April 4, 2014

'I'm going to give up fear'

Faith leads young adult with cancer to resolve to live life to the fullest

Macklin Swinney poses for a photo with his grandmother, Kathleen Murphy, on the grounds of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis during a Christmas event in December of 2013. After being diagnosed with the most severe stage of skin cancer, the 27-year-old Swinney has become a member of the Catholic Church. (Submitted photo)

Macklin Swinney poses for a photo with his grandmother, Kathleen Murphy, on the grounds of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis during a Christmas event in December of 2013. After being diagnosed with the most severe stage of skin cancer, the 27-year-old Swinney has become a member of the Catholic Church. (Submitted photo)

Update (05/02/2014): Faith, not fear, at the heart of Macklin Swinney’s earthly life

By John Shaughnessy

The moment touched Father Rick Nagel as he visited Macklin Swinney in the hospital and listened to the young man share the remarkable resolution of what he was giving up for Lent.

At the time, the then-26-year-old Swinney had already been diagnosed with the most severe stage of skin cancer and had been given little chance of surviving.

It was a dark, frightening period for Swinney. But he still wanted to make the most of whatever time he had left in his life, including making the most of his decision to be baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church.

Swinney had made that decision after joining his grandparents for Mass one Sunday at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis, where Father Nagel is the pastor. Swinney had been moved that Sunday by Father Nagel’s homily that focused on the themes, “God wouldn’t put things in our lives 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, Swinney talked to Father Nagel after the Mass. And he soon started the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program to enter the Church.

When his struggle with cancer forced Swinney into the hospital, Father Nagel came to visit. During one visit when they talked about Lent, Swinney shared the resolution he wanted to make.

“Out of nowhere, he said, ‘I’m going to give up fear,’ ” Father Nagel recalls.

The priest was stunned and inspired.

“If you’re faced with death as a young man, and there’s not much hope of medical recovery, the natural human tendency is to be afraid. I was struck by how God had worked so beautifully in that moment to have this young man in his wisdom say, ‘I’m going to give up fear.’ ”

‘I decided to leave it to God’

More than a year has passed since Swinney made that resolution in the winter of 2013.

It is now the spring of 2014, just a few weeks after Swinney’s doctor told him there is nothing more they can do for him.

It is also just a few weeks after Swinney began an alternative treatment that has given him a measure of hope.

Yet even in a time of so much uncertainty in his life, Swinney’s resolve to give up fear has stayed strong. He remembers when he first made that resolution.

“It was a scary time in my life,” he says about the 2013 return of his cancer that had first been diagnosed in 2010. “I was facing death again. 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. I decided to leave it to God. I thought if it was possible to give up fear, I would. It’s been a freeing experience.

“Without fear, I didn’t have the anxiety that loomed around all the time. It took a lot of things out of the equation. It let me focus on my life.”

During Lent of 2013, one of Swinney’s main goals was to be baptized in the Church. When Swinney’s life was threatened by the return of the cancer, Father Nagel arranged for an emergency baptism for him just before last Easter.

“It was very powerful,” Swinney recalls. “I had a lot of friends and family who rallied around me. There were so many people at St. John’s for the baptism. It was an emotional time for me.

“I received Communion for the first time with the rest of the RCIA program. I’ll never forget my first Communion. I don’t know what it was about it, but it definitely touched something inside of me.”

‘I believe God is hearing me’

Swinney continued in the RCIA program this year in the hopes of being confirmed, and that dream came true on March 25.

“It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” he says. “Family and friends came. It was very emotional.”

Even as he has struggled against what many people would consider devastating health setbacks, there is no struggle of faith for him.

For years, he has admired the faith of his grandparents, Don and Kathleen Murphy, calling them “two of the most faithful people I know.” He has always believed in God and Jesus, he says, but now there is a depth to his faith that surprises him.

“I was 24 when I found out I had cancer for the first time,” he says. “My faith has really opened my eyes to God and the Church and the community of believers who are praying for me. I have a lot of faith in the prayers of my family and friends, and the thousands of people I don’t know who are praying for me because of my family and friends.

“And one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in me is that I pray every day. There is great comfort in the power of prayer. My faith has grown to where I believe God is hearing me in my prayer. I repeatedly ask for a miracle.”

He pauses and adds, “I realize there are a lot of people out there who need a miracle.”

‘I can hold the hope for you’

The people closest to Swinney notice the change that his faith has had on him. Just as important, they know the impact that his life has had on them.

“Macklin has always reveled in life,” says his mother, Maureen Murphy. “He just gives 100 percent to whatever he does. He’s always been a joy. His strength comes from wrapping his arms around whatever matters to him. He’s embracing his faith and his spirituality like every other joy he’s found in his life.”

Swinney’s girlfriend has seen the difference, too.

“I’ve seen a transformation in him in the importance he puts on his spiritual life,” says Callie Bontrager, who is 23. “I knew his belief in God and Jesus Christ was important to him, but it’s become even more important in the past year.”

She savors the strength he has in living an attitude of “giving up fear,” but what he has endured, she says, “I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”

“I’m the worrier,” she says. “I’ve told him, ‘I can hold the hope for you, if you need me to.’ There haven’t been many times when he’s asked me to do that.”

That’s because Swinney is often the one giving doses of faith, hope and inspiration to others. His grandfather experienced that gift again one morning in mid-March. It happened when Swinney became so weak that he came to live in his grandparents’ home in a hospice setting.

“The night before, he stayed up with us,” Don Murphy recalls. “At five the next morning, his light came on, and I went to talk with him. I asked if he wanted anything. He said, ‘a cup of coffee.’ I made him a cup, and he asked if I wanted to sit outside. We sat on the bench for an hour and a half talking. One of the things he said was that he was going to play a lot more Frisbee golf this summer.

“One of the other things he said was, ‘Grandpop, I haven’t said this before, but I want to thank you for turning me on to the RCIA program and the Catholic Church.’ I had taken him to a Pacers’ game one night and told him that St. John’s would be a nice fit for him and Father Nagel would be good for him. I didn’t push, but we were so glad when he did it. His grandmother has been so supportive of him.”

Don Murphy fights back his emotions as he adds, “It really does mean a lot to see his faith. He’s suffering, but he’s kept a positive attitude. He keeps everybody else up.”

That attitude of focusing on faith and giving up fear has touched and inspired many people, including his pastor.

“In all my years in the Church, that was a new one for me—to give up fear,” Father Nagel says. “I think we should all give up fear.” †

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