The praise for Father John Malone has abounded for years.
That he is an exceptional educator who naturally bonds with students. That he is a brilliant but common-sense intellectual. That he is a masterful and witty storyteller with a wicked sense of humor. That he is an effective attorney. That he is a practical Catholic who has unflinching faith and gives the best – and shortest – homilies in town. That he is a pastor without peer.
Yet when asked to define himself, Malone only shrugs and quietly deflects the platitudes. They are nice, he acknowledges, and he is touched that people say so many kind things about him, but they don’t define who he is or why he decided nearly 60 years ago to become a priest.
“My dad had been sick a lot, and the priests in our parish were really neat guys,” he said. “I was attracted to what they did. Back then, kids were encouraged to consider vocations, and I bought into that. I could see myself as a priest even at that young age.
“I wanted to be part of people’s lives. I didn’t think a lot about whether I was doing the right thing. I just knew it was for me.”
And so the 14-year-old boy from the East Side of St. Paul decided to study for the priesthood. He entered Nazareth Hall, the archdiocese’s minor seminary, where he spent four years of high school and two years of college before moving to the St. Paul Seminary. After another six years of study, he was ordained a priest and today – 46 years later – he is vice president for mission at St. Thomas.
But Malone is much more than a university administrator. He is a trusted counselor and confidante to countless numbers of people who consider him their pastor and their friend – and someone with whom they share a prayer.
“Everybody wants to be this man’s friend,” said Frank Sunberg, a former St. Thomas trustee who has battled cancer for more than a decade and lost his wife to cancer in 2012. “I like to say that Father Malone is never there when you want him but always there when you need him. Always.”
“He has so many strengths,” said Kathleen Stroh, his sister. “He’s an excellent listener. When someone presents a problem to him, he gets right to the core of it. He’s a tremendous mediator. He has helped people through very tumultuous times in their lives.”
“He is all things to all people,” said Tom Diffley, a longtime friend. “He really understands his vocation and his calling – to help those in need.”
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His sister recalls him as a “very mischievous” child who occasionally got her in trouble.
“He snitched on me when we were in second and third grade when I stole a Push-Up from a grocery store,” Stroh said. “Mom worked full time, and our job was to do breakfast and set the table. It was his turn to wash the dishes and he wouldn’t. He told me if I didn’t wash the dishes he would tell Mom about the Push-Up. I wouldn’t, and he did.”
What’s worse, Stroh said, is that “I even gave him some of it! And he still turned me in.”
She missed her brother when he left for Nazareth Hall, but they stayed in close touch. “He used to write me these absolutely spirit-filled letters,” she said, “and I thought, ‘Wow! What’s happened to him?’ He had embraced his vocation.”
Malone loved life at Nazareth Hall. He appreciated its academic rigor and the opportunity to play hockey, and he felt comfortable with his choice to study there as a teenager. He was ordained in February 1967, during his final year at the St. Paul Seminary, and he spent weekends that spring in parishes saying Mass and hearing confessions.
“The first time in the confessional, I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I was really uncomfortable. But the experience made things much easier when I was assigned to a parish.”
While finishing his seminary studies, Malone also obtained a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from St. Thomas. His first assignment as a priest was to teach summer school chemistry at St. Thomas Academy even though he had no background in the subject.
“My goal was to see that no one would be hurt in the labs,” he said. “I achieved that.”
He moved to Incarnation Church in Minneapolis, where he was one of four assistant pastors, and served five years there and two years at the Church of the Assumption in St. Paul. An internship with Catholic Charities sparked his interest in law, which he saw as an opportunity to better serve a growing number of parishioners dealing with legal issues. He enrolled in William Mitchel College of Law, earned his juris doctorate in 1974 and got a call from Monsignor Terrence Murphy, president of St. Thomas.
“He asked me if I ever had thought of teaching,” Malone recalled. “I said no, and he said, ‘Come out and let’s talk.’ As I walked to his office, I heard some rustling in the bushes, and two guys jumped out naked and ran through the quad. I thought, ‘Now, that’s unusual.’ I told Murphy and he said it (streaking) didn’t happen all that much and that I shouldn’t worry about it.”
