By Phil Milner
A Priest Everyone Trusted
As funerals go, that of Father Roderick Bernard ‘R.B.’ MacDonald’s was a happy one. He lived a long life of service and accomplishment. Parishioners cherished his ability to explain and deepen their faith. Students feared and respected him. His faculty colleagues recognized that he, perhaps more than anyone, knew how learning and the Catholic faith fit and didn’t fit together.
In retirement, he celebrated a 7:30 a.m. daily Mass for more than 20 years that many considered essential to their day. Whenever the pope issued a statement or important proclamation, he gave a public lecture that put things into context.
My wife and I last saw him after 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish a month or so before he died on Oct. 27. He was so thin, you could see bones beneath the skin of his scalp. With difficulty, he extended a pale hand to shake.
After the funeral, I walked out the west door of St. Ninian’s Cathedral and descended the new concrete steps. I stopped to talk to a friend standing on the sidewalk between the parking lot and the parish centre. Father Bill Crispo stopped and told us a funny story about RB as he headed to the parking lot.
Father Doug Murphy, the St. Ninian’s rector when I came in town 43 years ago, offered a smile and a friendly wave on his way to his car. Father John Morrison, Father Charles Cameron, Father Ray Huntley, and several old St. FX faculty colleagues joined our floating group.
Smiles, friendly nods, handshakes, and, because this is Antigonish, where no matter the occasion, there will be smiles and funny stories. Many of the stories included the words everyone gets around to when they speak of him: “RB didn’t suffer fools.”
I’ll share one story from that evolving parking lot gathering.
RB believed in the Socratic method. If a student asked a question to deflect him or lighten things up a little, RB asked a question back on the same topic. He wanted to make sure the student knew what he or she was talking about. He didn’t want his classroom hour trivialized.
RB and ‘bird course’ was a contradiction in terms. Students worked harder for RB than they worked in other courses, but their course mark didn’t necessarily reflect their effort.
John Morrison, not yet ordained, took RB’s New Testament course. By late March, class enrolment had dwindled to a mournful seven students who were learning more about Jesus and His teachings than they thought they’d signed up for.
On the way out of class, a fellow student said: “The Blessed Lord Jesus Himself would be doing well to make a 60 in this course.”
“’Some of you might know him,” Father Morrison added. “He’s a lawyer now, Hector MacIsaac.”
An Antigonish moment. Nobody in Antigonish can be sure how it all fits together.
“Hector would be my brother,” Effie Taylor, the friend I’d approached to start our little group, said.
Father R.B. MacDonald grew up in Sydney. He graduated from St. FX in 1952 and was ordained as a priest three years later. He earned his doctorate in sacred theology from the Collegio Urbano de Propaganda Fide in Rome. He also received a licentiate in sacred scripture from the Institutum Biblicum.
It was a time in St. FX history when faculty was expected to appear at the Nicholson Hall sixth floor coffee lounge every morning. The conversation could be trivial or profound. Former Senator John Stewart held forth on Canadian politics. Father Kehoe, St. FX AD, talked sports. Bill Gillis, a former professor graduated to MLA, would stop by, shake our hands and tell us what provincial government was up to.
With his deep knowledge of parish life, photography, and Cape Breton, RB was a resource for young faculty trying to understand how to go about living and professing in eastern Nova Scotia.
RB knit! He knit orange and lemon-coloured hats and scarves that he wore, in winter sometimes above his priestly garb. He gave scarves to secretaries and others he liked. When he was stumped by a knitting problem, he would ask gifted knitters to come to his fifth-floor office and show him new stitches. He famously terrified them by tape recording their lessons so he could go back to them.
He thought before he spoke. Publishing was not a priority. His public medium was the homily, and the public lectures he gave whenever the pope announced changes in church doctrine. There are people I don’t really know, but almost consider friends because I would see them at those lectures. How could their heads not be on straight if they saw the gold in those lectures? I hope a worthy student of life and the faith goes through RB’s papers with an eye toward publication.
The university I came to in 1975 wore its Catholicism without fuss. It was Catholic because the diocese saw that a university was needed a century and a quarter before I arrived. A priest had always been president, and priests filled almost all the administration positions. When I arrived, the faculty was about one-fifth priests, down from 95 per cent 30 years before.
The history of my first 15 years in town was one of faculty and the provincial government taking the university from the diocese and the priests. Our tools were position papers, heroic speeches at meetings that argued for professionalism and natural justice, close votes, and the skilled applications of Robert’s Rules of Order.
With hindsight, the church would have yielded without our faculty bluster. Priest-professors retired and were replaced by lay people. RB saw this before the rest of us did. He quietly worked to make the transition less painful for everyone. The priest-profs —Catholic of course, and mostly Scottish—had deep roots in Cape Breton and the northeastern mainland, like our students. We laity were about professionalism, publication, and proper credentials. The priests saw their professorships as part of their religious vocation.
RB might have been the individual everyone trusted. He served on the Board of Governors and the university senate. He was Dean of Arts through the bad times. If there was a search committee struck for a key position, he was on it. Most everyone wanted him in the room when tough decisions were being made.
When Father Greg MacKinnon retired as president, much of the evolving St. FX community wanted RB to become president. He turned the job down before it could be formally offered.
RB retired and devoted his energy to a number of projects, including the daily 7:30 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral. Freed from overwork as professor and priest, his masses became a touchstone for those who attended.
He never winged it. He worked from notes. Toward the end, he seemed to feel things more deeply. When the topic was Christ’s suffering or the treatment of the Jews by Christians, he might sob audibly, take a long moment to re-compose himself, then continue in a tremulous voice as he contemplated the depths Christians, in the name of Christ, can sink to.
I retired in 2007. “Can you give me any retirement advice?” I asked him one morning when I bumped into him at the parish office. His advice was a reflection on his own experience.
“Everything slows down when you retire,” he told me. “It’s an enormous load off. You get to work at your own speed, pick your projects. Every morning, I make a list of what I must do today. I never end the day with everything checked off.”
I took another look at the written funeral program when I got home. The front page of the folded 8½ x 11 sheet was a pencil drawing of St. Ninian’s Cathedral. The inside was the usual list of hymns to sing, Mass concelebrants, readers, and servers.
It was the back page stopped me—a picture of RB, maybe in his late 40s. He is wearing sunglasses and a light-coloured trench coat, black shoes with a priestly black tam on his head. He is standing on the sidewalk of Times Square in New York City (I think). A seven or eight-storey Coca-Cola sign towers above him. He is looking straight at the camera. His mouth is a wary straight line. I didn’t know him well enough to interpret the expression on his face.
Beneath the picture, at the bottom of the page, are three words in italics that call me back to the man I did know:
“Priest, Teacher, Scholar.”