It was the summer of 2002 when a young John McDonald arrived in Anniston as a seminarian. As part of his theological studies, he spent a month working alongside the parish priest at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church.
“Being a student of theology is not just about book education,” he said recently. “It’s also about formation; being docile enough to observe and learn and become the type of priest Jesus wants us to be.”
Seventeen years later, the Rev. John McDonald has returned to Anniston as Sacred Heart’s new pastor.
Growing up in Alabama
McDonald, age 43, was raised in Alabama in the small town of Citronelle, some 30 miles north of Mobile. At age 6, he was an altar server in his church, a small Episcopal parish with a tight-knit congregation. So small that sometimes there would only be 15 people in attendance.
From the time he was a child, he knew he wanted to become a priest. “As I grew older, my viewpoint of the priesthood changed as my life changed.”
After high school, McDonald relocated to New Orleans, where he studied history and English at Loyola University. While there, he was surrounded by Catholic students who impressed him with their devotion to their faith.
“It would be 9 p.m. on a Sunday night and they’d say, ‘Come on, let’s go to mass,’” he remembered.
As a result, he found himself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church and became a convert. Although he’s not overly fond of that word — “convert.” Whether one is a convert or a cradle Catholic, “we are all baptized into the same faith,” he said. “We all worship the same Lord. We have just been drawn into fuller communion with the Catholic Church.”
After graduation from Loyola, McDonald was living what he called “a nice settled life,” working a good job with SouthTrust Bank and finding his way in the world, not knowing what was next.
“I was lying in bed one night, saying my prayers, wondering where my life was headed, what did I need to do,” he said. “The response I heard was clear, a voice that said, ‘You wanted to be a priest, why don’t you see about that?’”
And he did.
Speaking at the pope’s funeral
In 2001, he was off to seminary at Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, studying philosophy. “It’s important to train a man to think before he can properly reflect on the things of God,” he said.
Two years into seminary, he was selected by the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham to study theology in Rome. McDonald boarded a plane with 44 other seminarians selected from dioceses around the country. They were called “New Men.”
During McDonald’s days at the Vatican, Pope John Paul II fell ill and died. Around the world, Catholics and Protestants alike mourned the loss of this beloved Pope. As the funeral mass was being planned, McDonald was surprised to learn he would be a lector.
“I have no idea why they chose me,” he said, but he embraced the charge.
Standing before a crowd of 500,000 people in St Peter’s Square, as well as television cameras broadcasting to more than a billion viewers worldwide, he read a passage from the Letter to the Philippians.
Any nervousness he had beforehand vanished when he rose to speak, he said. “I prayed to the Holy Spirit, and a calm came over me.”
Leading an Hispanic ministry
McDonald was ordained into the priesthood on June 16, 2007, at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Birmingham. In the years that followed, he took on an assortment of positions within the diocese, including assignments in Hoover and Birmingham.
He also served as the Vicar for Hispanic Ministry. He speaks fluent Spanish, as well as Italian and French.
In 2009, he took over as principal of John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham, where he once worked as a teacher. “I enjoyed teaching very much,” he said. “Children know when you have their best interests at heart.”
Five years later, he was named Director of Catholic Education and Lifelong Formation, where he oversaw educational programs for adults and youth at all of the churches within the diocese.
He encouraged those working in such ministries to not be too controlling. “Leave space for Jesus to do his work,” he told them.
Teaching young priests
In 2016, McDonald found himself heading back to the Vatican to serve as a homiletics professor at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Simply put, he taught young priests how to preach.
In so doing, he advised his students to be docile when selecting scripture to convey their messages. “To be open and ready to receive what comes through them from the Holy Spirit,” he said. “To be used with the gifts and talents they have themselves, in order to be a perfect follower of the Father’s will.”
Upon his return to Anniston, McDonald will oversee the parish in Golden Springs and also Sacred Heart’s 3K-12 school at McClellan.
“I’m pleased to be here and look forward to working with others to serve God through Eucharistic communion,” he said. “And to Sacred Heart being a beacon of Christ’s presence in the community.”
Donna Barton is a columnist for the Star. Her column appears Sundays in the Life & Arts section. Contact her at email@example.com.