Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 3, 2002
McNeil reflects on 'checkered past'
By RENATO GANDIA
WCR Staff Writer
After 50 years, Father John McNeil has never gotten tired of wearing his Roman collar.
"Iím one of the old timers. I will put my collar on," he said with a smile on his face when the WCR was about to take his photo.
For him, the sign is a living-out of what the collar signifies -- to be a real priest of Christ.
McNeil, who was born in Dinat, Alta., considers his priesthood to be replete with various highlights. He was a pastor, a Canadian Air Force chaplain, chancellor, drug addiction counsellor among others.
In 1953, when he was appointed in the military as a chaplain the archbishop told him, "You spent five years in the war with the Air Force, you will be a good man to tend their souls."
Obedient to his superior, McNeil was posted in different military bases from 1953 to 1961.
In 1956, he became the first Canadian Air Force chaplain to serve in UN peacekeeping. "That was very interesting. My parish was very large, from Naples, Italy to the Sahara Desert.
Flying back and forth over the Mediterranean, visiting different troops and ministering to them were experiences that McNeil still cherishes.
"At times it was very, very lonely because language was a barrier. I didnít speak their language and they struggled to speak mine. I would say that my time in that ministry was a very interesting challenge but working in the parish is the most satisfying of all."
The basilica became home for McNeil for six years. While there, he took graduate studies in psychology majoring in drug treatment and later became involved in a drug rehabilitation centre.
"Itís a hard, hard job." He worked in the parish on the weekend and then on weekdays he would go to the rehab and minister to people.
On the weekend, being with his parishioners energized, healed him and prepared him to go back ministering to drug dependents.
The interplay of being with the wounded people and being with people who are spiritually well brought meaning to McNeil as he continued his journey.
"Iíve been to a variety of postings in the archdiocese. Some would call it a checkered career." He was the chancellor of the archdiocese for five years.
"I think the highlight of my career is to be able to do different things. Not very many priests are given the chance to be in administration, to be a chaplain, to be in the treatment field and be a pastor of a parish."
At the age of 82, McNeil remained candid. When he was asked about how his vocation started he said, "I can tell you when I wasnít aware of it."
Between the ages of 18 to 20 he would see a priest reading his breviary, walking back and forth in the lawn. "I thought that was the dumbest thing to do."
He never realized that he would do the same "dumb thing." In 1943, in the middle of the Second World War, he felt the call to the priesthood while serving in the military. "I totally did not know where that came from."
In his military uniform, he approached the late Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald and said, "I realized that I should have gone to the seminary."
The archbishop said, "Youíve got a war going. You have to finish that first."
He was frustrated by the comment. Then the archbishop added, "If itís a true vocation, you will come and see me again."
McNeil said, "Your Grace, one time there was a 100 years war." The archbishop just laughed.
He went back to serve in the military and when he was released in 1945, the archbishop found him again in his office.
"I told you itís a real vocation," McNeil told the archbishop. He then attended St. Joseph Seminary where he took philosophy and theology.
"I think I can attribute the growth of my vocation to my amazing parents. They raised eight children and they raised them in the faith."
He recalled how his mother attended nursing school after his last sibling had left home. At the age of 59 his mother graduated. "I took inspiration from her, that I can be whatever I want to be."
Being a priest then was different than that it is today. "Of course, the Church goes through turbulent times," McNeil said.
"What the Church is experiencing now is one of those times. With regard to the priesthood, a great deal of reverence is lost. The awe is kind of gone."
He thinks the major factor that caused that is secularization of the society. "But during the time of crisis like this, we should not be carried away by our emotions. Life has to go on. Christ will take care of the Church."