Thinking about my lifeby Father Kilian McGowan, C.P.
Fr Kilian lived nine decades of the 20th century. Historic events such as wars and political changes deeply affected him and his family. But, without minimizing the consequences of history, it remains clear that important facets of Fr Kilian's personal story were shaped by timeless human concerns: what really matters in life? what are my gifts? and how shall I use these?
When I begin to reflect more deeply on my spiritual "roots" I realize how little I know about myself. I am always fascinated when I think of the 10,000 generations preceding me and the way they have influenced my genes.
My birthday is June 2nd (1915). I'm a Gemini. I believe that I've inherited my primary sanguine temperament from my Irish-Scotch Father, John Joseph McGowan and my contemplative side from my German-French (a bit) mother, Josephine Kluber Sauer.
Recalling my early days, I realize more than ever that the Good Lord surrounded me with good people. Outstanding among these would be my father and mother. My father, educated in Canada and a Rhodes scholar, was an authentic humanist. Intelligent, understanding, patient and human, he was a natural ecumenist who would tolerate no bigotry in his children.
His faith was the quiet type, but very much a part of his entire make-up.
My mother was an extremely dedicated person. Her family and her faith were her whole life. I doubt that she ever committed a serious sin of any kind whether one goes by the old or the new theology!
I thank and praise God for all the faith-support I was blessed with in my early impressionable years. The priests and nuns in my early school years used their efforts and gifts to build up my faith.
One high-school teacher, Sr. Elizabeth, SSJ, was an important influence in my life. She had apparently decided that I was to be a priest long before I did! In my second year of high school, by prodding and punishment, she made certain I knew my lessons - especially Latin - as perfectly as possible. Later on, she made a Holy Hour for Donald McGowan daily at the Sisters of St. Joseph retirement home in Flourtown, Pa. Only God knows how much my vocation is due to her!
In those high school years, I alternated between study and play, introverted reflection and extroverted socializing and enjoyed both. There was, in general, a lack of consistent discipline in my life. I've always wished I had formed better habits of study and application, even though I'm capable of both now.
In the years between 1926 and 1931 (my 16th year) we lived at Spring Lake on the New Jersey coast, and I developed an affectionate love for the sea, which I enjoy to this very day. The ocean was my love, and whether in happy plunges into its waves or quiet reflective walks along its sands, we spent many, many hours together.
The ocean frequently made me reflect on eternity. I feel that my vocation was conceived there and was nourished by my many hours of serving Mass at St. Catharine's in that small village.
Path to Vocation: straight, but not smooth
The depression of the early thirties forced my family to return to Elizabeth, New Jersey. There at our family parish Church of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, 1932 (I think) I consecrated myself to the Blessed Mother. Praying before her statue, I promised to serve her and her son Jesus in whatever way they willed. Although my devotion to our Blessed Mother has risen and fallen over the years, I always look upon her as "my refuge and my way to God."
Upon graduation from Sacred Heart High School, I had intended to study for the Diocese of Trenton, NJ, but this intention was not realized even though I had been adopted by that diocese and was sponsored by its Chancellor, Msgr. Thomas Reilly, who was also the pastor of St. Catharine's in Spring Lake.
In the following year, I tried unsuccessfully to enter the seminary of the Diocese of Newark. This was in 1934; I had started Junior College at Union County the year before. In 1936, I attempted to join the Benedictines and was again refused admittance. I was beginning to believe that no one wanted me as a vocational prospect. The following year, 1937, I toyed with the idea of joining the Trinitarians.
About this time, I was keeping steady company with a lovely young lady and, for the first time, seriously considered marriage as a vocation. I always believed I could be a good "father" in either the married or priestly state. For almost six months, sometimes night after night, I struggled deeply with this decision. Finally the struggle was over and I set my heart on the priesthood. It wasn't long after this, as I recall, in the midsummer of 1938, that I had a chance meeting with my first Passionist, Fr. Andrew Ansbro. Under his guidance and within a short span of several weeks I found myself heading for the Passionist Novitiate in Pittsburgh, Pa.
During the year preceding my entrance into the Passionists, I told the Lord that the girls were looking better all the time and that if he really wanted me he should do something about it ... before it was too late! Evidently, he got the message!
During those years (1933-1938) I was going to Union Junior College off and on and finally got my degree. I worked as a bellhop, chauffeur, printing salesman, tire-shop mechanic, blueprinter photographer, and finally a licensed real-estate salesman with Cranwall Realty (of which I was a Junior Partner). I was outstanding in none of these jobs, made relatively little money, had lots of good times and social life, and not very much discipline of any kind.
These years between 18 and 23 years of age were probably the least reflective of my life. I was careless about my prayer and my faith, certainly had not pulled myself together and, in general, was simply drifting.
