The oldest priest in the Diocese of Orange, Monsignor Tony McGowan, marked his 102nd birthday earlier this week. Father Tony retired in 1986 as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church. Both his birthday and his 75 years as a priest will be celebrated today at the 11 a.m. Mass at the parish, located at 105 North La Esperanza, San Clemente.
Father Tony was born in Ireland, the second of 10 children. He wanted to be a missionary priest to Africa and Asia but instead responded to a call for priests to go to California in 1942. He worked at a number of parishes before being sent to Costa Mesa in 1960 to become the first pastor of a new church called St. John the Baptist. In 1976, he moved to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in San Clemente and was its main pastor until he retired. He was designated as monsignor in 1981.
How and when were you called to the priesthood?
I was always interested in becoming a priest, from a very early age. I’m sure that my parents encouraged me in this dream when i first mentioned it to them. They were certainly a very big influence in all the decisions of my life.
What made you proudest and happiest during your career?
I think that my greatest satisfaction as a priest was in the peace that I could bring through the sacrament of reconciliation. I recall with great joy my success in counseling young people facing the challenges of life, and my disappointment when I apparently was unable to adequately comfort them. I was trained in more theology than in psychology, and both are very important, but both need to be applied with love.
Did you ever think about how old you might become? What do you think about being 101 years old? Do you feel wiser than you did as a younger man?
Growing old isn’t any great accomplishment – all you need to do is not die!
No, I don’t think that many people grow wiser as they grow older, once they are past maturity and have experienced life to some extent. In fact, sometimes they become so set in their ways that they seem to grow less wise as the years go by. It’s my experience that some old people will argue with anything, even a sign post! They just don’t listen – or maybe they can’t hear any more. That’s certainly true in my case.
Now I’m not talking about any of my fellow residents at Del Obispo Terrace – they are all just grand, to me and to each other. I’m very happy there, but I don’t know why I’m still here on earth. I’m ready to go home.
What do you like best about being a priest?
I loved the pastoral mission – watching children grow in wisdom and the love of God, assisting them with the sacraments, counseling them and then blessing their marriage, baptizing their children, presiding at the funerals of their parents and then the next cycle of generations, celebrating their joys and sharing their sorrows. Being a priest is such a rich vocation! I’m too old to do much of that anymore, and I miss it very much.
Do you think the church has changed since you became a priest? How?
Oh yes, of course! No more Latin, different music, reversing the altar – those are the obvious things, but they don’t really mean much. The big change is in the involvement of the laity. In the old days they were expected to attend and that’s about it. Now they are expected to participate in all aspects of church life, and we are all much the richer for it. Take deacons for example – that probably grew out of necessity, the shortage of priestly vocations, but what a blessing to see the explosion of laity deaconate vocations!
What qualities must priests and religious possess to successfully serve the church?
They must listen more than speak, and listen with more than just their ears. I don’t know if St. Francis really said “preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary” but it’s good advice for all of us, and especially for those of us in the religious life. What is your question again? My mind tends to wander…oh, what qualities do we need? An open, forgiving, listening and consoling heart, mostly. We need to love.
If you could give one piece of advice to young priests, what would it be?
Don’t think that you are on a pedestal. You are a servant to others, not a judge or a leader. Love the people entrusted to your care, listen to them, comfort them, and above all, love them.
What was your favorite assignment as a priest?
I enjoyed every place that I was assigned, and I was the first pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Costa Mesa. I started there in 1976 and being the first pastor is always a blessing and a challenge. At least no one says “the last guy did it differently”! But Our Lady of Fatima has a very special place in my heart. I was there from 1976 and served there until I retired in 1986. I’m so glad that I have been able to stay in this area. It’s so lovely and the people are so kind.
Do you still perform the sacraments?
Yes and no. I still say Mass occasionally, and I try to get to my old parish for Mass as often as I can, but I’m getting pretty feeble these days. I thank God that a wonderful friend, Barbara Forman, watches out for me, takes me places and visits frequently. She and her late husband, a wonderful man whose funeral I conducted some years ago, were parishioners and she is very kind to me.