“One kid called me and told me he had been charged with negligent driving. I said OK. Then he called me back and said, ‘I think I forgot to tell you I also was charged with DUI.’ He got in my car and said, ‘I forgot to tell you I was in an accident.’ We got to Marshall and Cleveland, where the accident took place, and he said, “I don’t think I told you that I ran into a police car.’ I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting day.’”
Malone did other legal work, too. He filled in for a Ramsey County assistant public defender during her maternity leave in 1977 and stayed on a part-time basis until 1983. He found the experience rewarding because, in representing those who could not afford an attorney, “it gave validation to the dignity of the human person and their rights as citizens.”
He continued to celebrate Mass at Assumption, and in 1988 he jumped at the opportunity to become pastor there while continuing to carry a full teaching load at St. Thomas. (“I know that I do better if I’m busy,” he said.) The downtown St. Paul church grew from 200 to 2,000 families during his nearly two decades of leadership, drawn by his half-hour Sunday Masses and an expanding ministry to the poor and homeless.
Assumption’s outreach programs under Malone included the Dorothy Day Center; Listening House, a drop-in center that used the parish’s school building until it found new quarters; and an AIDS hospice that operated out of the rectory before finding permanent quarters. He opened the church as a refuge to six men during their hunger strike to protest U.S. military aid to El Salvador in 1990.
Those efforts “appealed to people who were into advancing the common good,” Malone said. “They liked their parish to spend their money wisely, and I was more than happy to work with them. It was a good fit for us.”
Malone became legendary for his short homilies, and he jokes that they are a result of short attention spans – his as well as churchgoers.
“When I became pastor of Assumption, I told them that I gave short sermons and made long putts,” he said. “At times, short sermons can take more effort because you have to choose your words carefully. You want people to leave with one message, not many.”
Diffley appreciates Malone’s approach and finds that his homilies “explode in your mind” for days.
“He doesn’t prattle on just to hear himself talk, but he identifies one aspect of the readings and throws out a concept,” Diffley said. “He keeps the people coming back. They know three things: It’s going to be a brief Sunday Mass, they’re going to leave with a message and there will be humor.”
Father Steve O’Gara, who succeeded Malone as Assumption pastor in 2007, credits Malone for leading by example, relating well to people from all walks of life and standing by them in tough times. O’Gara also sought to clarify why Malone’s homilies are so popular.
“I provide all of his homily material,” O’Gara said. “I really do! I tell people, ‘That story you heard today in Father Malone’s homily was from me.’ He calls me all the time and says, ‘Here is the theme; give me a story.’ He promises to pay me, but he never has.”
Malone’s plainspoken nature can catch people off guard, and he’s not afraid to use what his sister calls “outrageous” humor to make a point. She approves, however, because “it allows you to become a kindred spirit with him. You think, ‘Oh, Father Malone can do that. He’s real.’ He’s the most real person I have ever met.”
Father Michael O’Connell feels the same way about his best friend. O’Connell graduated from St. Thomas Academy and showed up at Nazareth Hall in 1959 not sure how he should behave other than being “pious,” given the setting.
“On the first day I arrived, I met John, and the definition of ‘pious’ changed for the rest of my life,” said O’Connell, pastor of Ascension Church in Minneapolis and former rector of the Basilica of St. Mary. “I think most people will know what I mean. He is the furthest thing from what people think as pious, and that makes him very accessible.”
While Malone’s personality and wit usually allow him to have the last word, he can be caught off guard. Perhaps the ultimate practical joke occurred on April Fool’s Day in 1995. Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan loves to tell the story.
“I was with a group of judges, having coffee,” she said, “and John Connolly said, ‘We need to do something to Malone. Let’s make him a bishop.’ I called Archbishop (John) Roach and he told me, ‘Anything I can do to help, I will.’