My journey to the Passionist Novitiate in September, 1938 turned my life completely around and directed it into a new and fulfilling adventure. I had a deep kinship with the life that unfolded before me. I felt very much "at home" and wasn't particularly bothered by the austerity of the newly-found life.
Our Master of Novices, Berchmans Lanagan, taught us what was called "The Secret of Blessed Grignon de Montfort." This was a kind of total devotion to the Blessed Mother through which you gave the merits of all the good actions of your entire life for her to use as she wishes for the needs of the Mystical Body. You also placed yourself in a very special way under the protection of her intercessory power with her Divine Son.
I was probably an exemplar of "spiritual greed" in those days, because I spent long hours in prayer and spiritual readings and was given a great deal of "spiritual consolations." Once I got into the swing of monastic things, I was very happy and content in those early days.
These first years with the Passionists (1939-1946) were filled with over four hours of prayer a day, along with study and manual work. We didn't have any outside apostolates, as is the case now, and our schedule was quite contemplative.
In these early years I did try to make Jesus Christ the chief study of my life. In reflective study and interior prayer, I tried to enter more deeply into his mind, his attitudes, his ways. My guiding axiom was first: "For me to live is Christ", and then, later on, the motto of Pius X: "To restore all things in Christ." In later student life, I was drawn to Christ the King.
I do believe that I was very unworldly at this time, and with an undivided heart, even though there was so much I didn't know about myself. I wish I had the strong, enthusiastic Christ-centered desires of those days now!
One year, it may have been 1943, I made a 50-day retreat between Easter and Pentecost preparing for the reception of the Spirit of Jesus with his gifts on the feast of Pentecost.
One great sorrow happened in November of that year - when I received word that my brother George (pictured with me at right) was killed in battle on Nov. 7th. He was one of the closest of my brothers to me and I respected deeply his humanness, goodness and holiness. It was the first time I experienced physical pain over the loss of a loved one.
My final two years before Ordination, at St. Michael's in Union City were filled with eager longing to become "Another Christ." They also were years of interior, happy prayer. I was ordained on the Feast of St. Paul of the Cross, April 29th, 1946 in the beautiful St. Michael's Church. I had my first High Mass at St. Genevieve's in Elizabeth and a second at St. Catherine's Church Spring Lake, NJ. They were very happy and enthusiastic days!
After ordination, Fr Kilian accepted many different assignments, including some surprises.
After the Sacred Eloquence Year in Baltimore - another happy year writing and preaching my first sermons - I was transferred to Boston (1947-49) and placed on the home Mission Band. I had volunteered and been accepted for our Mission in postwar Germany. However, at the last minute, Fr. Gabriel Gorman, the Provincial, changed that assignment and I wound up in St. Gabriel's, Boston.
These were busy years of writing, preaching, traveling as a somewhat overextended young missionary. I did love the travel, the new challenges, the new faces and places. Looking back I do think I was overly-austere and somewhat compulsive in "getting things done." During these early years my hypertension began.
I was very much "sold" on the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima and gave countless talks on Our Lady of Fatima and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Also became friends of John Haffert and Margaret Mollard, both ardent crusaders for this crusade.
Years as Director of Seminarians
The summer of 1949 brought with it a surprise assignment - to be Director of Students at St. Anne's, Scranton - just when I thought I was getting established as a home missionary! During the next nine years I went from Scranton, to Baltimore, to Union City, to Springfield,Massachusetts, as Director of the Classes of 1952 and 1957. I liked this work with our young theologians, as well as with other religious (mostly Sisters) and the occasional Mission work that was added. From my earliest years, I found myself thriving on the mixture of the active and contemplative life. I still prefer the blend, or better yet, the marriage of both.
The years in St. Joseph's, Baltimore (1953-1956) brought with them a deepening friendship with Fathers Flavian Dougherty and Augustine Hennessy (right) - two fellow Passionists who are very important people in my life to this day. Flav introduced me to a circle of his friends - mostly from the Philly area - who helped me, I believe, to become a little more human. (He'd probably laugh at that statement and say I was already too human!) Gus was and is a great Christian humanist whose wisdom and personality (and beautiful voice) endeared him to all. Flav's honesty and forthrightness helped me to be more honest with myself. After Colman Haggerty, I'm more open with him than anyone else in my life.
My father died in the Marian Year - 1954 on November 7th - the same day 11 years after George went home to God. He was a beautiful human being - wise, tolerant, understanding and patient. He loved a good story and an occasional good drink. In our area, he was looked up to as the "Elder Statesman."
When I returned from the hospital that night to tell my mother that he was gone she said, after a few tears, that she thanked God for 43 happy years and then added: "Your father was always so romantic and loving." It just so happened that I had spent much more time than usual with him that summer and he had asked many questions - almost as though he saw eternity slowly approaching. In retrospect, I realize now that he taught us so much about life by the way he treated others and by his own integrity more than by anything he commanded or preached. He was never a preacher.
