Celebrating Priesthood – Fr Vincent McNabb OP

Celebrating Priesthood – Fr Vincent McNabb OP

The first time I heard the name Vincent McNabb was at my initial meeting with the Dominican vocations director at the priory in London. On the wall was a painting of a Dominican friar, a frail old man in big black boots and a shabby habit, a picture of someone exuding holiness. This was Vincent McNabb. I was told various anecdotes about him – how he used to always sleep on the floor, how he had only one habit, home-spun from the wool of sheep reared in a nearby field. He had a great distrust of modern technology prefering to wash his habit in the bath with carbolic soap rather than resorting to a washing machine. Often he would put his habit on without waiting for it to dry, so that he would leave a trail of water behind him as he wandered around the priory.

For the last twenty years of his life, he was a well known figure on the streets of London – his brethren jokingly called him the Mahatma Gandhi of Kentish Town. Most Sundays he would walk 5 miles from the priory to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park where he would draw huge crowds. Often he would have to deal with persistent hecklers. E. A. Siderman, a non-Catholic, was a frequent thorn in the side of Father Vincent as he preached, yet after his death in 1943, Siderman wrote a very affectionate account, ‘Father Vincent at Marble Arch.’ He writes how Catholics in the crowd would often become incensed whenever their faith came under attack from a heckler, yet Father Vincent would always reprimand anyone interfering with the questioner. ‘Leave him alone,’ he would say. ‘Questioners are our guests, and we welcome them and want their questions. Many of you Catholics learn more about your religion from these questions and answers than you have done at school or at church and some Catholics only remember their Faith when they hear it attacked. I have heard some Catholics declaiming that they would die for the Faith but it would please me better if they would live the Faith.’ And then he would turn to the questioner: ‘I am sorry. Please put your question again.’

Vincent McNabb was almost a legend in his own lifetime. There is a story, which may well be apocryphal, of a woman heckler who is supposed to have become impatient when he was answering a question regarding clerical celibacy. She shouted out ‘If you were my husband, I’d give you poison.’ And the retort is said to have come back: ‘If you were my wife, I’d take it.’

Vincent McNabb had a brilliantly sharp mind and he knew it, but he was not without faults. With his great intellect he was sometimes in moral danger of commiting the sin of pride. Occasionally he would have outbursts of invincible obstinacy and then he would show extravagant gestures of remorse. At times he could be very difficult to live with. Such personality traits would have greatly puzzled anyone who took him to be a ready made saint. He had his fair quota of faults and failings, and like everyone else he was still in need of Christ’s saving power. Yet Dominican life really did provide an environment in which he could grow in holiness. He knew that the Dominican vocation wasn’t just to save other people’s souls, but also his own soul. As he grew older he became more consciously aware of his failings, and this led to a much greater level of spiritual maturity. One of his superiors in London wrote of him:

No one gave me less trouble as superior than Father Vincent. He was always busy, but one never had to persuade him to do anything or not to do it. He had simply to be told, and one always felt confident that he would do as he was told whatever it cost him. There was no pettiness about him, and I always could and did tell him what I wanted him to do without giving the slightest offence. I used to feel sometimes it was like leading a lion on a string. But the string never broke.

Father Vincent was an example of how the love of Christ can triumph over the unruly forces in the soul so that Christ’s glory is able to shine through them, and for me, he was a priest who I found greatly inspiring when I was considering whether I should join the Dominicans.

Robert Verrill OP

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.

Comments (1)

  • A Website Visitor

    What a beautiful history! It smells like roses of Sainthood! May God Bless you for sharing with us of this marvelous history! Thanks a lot

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