For many New Yorkers, a beloved neighbor and true hero of mercy died this month. “New York’s Finest” took on new meaning when the world came to know Police Officer Steven McDonald, who was shot by a teenager in Central Park in the summer of 1986, paralyzing him from the neck down.
“He became a living, breathing prophet of reconciliation and charity,” is how Cardinal Timothy Dolan described McDonald’s witness of forgiveness on his radio show. He would later even float the “s”-word about him -- saint. I thought immediately of a line Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez has used to refer to Dorothy Day: “I don’t know if she is a saint but she makes me want to be one.” That captures the Steven McDonald effect.
Canonization is above my pay grade, but since learning that he liked the band The Who, I think of him as the saint who liked the Who, for whom love sure reigned o’er. His son quoted him as contending that “There's more love in New York City than there are street corners.” Most people certainly don’t think of New York that way. But then most people aren’t Steven McDonald. We’re just called to live the mercy and love like he did, albeit most of us without as obvious physical obstacles.
McDonald had been scheduled to speak at a popular annual cultural event, NY Encounter, the day after he was buried. I had a moment of bewilderment that we would lose him now, when that love most needs to be seen, when a jubilee of mercy had ended that only really seemed to be at its beginning point of penetration. But don’t we now have a patron saint — perhaps quite literally — for some of the most painful issues of our time? Cops and city streets. Health care and hope. Assisted suicide marching through the states of our union under the guise of mercy. Marriage and family and fidelity in pain.
At the time McDonald was shot -- only 11 months on the job at the New York Police Department and newly married -- his wife, Patti Ann, was pregnant. Six months after the shooting, their son, Conor, was born. The police officer was still unable to speak, at a hospital press conference coinciding with the baptism, Patti Ann announced that her husband was grateful to be alive, proud to be a member of the NYPD, and that he had forgiven the young man who had tried to kill him. Years later, McDonald would “go to bat” for him (as Dolan put it) before a parole board, and even offered the McDonalds’ home to him.
Later, in a book called Why Forgive?, McDonald wrote about the forgiveness:
Everyone seemed astounded, and ever since that day I’ve had people ask me, “Why? Why did you forgive him?” They say, “I can’t even get along with my sister” (or their brother, or mother or dad) “and they haven’t really done anything to hurt me. They’re just mean. So how on earth could you do such a thing?”
McDonald, writing in Why Forgive? explained:
I needed healing — badly — and found out that the only way forward was with love. And I learned that one of the most beautiful expressions of love is forgiving. I know that will sound illogical or impossible to some. Other will find it downright ridiculous. But I’m talking as one who has lived through this.
How should you forgive, and why? I can’t tell you. It’s probably the hardest thing you’ll ever attempt to do. But I can tell you what I’ve seen and experienced personally: once you are able to let go of wrongs that have been done to you, it changes everything. It will change your relationships, your attitudes, your emotional make-up — your whole approach to living. It will give you a better life. Plus, you’ll find that when you forgive, you’re always a winner. You don’t lose a thing. Because it’s not a sign of weakness to love somebody who hurts you. It’s a sign of strength.
McDonald was also transparent about his struggles. In the hospital, some days he wanted to live and others he wanted to die. At one point later, contemplating suicide, Patti Ann called Cardinal O’Connor, who was at the McDonalds’ home within 90 minutes, spending the afternoon counseling the couple, as Terry Golway recounts in Detective McDonald’s words in Full of Grace: An Oral Biography of John Cardinal O’Connor.
“I didn’t know if I was praying right, if God was listening to what I was praying for. I was struggling with that. I remember him saying to me that my life was a prayer. I learned later that prayer is something we do in our time, and the answers come in God’s time.”
Recounting the many trips he made to the pilgrimage site in Lourdes, France, for healing, McDonald told the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, in an interview on EWTN in 2011 that while he would have liked physical healing, he received “spiritual healing.”
(In that same Golway book, McDonald tells the story of visits Cardinal O’Connor would make to a cousin of McDonald’s, Michael Ferris, who was dying of AIDs. In his final hours, as he was straining to breath, according to McDonald, it was the prayer book O’Connor gave him that he wanted in his hands.)
McDonald attributed the fact that he survived the shooting to his wife’s “beautiful, child-like faith” and his mother’s devotion to Jesus and Mary (she would lead people in praying the Rosary for his survival and recovery). He also believed that there was no coincidence about where he was shot — on the former site of a convent of sisters who belonged to the community founded by New Yorker St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “What better place to be shot?,” he told Fr. Groeschel. McDonald did not believe in coincidences but trusted Divine Providence and could say with confidence that he was closer to God because of everything he had been through.
Pope Francis, at the end of the recent jubilee year of mercy in McDonald’s beloved Catholic Church, wrote in Misericordia Et Misera: “Forgiveness is the most visible sign of the Father’s love, which Jesus sought to reveal by his entire life. Every page of the Gospel is marked by this imperative of a love that loves to the point of forgiveness.”
Mercy is always a gratuitous act of our heavenly Father, an unconditional and unmerited act of love. Consequently, we cannot risk opposing the full freedom of love with which God enters into the life of every person.
That all can sound impossible, unless you found yourself in the presence of Steven McDonald over the past 30 years, as many have — often praying alongside him -- at the altar “where Heaven meets earth,” as McDonald described the Catholic Mass.
From a horrific attack, a beautiful gift to us all — the witness of not only Detective McDonald but also his wife and mother and son, who is a New York City police officer, of course. Steven McDonald compared the work of a police officer to the priesthood, calling it a vocation of service. At a time when our cities, especially, need icons of peace, that’s what the McDonald family has been. Detective McDonald may have left us, but his lesson of mercy he taught lives on.