“He explained the process and said he had a scrivener and some parchment paper. They could create the document in Latin and send it down to me in a mailing tube that the archbishop had received from the Vatican. I dolled it up (including a forgery of Pope John Paul II’s signature) and arranged to have it dropped off at Assumption.
“He bought it … for about a half minute. That half minute was priceless, though.”
The Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted Malone as acknowledging that Marrinan “did a heck of a job” with the prank, but he also vowed “there will be revenge later, and there will be a special place in hell for her.” Today, Malone smiles wryly when asked about the incident.
“They were just trying to get even,” he said, “and they finally had a chance.”
Marrinan had the opportunity to more appropriately honor Malone in 2004. As president of the Lawyers Guild of St. Thomas More, she presented him with its St. Thomas More Award, which honors individuals whose lives embody the ideals and values of a Catholic lawyer. Five years earlier, he had received the Ramsey County Bar Association’s Humanitarian Award.
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Short homilies or long, parishioners and friends identify with Malone because they see in him the earthly personification of God.
“He’s going to hate me for saying this, but he truly has the heart of Jesus,” O’Connell said. “He has bailed out more people from various peccadillos and scrapes than you could ever count, and he’s provided very good counsel to literally thousands of people.”
“I go back to the Scriptures,” O’Connell said, “and a quote from the Book of Sirach in the Old Testament, Chapter 6: ‘A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy.’ John is always there when you need him. He has great compassion, and he is very wise.”
Brian Short, a Twin Cities area business executive, remembered visiting Federal Judge Edward Devitt when he was dying in the hospital in 1992.
“I walked in to see him, and John was anointing Ed, with his family present,” Short said. “The judge invited me to stay, and I found remarkable the great comfort that everyone in that room – judge, wife, daughter, grandchildren – received from John. I don’t know if it’s fair to say he brought God’s grace to those people, but I happen to think so. I have seen famous people who are struggling with their faith turn to John. Why is that? I believe it’s because God gave John something special, and he has the skills to be able to use that gift wisely and with great care and compassion.”
Father Dennis Dease, president emeritus of St. Thomas, was two years behind Malone at the St. Paul Seminary and has seen him in action for four decades. “People flock to him,” Dease said, and that is why he hired Malone as vice president for mission in 2008 after he retired from Assumption. He was named to the St. Thomas Board of Trustees that same year.
“He’s extremely bright and he has a heart to match,” Dease said. “He is one of the finest priests I have known. He is exceedingly pastoral. If someone is sick, John is there. If someone is dying, John is there. If a family is in crisis, John is there. It’s just become an instinct with him – he responds, as a pastor and as a friend.”
Marrinan is struck by similarities between Malone and Pope Francis when it comes to demeanor.
“The pope’s humility reflects who John is – a humble and normal person as opposed to somebody caught in trappings,” she said. “That leads to an ability to empathize with people. John has a strong moral compass and an understanding of people and their frailties – and his own, too.”
In the end, Sunberg said, it boils down to one thing.
“His faith is undeniable, it is unswerving and it comes first,” Sunberg said. “You look at a guy like him, you know he is so much like us, and then you see his faith. It’s a wonderful thing that he passes on, and it gives lay people like me a tremendous amount of strength.”
Like Sunberg, Malone finds his own strength through friendships and faith – a powerful combination in carrying out the work of God. They make him thankful he chose to become a priest.
“I had a wonderful experience a few weeks ago,” he said. “It was a rainy, lousy night, and after dinner I was driving by a nursing home and I remembered the elderly mother of a friend was nearing the end, and I thought, ‘I’d better stop in there.’
“Her family was there. We prayed with her for an hour, and not long after that, she died.”
While he has regrets – mostly “missed opportunities” where he could have helped somebody but didn’t – Malone insists that he doesn’t look back or second-guess himself. He chooses to look forward and savor the good in life – and to share the word of God – because he believes everyone without exception is created in God’s image.
“People invite you into the most intimate parts of their lives,” he said, “and that’s an unbelievable honor. I am a very lucky man.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.