It has been 50 years!

Serving in his family grocery store in Macroom, Co Cork, Ireland, Fr. Donal McIlraith said it was good preparation for the priesthood. 50 Years on, Fr. Donal writes about his life as a Columban Missionary.

On reflection, serving people day and night in our family grocery store in Macroom, Co Cork, was a good preparation for Columban missionary priesthood. I think it was during Mass on Sundays that I came to believe that serving Jesus to people was much more important than serving them the wares my grandfather’s shop offered. This oriented me to priesthood. My father, Gilbert, was keen that I follow my uncles into the Navy. I tried it out but it was not the right fit. I finally decided to follow my mother’s brother, Canon Seamus Corkery, into diocesan priesthood. But Fr. Aiden Lovett, a year ahead of me in secondary school, wrote from the Columban seminary and nudged me into Dalgan where I spent eight satisfactory years. My final takeaway was: “Without me, you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5).

Japan was a shock but your first mission becomes your first love. Eight hours a day for two years got me some Japanese language. A group of passing Methodist Charismatics laid hands on me and brought me the joy of the Holy Spirit. Marvellous mentors like Fr. Michael Caulfield made for a happy landing in parish life.

Sent to Rome to study the Word of God changed everything. Fr. Bob Farisy SJ and the Charismatic group at the Gregorian University helped me carry my daily cross, learning Greek and Hebrew – in Italian! A highlight was working with the Missionaries of Charity and then driving Mother Teresa to the Rome Airport. She exuded the love of God, especially for the poor. Also unforgettable was October 16, 1978, when, with Fr. David Arms, our Vicar General, in St. Peter’s Square, we experienced Mary, with her spouse the Holy Spirit, startling the world by giving us (Pope St.) John Paul II.

Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith
Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith. Photo credit: Fr. Patrick Raleigh

Minnesota was next, caring for our students. Here I learnt to teach Scripture at the University of St. Thomas in St Paul. Making lifelong friends there was great but also a major temptation to settle down there. Thankfully, “Going therefore, make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19) prevailed.

I landed in cross winds in Sydney. But shortly, Italian Fr. Gobbi of the Marian Movement of Priests arrived and asked me to interpret for him. I accompanied him all over Australia as he invited priests and people to consecrate themselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and to a greater love for the Pope. I came to love the beauty and wonder of this great Southern Land of the Holy Spirit. My two years teaching Scripture in Sydney ended with an invitation to concelebrate with the Pope in Adelaide, as Australia’s Catholic Japanese chaplain!

Rome again, finishing my work on the topic of love in the Apocalypse was programmatic for the rest of my life. The Columbans now offered me Japan, Jamaica or Manila. While pondering this, the Superior General, Fr. Bernard Cleary, called. “Donal, we really need you to go to teach at the Seminary in Suva, Fiji. Be ready to leave at year’s end.”

Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith with Fijian seminarians
Columban Fr. Donal McIlraith with Fijian seminarians. Photo: Fr. Patrick Raleigh

Thirty three years later, I am still teaching here. Student formation, Columban administration, parish life and much more has also filled those years. When I first arrived, there was an Irish Columban or Marist in almost every parish on this island. Now the parishes are staffed with Fijian priests. It has been the joy of my life to help facilitate a local vibrant missionary church, part of our task here, as in Korea, the Philippines, Myanmar and perhaps Pakistan.

The most exciting and frightening thing that happened to me here was in January 2003 after Cyclone Ami. With seminarian, Taaremon Matauea, (now a priest in Taiwan) and his brother-in-law, Catechist Tampa, we drifted over two days from their home island of Rabi to nearby Taveuni. Tampa saved our lives. The night before we left, as I read Evening Prayer, I was pierced by the words: “The Lord will bless your going and coming, both now and forever.” (Ps 121:8). In old age, He still challenges, also from the tabernacle: “Do you love me?” (Jn 21:15).

Please donate to the Society...

With your generous donations we can continue to fund our ministries in Fiji and in other parts of the world where we have a missionary presence.

Donate here