Father Jonas McCarthy, TOR, a Franciscan marvel who taught me a
great lesson about the power of prayer
[A version of this appeared on my former blog about three years ago]
At first, I thought that the words were being uttered in jest.
“Well, Big guy, I don’t ask for many favors, but we really need a fumble."
And then, I realized that Father Jonas McCarthy, T.O.R., was calling in his chits — everything that he had earned in his six years in the priesthood — and his eight years of preparation for it.
In essence, this was truly a prayer, a request for God to help Father Jonas’ favorite St. Francis College Red Flash football team.
He was saying a prayer that the Duquesne Dukes would somehow place the ball on the turf at Portage High School football stadium — and that God should allow that to happen because that opposing team — in Jonas’ eyes — was a group of nefarious “ne’er do wells.”
This actually happened, I remember it well because I was standing with Father Jonas on the top of the Portage press box where he and I used to communicate information down to the bench.
So, with the Red Flash trailing by nine points, Jonas made a sign of the cross and put down his head.
What happened was that we were down 16-0 to the Dukes when we returned an interception for a touchdown to narrow the lead to 16-7.
The next play, on the kickoff, the Dukes fumbled and our Red Flash recovered it. I think that the player who fell on the ball was Joe Sheehan, but since that was 46 years ago, and since few of the records from those years now exist, I am not certain.
After that recovery, we were jumping for joy, but I had an immediate need: As the de facto offensive coordinator, I had to send in an offensive play — and we had great field position.
Here is what I wrote a few years ago about what happened next,
However, on this day, after we had scored a TD to claw our way back into the game, Jonas realized that we really needed another TD.
This is an absolutely true story, and I was the only one up on that roof to verify that it took place. Believe me, for a person who still questioned the value of prayer, it was an impressive moment.
Father cast his eyes up toward the heavens, took a deep breath, and said in a reverent voice, “Big guy, I don’t ask for many favors, but we really need a fumble.”
Internally, I chuckled a little. What was the chance that this “Hail Mary” would be answered.
On the subsequent kickoff, our kickoff team forced a fumble, and we recovered.
After jumping up and down with excitement and calling the next offensive play, I looked at Father in amazement.
He just shrugged his shoulders, smiled in his humble, laconic way, and said, “Sometimes, he comes through. You just have to ask.”
Recollection from September, 1976
“You just have to ask.”
As someone who has struggled with the concept of prayer throughout my life, this was an impressive prayer. My problems with prayer is that they are never answered.
Or so it has seemed.
However, here I was witnessing a priest who just turned the game around for us.
We went on to score two more TDs and win the game, but I cannot even remember the final score. It may have been 21-16, but that is not what I remember.
I simply remember that devout, blue-collar Irishman asking for a favor from his maker — and having that request answered in a big way.
Jonas and I had many conversations over the years. We would go “upstairs” and call down information to the bench, and Father was seldom at a loss for words.
After graduating from high school, Father entered the U.S. Army and served in Germany, where he played football for the army team. He entertained the linemen with his recollections of his stories about those years.
And what he received in return was a chance to attend college via the G.I. Bill. Father applied to and was accepted as a Civil Engineering student at what what then known as Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon, which was then, and now, listed as one of the top universities in the state — and the nation.
He graduated and worked in the private sector as an engineer, but as he told me so many times, he was not happy with his life.
Consequently, in his early 30s, he decided to enter the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The community based in Loretto, Pa. is one of a number who follow the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi.
When he was ordained a priest in 1970, he was almost 40 years old, yet he had an immediate impact on the campus. He served as an economics professor and then became the provincial of the priests who lived on campus. He served as an assistant coach for Art Martynuka from 1970 until his death in April 1979.
He was involved with the team as an advisor and served as chaplain of the men’s basketball team. He also did PR for the college which was struggling with problems with people in the community during the 1970s. He ran for borough council and was a great ambassador for the college to those in Loretto.
And, he was an awesome Irish wit who had kissed the Blarney Stone more than once. His stories are legendary.
Jonas was one special guy, and like so many, I will never forget him — and the message he taught me about prayers being answered.