Fr. Vinny McKiernan, C.S.P.
May 11, 2017
COLUMBUS, OH — Paulist Fr. Vinny McKiernan uses a play on words to guide a lunchtime prayer group to think more deeply about Easter. This twisting of language has become one of the distinguishing features of Fr. Vinny’s 60 years as a priest.
“Jesus who knew life came back to new life,” he says, eliciting “ahhs” and surprised smiles from the group of about a dozen people. “That’s the miracle.”
Fr. Vinny leads this group from quiet meditation in an indoor chapel to an outdoor courtyard. He encourages the little flock to consider the interplay of the words “belief” and “be leaf” and to gaze at the trees and flowers in full bloom.
Then, he gathers the group in a circle and urges everyone to make loving eye contact toward every other person in the group and to repeat one another’s name. Encouraging this direct acknowledgment among the group is in keeping with his model of a shepherding and personal relationship among the flock, and with the divine.
“That idea of the good shepherd that I know mine and mine know me,” he says.
This micro-retreat contrasts with the traffic alongside the courtyard on Lane Avenue, the main drag through Ohio State University in Columbus. And it’s emblematic of what Fr. Vinny tries to live as a Paulist Father — shepherding people toward spiritual reflection in the midst of busy days.
“It’s a way of helping their relationship immediately with God,” he says of the centering prayer he practices with these older adults and OSU students. He’s the only teacher of the official “Introduction to Centering Prayer” workshop in his region. It’s a workshop he’s taught over 100 times.
The centering prayer group is just a small part of Fr. Vinny’s flock at the Newman Center on the campus, where he’s worked for 26 years. Over the course of his life and work, he’s been a novice director with the Paulist Fathers. He’s also become known for spiritual direction, and giving retreats to nuns. But he says the emphasis of his life has been what he describes as the “core” of being a priest: celebrating the sacraments in daily Mass, Sunday mass, weddings, baptisms and funerals.
He says his understanding of the work of a priest was shaped by the name of the parish in which he grew up in New York City — Good Shepherd.
Good Shepherd Church in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan was then an Irish-Catholic enclave where the kids made off-color jokes, Fr. Vinny remembers. While he dropped the violence of those jokes, the jovial quality never left him. He says his Paulist seminarian education in Greek and Latin only gave him more material, more ways to twist and bend language.
Fr. Vinny long ago named his own wisdom sayings “Vinamins,” combining his name with the word “vitamins.” He literally has volumes of these sayings, spiral bound in the style of a daily desk calendar and packaged as “Multi-Vinamins” and “Mega-Vinamins.”
“Altar behavior may require us to alter behavior, especially after an altercation,” reads one entry from the @Vinamin Twitter page.
“Don’t be irresponsible.
Hear – respond carefully.”
He warns readers not to overdose on Vinamins. It’s the kind of nonstop pun that leads one of his brother priests to fondly say some of the older man’s lines are “real groaners.”
Fr. Vinny, as one of the seminarians recently quipped, is the “Yoda” of the Paulist Fathers community, referring to the petite Grand Jedi Master of Star Wars fame whose wisdom sayings are widely
Yoda is an apt metaphor. After all, as he said in Empire Strikes Back, “Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things.”
Fr. Vinny says the same about his own life, being utterly satisfied with ordinary life and whatever comes along.
“I trust the process of my life that it will develop,” he says. “There’s a painting of a peasant in France, with a bag around his neck dipping into a bag of seeds and just spreading them as he went. And that’s my approach. I don’t plan that carefully. As I go I plant seeds… Jesus was really lavish and said some will bear 30-fold 60-fold 100-fold. And you don’t know what you’re sowing.”