May 2, 2014

Reflection / John Shaugnessy

Faith, not fear, at the heart of Macklin Swinney’s earthly life

When the news spread that Macklin Swinney died on Good Friday, many people recalled how he had once resolved “to give up fear” for Lent—a resolution he made after being diagnosed with the most advanced stage of skin cancer and being given little chance of surviving.

Family and friends also recalled how the 27-year-old Indianapolis resident gave the best hugs, how he poured himself into everything and everyone he cared about, and how his sense of adventure and his love of nature were defining qualities.

With a wistful smile, one relative shared a memory of being in the wilderness out west with Macklin, and how Macklin loved the sight of “shooting stars” blazing across the night sky.

In that image, there’s a glimpse of Macklin’s life: crowd-pleasing, spectacularly memorable and over far too soon.

The image also seems fitting for another reason: In the darkness of his life, Macklin blazed a light that was a wonder to behold.

If you knew Macklin or read about him in the April 4 issue of The Criterion, you know the harsh realities he faced in life. When he was 24, he was first diagnosed with cancer. Then the disease returned when he was 26.

“I was facing death again,” he said about the return of his cancer during Lent of 2013. “Not only that, I had a fear of what I would leave behind, what I hadn’t accomplished, what I would have to go through with treatments, and how it would turn out.”

Yet, in the midst of all those fears and worries as he fought for his life in a hospital, Macklin told Father Rick Nagel his Lenten resolution, “I’m going to give up fear.”

Deciding to leave everything in God’s hands, Macklin focused on making the most of whatever time he had left, including making the most of his decision to be baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church.

Macklin had made that decision after joining his grandparents for Mass one Sunday at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis, where Father Nagel is pastor. Macklin had been moved that Sunday by Father Nagel’s homily that focused on the themes, “God wouldn’t put things in our life if we couldn’t handle them,” and “everything happens for a reason even if we don’t know it at the time.”

Believing he was being called to God and the Church, Macklin talked to Father Nagel after the Mass—a conversation that Father Nagel recalled during his homily at Macklin’s funeral Mass at St. John Church on April 22.

With a laugh, Father Nagel described how Macklin was convinced that his grandmother and the pastor were “in cahoots” with each other, that they had conspired to develop the homily specifically for Macklin.

It was the beginning of a powerful connection between Macklin and the priest—the kind of connection Macklin formed with many people. When Macklin seemed near death last year, Father Nagel arranged for an emergency baptism for him just before Easter. He also confirmed Macklin on March 25 of this year, just a few weeks after Macklin’s doctor told him there was nothing more they could do for him.

Father Nagel recalled the last time he saw Macklin, visiting him in the house of his grandparents—Don and Kathleen Murphy—where a hospice setting had been created.

“We prayed the rosary with him,” the priest told Macklin’s friends and family members who nearly filled the expansive church for the funeral Mass. “At the end, he said to me, ‘God bless you, Father.’ ”

Touched by that memory, Father Nagel became emotional as he added, “That’s the kind of love this young man had. He was always blessing others.”

During his homily, Father Nagel also noted that it was appropriate that Macklin died on Good Friday.

“He knew the cross of Christ. He embraced the cross of Christ. Macklin knew the suffering of Christ on the cross.”

After a pause, the pastor said, “It would also be appropriate to continue to celebrate Easter. We don’t just die. We rise again.”

Macklin embraced that belief in life even as he faced the reality of his death. Through it all, he gave faith, hope and inspiration to others—blazing a legacy of light in the darkest times of life.

That legacy was summed up at end of the eulogy that one of Macklin’s uncles—Patrick Murphy—delivered before the funeral Mass. In his touching tribute, his uncle praised Macklin with these closing words:

“Thank you for reminding us to never give up—unless you give up fear.”

(John Shaughnessy is the assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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