Catholic priest. As early as third grade, he remembers using crayons to draw a cross on the back of a sheet that had a hole cut for his head to fit through. With that homemade vestment, he would celebrate pretend Mass. He was an altar boy around that time, and was struck by a particular experience with his mother, who was stricken with multiple sclerosis.
“In 1949, we drove to Canton, Ohio, to see a woman named Mrs. Wise who was thought to have stigmata,” McGrath said. “My mother had a long interview with her and she told my mother she would live a long time even with the disease. She lived until 1967. Hearing about this experience throughout my growing up years has helped me to have a great faith in both mystery and miracle.”
On Sept. 11, 2011, McGrath celebrated the exact 40th anniversary of his ordination. A Mass of Celebration took place at Servant Church of St. Alexander in Farmington Hills, Mich. McGrath is a relation of mine by marriage; he presided over the blessing of our wedding and baptized both of our sons.
It was a beautiful day, and that was fortuitous; so many people attended the Mass that it was moved outside to accommodate the hundreds in attendance. The elements of the Mass took place under a stately gazebo.
The Mass began with the acknowledgement that McGrath’s Sept. 11 anniversary was shared with the somber anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The theme for the Mass was forgiveness.
McGrath never left behind his childhood aspirations. He attended Central Catholic High School in Livonia. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Detroit Mercy and eventually became a member of the Holy Cross Fathers at the University of Notre Dame.
“After receiving my master’s degree in theology from Notre Dame, a new decision had to be made,” McGrath said. “The phenomenon of the day was that a great many men were leaving the priesthood after ordination and the leadership of the community became very cautious before granting final vows and ordination.
“Rather than waiting for an unknown amount of time to be approved, I decided to transfer to the Archdiocese of Detroit because that was where I grew up. I was eventually ordained on Sept. 11, 1971, in St. Francis de Sales Church.”
After a five-year stay at St. Rita’s in Holly, Mich., McGrath served as pastor to St. Francis de Sales Church in Detroit for 20 years. He then moved to St. Benedict’s in Highland Park for more than 10 years and is now in his fifth year at St. Alexander.
On Sept. 11, 2011, we participated in the outdoor Mass celebrating McGrath’s 40th anniversary under the bluest skies I have seen all summer. A light cloud cover drifted above us, but the blue was clear and seemed to extend to the heavens.
As the service, through readings, psalms, prayers and songs, focused on forgiveness, the ties to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks ran through my mind. In the Toledo Free Press special edition the week of the 10th anniversary, Myrta Gschaar, who lost her husband in the World Trade Center collapse, talked about forgiving and the closure the process brought her.
How many of us, even those of us with no direct human loss, can say we forgive those who carried out the radical suicide (homicide) mission?
Listening to examples of Jesus Christ and his teachings of forgiveness certainly softened my heart and inspired me to strive for some personal, small-scale forgiveness, but I’m not ready to say I forgive the perpetrators of the attacks.
During the Prayers of the Faithful, an airliner, descending to Detroit Metro Airport, flew over our heads, low enough to see its underbelly with mechanical clarity.
I was not the only one to see that plane and have chills of déjà vu, especially after a week of seeing 10-year-old footage of American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 flying into the North and South Trade Center Towers. At that moment, tempted by the irrational impulse to grab my family and pull them to the ground to cover them, forgiveness was the last emotion on my checklist. It was just a moment, and it illustrates a great weakness on my part, but for those few seconds, nothing McGrath or Saint Peter or Jesus himself could say would have persuaded me to forgive the murderers who so efficiently changed our country and our mindset.
The Communion song “On Eagle’s Wings” and the recessional song “Let There Be Peace on Earth” helped wash away the intense, negative emotions.
“Let there be peace on Earth
And let it begin with me.
Let us walk with each other, in perfect harmony.”
There are great men like Father Bob who sing those words with great conviction, and there are flawed men like me who are always just a bit out of tune. For 40 years, Father Bob has embodied the teachings, so he has a head start. I may not catch up, but I will never be able to claim I lacked the proper model.
Father Bob McGrath died April 10. He continued to deliver services until the final Sunday of his life.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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