Niall McDonagh tells Cathal Barry about how his life experiences have led him to the seminary
Like St Ignatius of Loyola, it was on a hospital bed recovering from a broken leg that Galway man Niall McDonagh found his faith.
Back in 2004 at the age of 20, Niall was living a “carefree life” when he was faced with potentially losing his leg after suffering a double compound fracture during a soccer match.
It was a turning point for the young man who hadn’t taken his faith “seriously” until that point.
“Back then I didn’t think for a second it could affect my life on a day-to-day basis as it currently is,” he told The Irish Catholic.
“I was very far away from God. I did many things I am not very proud of and there are somethings I regret doing to. Growing up my priorities were all wrong,” he said.
The night before the first of five major surgeries required to save his leg, Niall prayed to God.
“It was in desperation that I said the prayer. I was disillusioned with life as it was. I was very unhappy in myself. I had no purpose or meaning to what I was doing. I had no direction. I was lost.”
Luckily, in time, Niall made a full recovery.
“It felt like God had listened to my prayer.”
However, just nine months later Niall was faced with another tragedy. His older brother took his own life at the age of 22.
“It filled me with anger. In the space of a year I was just learning how to walk again and then I had to bury my older brother. You’re lost for words at times because you don’t plan for these things,” he said.
That summer he decided to accompany his mother on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
Hesitant at first, Niall quickly began to warm to the people there.
“They were so friendly and genuine. They were so unconditional in their love. I just couldn’t understand it. I was really struck by the Catholic people there and how they were living their lives,” he said.
Niall also took inspiration from an Irishman who was living in a Cenacolo community there.
“When he was speaking there was something really stirring in me. In hindsight I know now it was the Holy Spirit. I couldn’t understand how this man had so much joy despite living in the mountains with nothing.”
Having approached the recovering drug addict after hearing his testimony, he told Niall to ‘ask God to come into your life’.
His words of wisdom became Niall’s prayer for the rest of his time in Medjugorje.
“When I came home I began to feel different about myself. My angry nature started to subside, my relationships started to improve, I began to view the world with a different set of eyes as such.”
It was then that Niall began “flicking through the pages” of his late brother’s Bible.
“The pages really started to talk to me. I started comparing my own life to passages in the Bible. From then onwards I began to seek out my faith a bit more. I found it very isolating because I was doing it all by myself. I found it hard to meet people that I could share my faith with,” he said.
Niall went on to complete his degree in construction management and worked for a number of months before moving to Edinburgh to begin teaching studies.
“There I felt at home working with disadvantaged children in particular. It was more challenging but I could relate to them more. I loved it.”
It was a year-long experience that led him to apply for a postgraduate diploma in school guidance and counselling in Maynooth, which in turn landed him a job in Tallaght Community School in Dublin.
“I began to realise that God was using my past experiences, hurts and even mistakes for the good of not only me but for other people. He had armed me with all these tools that I didn’t even know I had.
“I could be compassionate. I could empathise with people’s struggles. I felt so privileged to be able to offer a person who was struggling a word of hope or encouragement. I was so humbled that God was using me that way,” he said.
Missionary work was Niall’s next calling, a task he undertook during his summer holidays. He worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for two summers before spending time in Manilla in the Philippians with Fr Shay Cullen’s organisation PREDA.
It was working with the disadvantaged in both countries that the Gospels “really began to come alive” for Niall. “I could see my faith in practice,” he said.
“When I returned from missionary work it was as if I was looking at everything with a completely new lens. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes.”
Mass even “began to take on a new meaning” for the young man. “Sometimes at Mass I didn’t even know why I was there. I had no understanding of it. It’s a big problem nowadays, people aren’t educated in why we even go to Mass,” he said.
Praying then on where to take his missionary work next, Niall felt a calling to the US and New York in particular.
“At first I was doubting it because I thought New York had everything. I was used to places with a lot of poverty and deprivation.”
In the end, Niall decided to work once again with the Missionaries of Charity in the South Bronx.
“It was only there that I realised the biggest poverty isn’t material poverty, its spiritual poverty. New York on the surface has so much materially, but it is lacking in so many other ways.
“I love New York’s energy but when you see people living their lives chasing the American dream where time is money and they haven’t time for their families or faith it’s crazy,” he said.
For Niall, two months missionary work just wasn’t enough. “When I returned home I felt a draw back out there in my prayer. I felt the Lord calling back out there to be honest.”
He handed in his notice at work, sold his car and headed back across the pond.
Sometime later, while immersed in his missionary and pro-life work on New York’s streets, Niall felt another calling – this time to the priesthood.
“I felt the Lord asking me to go to a deeper level and explore the possibility of entering seminary. There was a draw there. Entering seminary these days is so counter-cultural,” he said.
The young Irishman attended a number of vocational weekends to assess his “attraction” to the lifestyle and was eventually accepted to the seminary of the Archdiocese of New York.
“That door is open to me now and I can spend the rest of my life wondering what’s behind that door or I could go check it out for myself.”
Niall, who begins his formation in the city that never sleeps this week, admits he is a little anxious about this new chapter in his life.
“It’s a step into the unknown and when anything is unknown it causes a small bit of anxiety. That’s where faith comes in. That’s why we need faith.”
Niall, who has had no shortage of testing experiences in his life, believes his faith has only grown stronger over time.
“It’s easy to have faith when the sun is shining and everything is going well but it’s only when the storms of life come in that your faith is really tested. The testing of your faith brings you to a deeper level where you otherwise wouldn’t have ever been. Sometimes when you have the least amount of prosperity you have the greater amount of faith.”
Whatever comes next, one gets the impression that with his faith, Niall will be well equipped to cope.