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In His Own Words: Bishop McGrath Reflects upon 50 Years as a Priest


Bishop Patrick J. McGrath, who retired in May 2019, celebrates his 50th Anniversary of Ordination as a Priest on Sunday, June 7.  During the week leading up to his Jubilee, the bishop responded to some questions put to him by The Valley Catholic

Bishop, did you always want to be a priest? Who or What inspired you to enter the seminary? 

As many know, my plan was to become an architect, a great one!  But I must say that God had other plans, which led me to the seminary, Saint John’s in Waterford, Ireland.  Some of my friends recognized this call long before I did.  I thought I’d enter the seminary, realize that it was really not for me and then move on to architecture.  In the end, God prevailed, and I could not be happier. 

How did you end up in California? 

Ireland was blessed with an abundance, even an over-abundance, of religious vocations for a number of centuries.  We sent missionaries around the world – to Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.  I had three uncles who were priests in the United States, one in Iowa and two here in California.  One was a priest in Oakland and the other, in Santa Clara County.  That uncle, Father John Dermody, was for many years pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Palo Alto.  Father John suggested that I study for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which I was happy to do.  Archbishop McGucken accepted me into the Archdiocese and welcomed me when I was ordained in 1970, assigning me to Saint Anne of the Sunset in San Francisco. 

From the time of your ordination as a priest in 1970 until you became a bishop in 1989, 

what memories most stay with you. 

It is easier for me to think of people than moments or times.  In addition to my parents and my brothers who supported me in Ireland and in California, I call to mind Archbishops Joseph McGucken, John R. Quinn and William Levada, who were my archbishops in San Francisco, from the time of ordination until I came to San Jose in 1998.  Bishop DuMaine welcomed me warmly when I was sent as his Coadjutor.  In the same way, my gratitude goes to the women religious, the priests and brothers and so many lay people who made me feel at home from the moment I came to San Jose.  I know that when I am really old and I no longer remember much, it will always be the kindness of the people who have touched my life all along the way these many years. 

As a bishop in San Francisco and San Jose, what were your greatest challenges? 

San Francisco and San Jose are close neighbors, yet in many ways they are so very different. In the Archdiocese, we had too many parishes, too many churches for the demographics of the latter part of the twentieth century.  The ethnic make-up of the City, population shifts and modern modes of transportation required a rethinking of our parishes in the three counties of the Archdiocese.  As auxiliary bishop, I was part of the group that advised Archbishop Quinn.  And it was painful because so many people’s lives were intertwined with each parish that was slated to close.  In San Jose, we have always known that there is a great need to build new parishes in the heavily populated areas in the south and east of the Diocese.  However, to do so would cost so much that we have had only a limited success.  This challenge remains. 

I was in San Jose when the sexual abuse scandal erupted around the nation.  This was the most painful experience in the life of the Church and in my life.  While the pain has endured since the revelations of 2002, more recent events regarding bishops’ lack of accountability only deepened the wound.  We can never express the depth of our sorrow for the betrayal experienced by so many victims and their families. And we continue to work to have environments that are safe for all. 

Although you are too young to have been at the Second Vatican Council,  

that Council has been a major influence in your life. 

How did the Council help shape your ministry as priest and bishop? 

The Second Vatican Council was and is the watershed moment in the life of the Church in my lifetime.  Saint John XXIII’s desire to open the windows and re-engage with the world has had a lasting effect that continues to be fulfilled even now in the pontificate of Pope Francis.  The Council’s commitment to a decentralized Church, a listening Church, a Church that empowers all of the baptized to hear and follow the call of the Lord – all of this has profoundly influenced my life and ministry, as it has the Church throughout the world.   

As Pope Francis has said on numerous occasions, the fruits of the Council continue to be seen even now, more than 50 years after its close. And we must all remain committed to that work. 

Is there anything you will miss, now that you are retired? 

I will miss my daily interactions with people – all the people, whether they be parishioners or religious or priests, but perhaps most especially I will miss visiting our schools throughout the Diocese.  Early on, I committed myself to these visits and I found the honesty of the kids to be energizing.   

What might you say to a young man who is considering a vocation as a priest? 

We need you!!  From personal experience, I can only say this:  If God is calling you to be a priest, even if that is not on your agenda, eventually you will have to give in and follow the calling that God plants within your heart.  Otherwise, no matter what good you do and how successful you may be, there will always be an emptiness deep within you.  I firmly believe that God is calling young people to lives of service in the Church- as priests, religious or committed lay Catholics; I hope that their parents and friends support them in the courageous act of following their call.   

As you celebrate your 50th Anniversary as well as your 75th Birthday this month,  

what do you look forward to for the Church, for the Diocese, for yourself? 

I believe the future for the Church of San Jose is bright.  The Lord has sent to us a loving and caring shepherd in the person of Bishop Oscar Cantú.  Neither of us know where the future will take us, but I am certain that our new bishop will lead us with integrity, faithful to the Lord’s commission to “feed my lambs, tend my sheep.”  I look forward to assisting Bishop Oscar in any way that he requests and that I am able to do.   

Retirement gives me time to pray a little more, which I do daily, remembering all of the people of our Church in those prayers. I find encouragement and hope in the words of a prayer attributed to Saint Patrick, my patron: 

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me. 

And may this be the way for all of us as we accompany one another, always, “Together in Christ.”