From pain comes life

First slide

If there's one thing Father Denis M. Donahue knows, it's suffering. The life of the 47-year-old priest was dramatically altered - and nearly extinguished - when, at age 14, he was shot twice by a sniper while working his paper route. It was a random attack, resulting in two bullet wounds to Father Donahue's chest and, for months, his life hung in the balance at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Operation after operation was performed to stabilize his condition and remove the infection that was taking over his body. When, after three months, his parents, Francis and Mary, were told he was going to die, they modified their prayer for his recovery to a prayer asking for their acceptance of God's will. That's when their son started to heal.

More than three decades later, Father Donahue is still physically disabled, but is also alive and well and serving as pastor of St. Philip Church in Falls Church. His journey to the priesthood is not marked by any dawning moment following his accident and recovery. There were years of frustration and rehabilitation, ones in which he watched four brothers continue their passion of cross-country running that he had once shared. But now, years later, Father Donahue can see a Providential hand in that difficult time, and he sees his sufferings as an opportunity to purify himself and become closer to the God he has grown to love.

Early life

Born on Nov. 13, 1962, in South Pasadena, Calif., Father Donahue grew up in an active house of five boys. When he was young, the handful of boys and their parents moved to Michigan, where Francis had taken a job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As a boy, Catholicism wasn't high on the list of Father Donahue's interests. He remembers sitting in church staring at the windows, plotting his escape.

Though religion wasn't important to him at the time, it was for his parents, so Father Donahue attended St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Ann Arbor all the way through high school.

"I know they made sacrifices," he said.

On Sunday nights, Francis would quiz them about the content of that week's Gospel and homily.

After his accident, on Aug. 15, 1977, Father Donahue's life was almost unrecognizable. He had to re-learn how to walk. He spent a year in a wheelchair, then switched to canes, which he still uses. But he was determined. In 1984, Father Donahue graduated from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti with a degree in chemistry.

While in college, he was intrigued by a talk by a married couple whose struggling marriage had been saved when they involved Christ in their lives. They encouraged the students to work on their relationships with Christ.

"I really took that to heart," Father Donahue said. He began going to Mass more, praying more, especially to the Blessed Mother.

A few months at Christendom College in Front Royal furthered his interest in the priesthood. There he studied the Faith, philosophy and history. Receiving spiritual direction from Father Cornelius O'Brien and inspiration from Dr. Warren Carroll, Father Donahue furthered his relationship with Christ.

"(Christendom) really opened my eyes to things that I had always suspected were there but didn't really know about," he said. "I wouldn't have gotten that at any other place."

Father Donahue never had an exact "moment" when he knew he was going to be a priest. It was more like an impression that this was the direction that he should take.

"It was a growing awareness as time went on," he said. "I always felt that this was the right direction. As I continue in the priesthood there's a continuing awareness that this is really what God's will for my life is."

Once at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., Father Donahue was profoundly influenced by Father Robert Zylla, a professor of moral theology and his spiritual director.

"I've got lots of blessing in my life, but that was a major one to have him," Father Donahue said.

For two decades Father Zylla advised Father Donahue. The priest, who Father Donahue called "a very wise man and a holy man," died in July.

"When I've given spiritual direction to people I feel like he's right beside me, almost speaking through me," he said.

People like Father Zylla have been instrumental in affecting Father Donahue's life, he said.

"It seems that in my life God has always provided people to help me," he said.

Even when he was shot, a doctor ran out in the road to help him, resulting in the doctor also getting shot.

"Right at the moment I needed someone to help me, that guy came out to help," he said.

"As a priest especially at every assignment there's been someone there or a group of people to come to my aid to help me do what God wants me to."

In priestly service

Father Donahue was ordained to the priesthood on May 19, 1990, after serving his diaconate year at St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly. His subsequent parish experiences, he said, helped form him as a priest. At St. Agnes Parish in Arlington, he learned how to be "a confessor, a preacher, a teacher and a leader." At St. Louis Parish in Alexandria he formed a relationship with the Poor Clare Sisters, with whom he still stays in contact.

At St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church, he learned Spanish, becoming involved in the "active, vibrant parish." Appointed pastor of St. Rita Church in Alexandria in 2000, Father Donahue learned how to take care of finances and the church's physical plant. Again, it was the people around him who helped him accomplish what he had to do.

As he continues to respond each day to the call of priesthood, Father Donahue is participating in the Catholic Leadership Institute, a professional development program for priests. He works hard to stay healthy and fit, knowing that his weakened body cannot fight off illness easily. He has developed special devotions to St. John of the Cross, St. Padre Pio, St. Teresa of Avila and the patron saints of the parishes at which he has served.

St. John, especially, speaks to him.

"He articulates so well the role of suffering and advancing in the spiritual life," Father Donahue said. "I try to see the sufferings that I have as some way to purify me to make me closer to God and hopefully a better priest."

Father Donahue said he's often wondered if he would have become a priest if he had not been injured.

"It is possible that I would have been focusing on other things, and perhaps missed or ignored the call," he said. "That is why I consider the terrible thing that happened to me to be a part of God's providence, truly a blessing in disguise. It forced me to slow down and pay more attention. I am grateful to God that He arranged things for me in such a way that I did say 'yes' to His call to become a priest."

The suffering that he had to endure helped him realize how fragile life is and how God's plans trumped his own.

"I believe I had to go through my experience to learn how fragile life is, and how ridiculous it was for me to rely upon my own plans, strength, speed, resources, etc., rather than on God," he said. "I learned that all these things can vanish with a single, devastating injury, whereas if we cling to God, nothing can take Him away. Many people know these things intellectually; my experience taught me these things in a way I could never forget."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010