John McGuinness: One of the forgotten holy men and women of Ireland

John McGuinness

Contrary to popular perception, there was an extraordinary flourishing of holiness in Ireland in the 19th and early 20th Century. Yes, there were problems in the Church and in the country at that time, but this does not take away from the inspiring witness of so many in that period.

Many of the men and women of this period are well known and loved, including figures such as Blessed John Sullivan, Blessed Columba Marmion, Venerable Matt Talbot, Venerable Nano Nagle and Venerable Edel Quinn. Their causes are opened, and we await their happy conclusion. 

Fr Doyle, of course, stands out as one of those who, despite his remarkable fame after his death, and the widespread acknowledgement of his evident sanctity, still does not have an active Cause for his canonisation. There are others in this category – Ellen Organ (Little Nellie) is one obvious name that springs to mind. We hope and pray that their Causes will soon be opened.

But there is a third category of holy men and women from this era – those whose sanctity burned brightly before their contemporaries but who, for unknown reasons, are almost entirely forgotten today.

One of these individuals is John McGuinness, who died on this day in 1947. John was a civil servant by day, and the servant of the poor by night. He lived a life of constant prayer and self-denial and was a Third Order Franciscan who explicitly modelled his entire life on that of Matt Talbot. Despite his great personal success – he was a high ranking official in the Revenue Commissioners with a very large salary – he died of malnutrition in his mid 40s because he literally gave everything away to the poor. 

He was involved in numerous charitable activities across the city of Dublin, but to this day the full extent of his service to the poor remains unknown, as he always acted with discretion, never drawing attention to himself. 

When he died he was mourned as a second Matt Talbot, who opted against the life of a priest so that he could live holiness as a professional in the middle of the world. There was extensive media interest in his life In the years after his death and speculation that he would be canonised, but today, sadly, he is mostly forgotten. It’s not hard to imagine that, were he an Italian, he could well have been canonised by now. 

Catholics have much to be proud of in Ireland, and we forget our heritage to our own cost. 

Later this year a new book will be published, edited by Fr John Hogan of the Diocese of Meath and by myself, on the lives of the many holy Irish men and women like John McGuinness, Fr Doyle and a range of others, some of whom are well known and some who are less known.

Ireland needs more saints. Our recent history is full of inspiring examples. It’s time we remembered them.

Thoughts for February 13 from Fr Willie Doyle

What I intended to imply was that I thought God had special designs on your soul and very great graces in store for you if only you will co-operate with Him in the work of your sanctification. With the record of much want of courage and generosity, there is running through your life an undercurrent of earnest desire to be a saint. Not that desires alone will do the work – barren desires are most dangerous to a soul, making one content with intentions only; yet without a big ardent desire nothing will be done. “If thou wilt be perfect,” our Lord once said, implying that sanctification is largely a question of good will. This, then, is the first grace you must pray for: the desire to be a saint.

COMMENT: The central theme of Fr Doyle’s quote today is the importance of the will. We must want to be saints. If we don’t want it, it won’t happen. The same principle applies in every aspect of life. If we don’t want to lose weight, it won’t happen. If we don’t want to work hard and progress in our career, it won’t happen. The Book of Ecclesiasticus tells us:

If you wish, you can keep the commandments; to behave faithfully is within your power. He has set fire and water before you; put out your hand to whichever you prefer. Man has life and death before him; whichever a man likes better will be given him.

Whichever we prefer will be given to us. Either holiness or apathy or sinfulness. Which is it to be?

Today is the anniversary of the death of Sr Lucia, one of the 3 visionaries at Fatima. These three children had a great desire for holiness and a great abhorrence for sin. Even as little children they offered great penances for sinners. We can learn much from their desire for holiness.

Fr Doyle himself occasionally felt a lack of desire for holiness. Referring to the Three Classes of men in the Spiritual Exercises, Fr Doyle wrote in 1907:

The example of men of the Third Class in the world should shame me. What determination, what prolonged effort, what deadly earnestness, in the man who has determined to succeed in his profession! No sacrifice is too great for him, he wants to succeed, he will succeed. My desire, so far, to be a saint is only the desire of the man of the First Class. It gratifies my pride, but I make no real progress in perfection — I do not really will it.

Fr Doyle’s response was to trust in God’s grace, and to take determined, small steps to overcome his weakness day by day. With God’s grace, we can follow in his footsteps.

The Fatima visionaries – Blessed Jacinta, Sr Lucia and Blessed Francisco