Share this story

 | By Marissa Nichols

Anima Cara: Soul Friend

In Conversation with Monsignor Dan Whelton

“PJ was always punctual; always on time. I was the opposite: always late.” In a gentle Irish accent,  Monsignor Dan Whelton, lifelong friend of the late Bishop Emeritus Patrick Joseph (PJ) McGrath, explained over the phone how punctuality featured in both his and PJ’s funeral plans for themselves — and one another. “I used to say, ‘PJ, if I die before you, you have to do my funeral.’ PJ agreed to do it but he would add, ‘I will be sure to start mass five minutes late and open by saying, ‘I welcome all of you as we gather to remember the late Father Whelton.’”

Following PJ’s passing in early May of this year, Msgr. Dan Whelton delivered on his promise to preside over his punctual friend’s funeral mass. During his homily, he described PJ with a term used in Ireland: anima cara, literally ‘soul friend.’ PJ was this to Dan, as someone who was “genuine and sincere in his friendship,” someone with whom Dan also shared a great sense of humor. “PJ would say, ‘You will miss me when I’m gone,” and I would say, ‘Well, that’s what you think.’” After this chuckle, Dan acknowledged, “I find it difficult to believe he is gone from us, but I know things happen in God’s way and in God’s time.”

Seminary Days

Msgr. Dan and PJ met in 1964 when both friends entered seminary in Ireland. From the first, Dan recalls that PJ was an approachable person who was easy to confide in. “He was a leader, always rational and fair. If you were having an issue, he’d listen and think it through with you.” PJ was also, according to Dan, the most intelligent student in their class, who won academic awards every year. Dan also attested to how PJ’s faith was informed by his intellect. “PJ questioned everything in our seminary days and afterwards. Faith had to make sense to his logical, clinical mind. This was not a lack of Faith, rather it was an effort to know the ‘Jesus of Faith’ in his own life.” PJ’s friendship with Jesus, combined with the timing of the newly minted documents of the Second Vatican Council, would invariably have an effect on PJ’s ministry beginning in the seminary.  During their priestly formation together, PJ promoted collaboration, just as the Council encouraged. “In the seminary PJ was elected representative of our class and we had that collaborative interaction with the faculty.” These are only some of the earliest examples, according to Dan, of how PJ was considered by many as ‘episcopal material’ which came to pass as PJ employed a strategy of collaboration in his assignments as a priest, auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, and eventually as Bishop of San Jose.

A Deep Love and Respect for All

After both friends were ordained to the priesthood in Ireland in 1970, they found themselves assigned to Northern California.  Getting together for dinner or a movie as well as celebrating major holidays became a regular custom. Msgr. Dan shared that they typically met in San Jose as Bishop McGrath enjoyed entertaining. “I know that he was very honored to be the bishop of the Diocese of San Jose. From our conversations, he had great respect for and love of the clergy, the religious and laity.” Msgr. Dan witnessed how PJ went out of way to be hospitable to the parents of priests. “He made them feel important. He’d thank them for giving the Church their sons.” Dan recalled one particular mother whom he met at PJ’s house during a luncheon. “I remember one priest’s mother was non-Catholic. But that mother just loved PJ! I remember her leaning over and telling her son, “Now you be good to that bishop!” Msgr. Dan also shared that mothers had a special place in his dear friend's heart.  “PJ would encourage young people, ‘Look after your mother,’ because kids need to realize that their mothers also need to be looked after.” Bishop McGrath lost his own mother, Eileen Gaule McGrath, in 1975 while he was pursuing studies in canon law in Rome. As she declined in health, PJ flew out monthly from Italy to Ireland to visit her. Dan only knew Eileen for ten years but he found that she was the source of PJ’s wit. “She was a beautiful, gracious lady with a warm sense of humor; now you know where PJ got his sense of humor.”

PJ's Commitment to Vatican II

“PJ was committed to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, especially to cultivating the role of the laity and to the Roman Liturgy. I used to say to him, ‘You are a Vatican II priest and bishop,’ and he would say, ‘To the core.’” Even before the terms synod and synodality became popular, Bishop McGrath intentionally collaborated, consulted with, and listened to his colleagues, just as the Council had envisioned, “As Bishop of San Jose, he implemented a diocesan plan so that men and women, youth and young adults alike could be attracted to and engaged in their Church. He firmly believed that the Church was all the people of God.” Msgr. Dan also feels confident that Bishop PJ would be highly supportive of the current synod in the Diocese of San José. “PJ embraced the spirit of the Second Vatican Council wholeheartedly and endeavored to live it by inviting the participation of the clergy, religious and laity in building up the local Church.” In his funeral homily, Msgr. Dan touched on how nurturing the local Church meant trusting the clergy, religious and laity, but also, equally, for PJ, it meant personally working hard. “He believed in service. He never asked you to do anything he was not willing to do himself.”

Anima Cara: Soul Friend

The word loyalty best encapsulates Bishop PJ as a friend for Msgr.Whelton. “PJ never took our friendship for granted and I learned from him to never take a friend for granted.” Since his friend’s passing, Msgr. Dan attested that he still feels an invisible closeness to Bishop PJ. “I just know he’s here in spirit. He is in my mind all the time.” Msgr. Dan considers himself doubly blessed as both witness to PJ’s ministry and also as PJ’s best friend. “PJ was always there with me and for me through the joyful and difficult times in my life. We walked the road of life together, just as his episcopal motto says: ‘Together in Christ.’” For Msgr. Dan and for all who knew him, PJ embodied the term anima cara, soul friend, in life, just as he does so now, in memoria. “I can honestly say PJ was that to me. He was genuine and sincere in his friendships, not only to me but also to his family, to all whose lives he touched.” MN