By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published November 21, 2011
Most priests of my generation who were trained during the early 1960s or in the generation before might well recall as seminarians of having been referred to a passage from Blessed John Cardinal Newman’s collected essays in “The Idea of a University” that described the essential qualities of a true Christian gentleman. I suspect that as seminarians we were then advised to ponder that description in the hopes that Cardinal Newman’s narrative might ultimately bear fruit in our own lives!
As seminarians we were regularly encouraged to develop first as gentlemen even as we were studying to become priests. “Grace always builds on nature” was another phrase that most of us heard with recurrent frequency. One cannot become a truly great priest until one manages to become a Christian gentleman. John Francis Donoghue was the epitome of a Christian gentleman and upon that excellent human underpinning, the Holy Spirit conferred the gift of Priestly Ordination and in time that of Episcopal dignity.
I cannot think of Newman’s legendary description of a gentleman without simultaneously envisioning John Francis Donoghue: “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.” John Francis was such a gentleman in his demeanor and in the very fashion in which he dealt with people—certainly that was my experience of him during the nearly seven years that we lived together here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The people of All Saints Parish in Dunwoody are, however, the resident experts of how this gentleman was also a great priest since he spent the first six years of his retirement living in their midst doing just that—he was a parish priest for them and in their service. No other group of Catholics in this Archdiocese had that singular privilege of seeing John Francis as priest in the way that the All Saints parishioners did. There he managed to set aside the administrative burdens of the Episcopacy and return to that Sacramental privilege that he received on June 4, 1955. The parishioners of All Saints are also the reason that I began to reflect once again on Cardinal Newman’s lofty description of a gentleman because so many of them told me in their own words that this was how he lived in their midst—as a Christian gentleman who carried within himself the Priestly Office of Jesus Christ.
Cardinal Newman goes on to describe the true Christian gentleman in these words: “From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice.” Cardinal Newman sets a very high standard for those who would be given the title of Christian gentlemen—as well he should. John Francis reached those heights. His gentle demeanor resulted in many people contacting my office during the past 10 days, from Washington, D.C., where he served in many administrative pastoral capacities, and from Charlotte, where he served as bishop. All of the recollections were consistently of his kindness and his gentle spirit—he was first and foremost a Christian gentleman in the loftiest sense of Cardinal Newman’s definition.
It seems that we may live at a moment in time when the categories for public gentility that Newman described so precisely have been completely abandoned. In fact some public figures actually seem to delight in being rude, crude, offensive and ill mannered—some of them may even think that it improves their popularity or media ratings. More than a few people today may even suggest that we live in a “Post-Polite” age.
Enter then a figure like John Francis Donoghue whose modest public demeanor reassures us that we still value and can recognize the qualities that Newman proposed for those who would become gentlemen and a few of them would become priests and from that cohort a few would even become bishops. Bless him for reminding us that Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was right all along.