In 1999 Luke Coppen interviewed Fr Malcolm McMahon for The Catholic Herald. He was then the English Provincial of the Dominican Order. Pope Francis has appointed him Archbishop of Liverpool.
Let’s start with a quiz. What do the following have in common: Fra Angelico, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Albert the Great, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres? The answer: they were all faithful to the spirit of St Dominic. Through the Dominican Order, they enriched the Church and the world with their distinctive spiritual, intellectual and artistic gifts.
The Order of Preachers has been a greenhouse for greatness for nearly 800 years. It has produced superlative scholars, outstanding artists. goldthroated preachers, tireless teachers and peerless pray-ers. This greatness, thankfully, is not confined to the past; to dustbound lives of the saints and smoky stained glass windows. There are Dominicans here in England who, modestly and unobtrusively, carry on the great work of St Dominic: preaching and praying in poverty and obedience.
For almost eight centuries the Order has preached and prayed in Britain. When it arrived on these shores in 1221 its mendicant preachers drifted to the intellectual centres of Oxford and Cambridge. Over the next 300 years, the English Province, the ninth in the world, produced a clutch of cardinals, a score of bishops and scholars. After the Reformation, it rebuilt itself in England and engendered 11 new provinces in America, Africa and Asia. But despite all these achievements it has never, until now, given an English Master to the Order.
In 1992, the English Province finally won this accolade when its Provincial, Fr Timothy Ratcliffe, was elected world wide Master of the Order. This long-awaited recognition of the province’s contribution to the Church underlines its continued vitality and strength. Fr Ratcliffe’s election had one other unexpected consequence. Fr Malcolm McMahon was plucked from the province’s ranks to become the new English Provincial. “I was all prepared to take a job at the National Catholic Marriage Advisory Council,” Fr McMahon recalls in his study at the Dominican’s London headquarters. “I was finishing here. My election happened in the same week. It was a bit of an embarrassment.”
Replacing the Master of the Order was a daunting task. As English Provincial, Fr McMahon is entrusted with the welfare of 110 Dominicans spread as far afield as London and Edinburgh. This requires a special type of leadership. “Leadership is being able to hear what the community is saying,” he explains. “My job, more often than not, is to encourage people, to give them confidence in their ministry.”
He must do it well because after his first four-year term his brothers re-elected him. Perhaps the secret is that he respects them as much as they respect him. When he talks about the members of his province, he sounds like a football manager praising his squad after a resounding victory. There are excellent chaplains, Thomas Kearns, Fabian Ratcliffe; the super-scholars, Simon Tugwell, Fergus Kerr, Brian Davies and Aidan Nichols (“who writes a book a week”); the young rising stars (Richard Finn). He is firmly convinced of their talents and committed to their well-being.
He is more modest about his own talents, though a brief glimpse at his history shows a clear gift for leadership. Born in south London in 1949, his devoted parents moved soon after his birth to the Dominican’s north London parish. He went to the parish primary school and lived in awe of the brothers.
When he finished school, he went to Manchester to read mechanical engineering at UMIST. University in the late sixties was a political crucible. McMahon joined the Young Christian Students (YCS) movement and eagerly entered the political fray. “The whole world was changing. Not to have been part of it would have been a terrible waste of an experience,” he says. “We were very much at the heart of student politics in Manchester. The Catholic Chaplaincy was a very lively place. There was nothing sissy about being a practising Christian and a student activist. The Gospel made us do it.”
Fr Jack Fay, retired national chaplain of YCS, remembers that McMahon had a remarkable ability to motivate and lead others. “He was a great leader of men. He could get people to do anything. They relied on him for the final word. If you agreed to do something with Malcolm then you did it.”
McMahon became national president of YCS and attended conferences around the world. After university, he moved back to London and worked as an area bus manager. After several happy years “on the buses”, he realised that God was calling him to the priesthood.
In Easter 1976, he went back to Manchester to seek advice. A priest friend told him he should join the Dominicans. “I wanted community,” he recalls. “They were the group I knew. I also liked their sense of inquiry the continuing preoccupation with truth in the world.”
His noviciate at Blackfriars, Oxford, was “like soaking in a warm bath” but the next seven years of study was spiritually and intellectually demanding. “As I went deeper into religious life there were moments when I wondered if I would make it. Once I was over that little bit of spiritual turbulence I settled down and I’ve never had any doubts about it.”
In 1982, Cardinal Hume ordained him. Ten years later he was Dominican Provincial. After seven years in the top post, his vision for the Dominicans is still crystalline: “We have to make the intellectual apostolate our main work. I think we have to make Christianity an understandable, reasonable and acceptable religion. We have to show that Christ is available to people. He isn’t just an imaginary figure. He is essential to what makes us human.”
He says that he is inspired by the example of his predecessor, Fr Ratcliffe, whom he describes as “Tuesday’s child, a child of grace”. “I grew to know and respect him when he was Provincial here in London. He is very creative. He sees new possibilities. No matter what the situation —whether it is pastoral, theological or practical — he has his feet very firmly on the ground.
“He has enormous personal gifts. His personal sincerity and interest in people comes across immediately. I hope he comes back. The English Church needs him and the English Province needs him.”
Both men will end their terms in the year 2000, when their futures will be in God’s hands. “I finish this job next Easter,” says Fr McMahon, “and I’ll have my boxes packed. I’ll do what the chapter or the next Provincial tells me.
“There’s no point making plans, because they’ll be undone,” he laughs. “It’s happened before.”
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald February 26 1999. Visit our free archives, dating back to 1935, here.