In late Spring of 1960, I received word that I had been selected to be the first Superior of our new Passionist foundation in North Palm Beach, Fla. Fr. Cyril Schweinberg and I celebrated our first concelebrated Mass in our new home at 600 Federal Highway, Lake Park, Fla. on the feast of Pentecost, June 4th, 1960. A wonderful day to start a new project for the Lord.
Eventually the new complex would be called "Our Lady of Florida" and dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Was this the fulfillment of a young man's prayer to build a shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary? It was sufficient fulfillment to make me very happy!
We were sent forth from Union City, NJ with a new Chevy, a carload of miscellanea (mostly sacristy supplies and kitchen utensils), $2,000 and lots of good wishes. We arrived in Florida not knowing a single person, filled with a pioneer's sense of adventure, and anxious to make the Passionists and their work known. The Province showed in a most practical way their hopes for our future in Florida by investing in the beautiful grounds and the striking Our Lady of Florida complex, located on the northern shores of Lake Worth at the northernmost tip of the Village of North Palm Beach.
The early years were both busy and exciting for us. We made many friends and reached a surprising amount of people in those early months of the foundation. The days were filled with preaching, writing, public relations and the laying of foundations for the retreat movement. Cyril was especially busy - and successful in the latter project. Fr. Theophane McGuire kept us in the black financially by his dedicated and successful fundraising. The fact of being "pioneers" in a completely new territory made the work more exciting and gave us an extra boost.
The years 1960 - 1968 in retrospect were challenging and fulfilling years. My apostolic work was never so diversified. There was preaching at home and away, radio and TV work (at one time for six months I had a daily five-minute program on a local rock & roll station and was a panelist and program director for a weekly TV show for a few years). For two years I was a columnist for the diocesan newspaper, The Voice, worked with religious Sisters and ecumenical work, fundraising endeavors, etc. etc...
My being overextended in so many involvements led to some heart trouble, high blood pressure, and a breakdown in 1967. I was just about recovered in 1968 at the completion of my two terms as Rector of Our Lady of Florida.
Director of Seminarians Again
As I was visiting my dying sister, Sr. George Marie, M.M. (pictured at right with me) in St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Elizabeth in the late-summer of 1968, I was asked to be the Director of the Theologate in Union City. I certainly had no desire for this job, but I accepted - as I always have. When I assumed charge of the 42 theologians, the Theologate was engaged in those post-Vatican years in a moderate revolution. Those years of change were very difficult, but the faculty was outstanding and very supportive, and we managed, as the British say, to bungle our way through.
My sister Anne died in September of 1968 leaving me with an unfilled desire to have known her better and to have reached a deeper degree of communication and understanding with her in her latter years. I think she believed that I was a hopeless "conservative" ... which certainly would surprise some Passionists who thought I was a hopeless liberal!
One of the beautiful blessings of the years at the Theologate (1968-71) was the physical closeness to my mother in her last three years. St. Michael's is only a half-hour travel from Elizabeth. During this time, I spent much time with her, celebrated Mass at home once or twice a week, and she became almost like a child in her dependence on me. I had a profound feeling that I was helping to lead her into heaven, just as she had brought me into this life. The memory always brings me joy.
She died on November 29th, 1971 after a few close calls in the year preceding. I was with her in the last days, although not with her at the time of death. She was a beautiful, devoted, loving mother who, I feel, went home to God without losing her baptismal innocence. Her departure left a deeper void than I at first realized. It took many months for time to heal the wound of separation.
My 60th Year
Being a person who plans around the calendar, my 60th Birthday on June 2nd, 1975 occasioned a great deal of reflection. Reaching that birthday made me very conscious that the years were running out for me. That summer I did a great deal of thinking of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It also made me more determined to become that unique person that God eternally willed in the remaining time allotted to me.
At the conclusion of my summer vacation, I suffered an accident that sent my life on a new orientation. I was dumb enough to try to walk through a plate-glass door (thinking it was open) and fell alongside the pool in a mess of glass - and blood .. badly cut on both hands and feet. Following ten days in the hospital, I spent another month at the home of friends, the Guadanos, with an arm and a leg in a cast. The extremely efficient and devoted nurse, Margo, tended me in both places.
For a few moments following the accident, I thought that I might not live through the trauma. In a moment of confrontation with the Lord - and not even knowing if I was in his grace - I placed myself in his hands and told him that he could have me if he wished. It was the deepest act of hope I had ever made. I told him it was OK, but I did add that he would be making a big mistake! The days following the accident were a time of much reflection - and, I believe, integration leading to a higher degree of self-awareness and self-acceptance that set the course for the months to come. This latter growth took place in the fall of 1975.top of page
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