JAMAICA ESTATES — Father John McMillan is happy to have lived an entire century — time, he feels, has been well spent plumbing the mysteries of the cross.
Father McMillan, a Passionist priest, recently turned 100 years old. It’s the latest milestone in a life shaped by events of the mid-20th century, from the hardships of the Great Depression to aerial combat during World War II. As a priest, he was an eyewitness to the Second Vatican Council.
Sharp as a tack, though a bit hard of hearing, his mind still explores God’s love revealed through the crucifixion of his son, Jesus. Ironically, this is a concept he treated with skepticism as a young man.
“That’s one of the reasons the Lord has let me live so long,” he said with a chuckle. “You see, I’m a slow learner.”
Family, friends, and fellow priests celebrated Father McMillan — the first Passionist of the St. Paul of the Cross Province to turn 100 — with a Mass and luncheon on Sunday, Oct. 8, the day before his Oct. 9 birthday.
They gathered at his home for the past several years — the Passionists’ Immaculate Conception Monastery in Jamaica Estates.
But, a few weeks before his birthday, he confessed to being a “little nervous” about the celebration, unsure why he deserved attention.
Father Bill Murphy, rector of the monastery, said the older priest is “very humble” and “very simple,” but he also has a profound intellectual curiosity.
“John is an avid reader, right up to date on the latest books and The New York Times,” Father Murphy said. “He’ll share with you what he knows, but also where the questions are. But he’s not a know-it-all, that’s for sure.”
Father McMillan grew up in Linden, New Jersey, the son of a Presbyterian father from South Carolina and a fiercely Irish Catholic mother.
He and his younger brother were raised Catholic. The Great Depression was underway by the time he turned 7.
“But I didn’t realize how bad it was,” he said. “We had plenty of food.”
Father McMillan graduated from high school in 1941 and went to work for Bell Telephone as a draftsman. He commuted each day from Linden to Lower Manhattan.
“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “A lot of the guys came from technical schools and they were ready to go. But they needed people, so they were patient with me. And they let me develop some skills.”
One day during his commute, he popped into a bookstore to browse the shelves. He came upon a book that he called “a classic” although he couldn’t remember its title.
He did, however, remember that one chapter — “The Royal Road of the Cross” — was a treatise on the Passion of Christ.
“I read that and I said, ‘Wow, this is tough,’ ” Father McMillan said. “But it put a little bug in my mind, which then, I think, was the Holy Spirit working in me.”
Father McMillan said he worked about 18 months for the telephone company, “but then time ran out.” He transitioned from a draftsman to a draftee — literally, having been conscripted to fight in the war.
With no flight experience, he volunteered for the U.S. Air Corps. He endured comprehensive but swift training to become a B-24 navigator with the 15th Air Force in Italy. From there, he guided 35 bombing runs over Nazi-held targets in Europe, and ultimately rose to the rank of captain.
After the war, however, he sought a switch from military to humanitarian service. He first considered a dual career as a religious brother and nurse. But then he visited his younger brother, who was considering formation as a Passionist.
The community impressed the former navigator with its devotion to the Passion so much that he too entered the minor seminary at Dunkirk, New York.
Father McMillan’s brother ultimately didn’t stay, choosing to become a teacher and raise a family. The older McMillan was ordained in 1956.
Father Theodore Foley — now a candidate for sainthood — must have seen some sort of potential in the young priest. He sent him back to Italy to oversee the Passionists’ library at the Vatican. He had no knowledge of library science, and could only speak fragments of Italian that he learned during the war. But he held that job for 15 years.
Later on his journey of service, Father McMillan was a go-to chaplain at a drug and alcohol treatment center operated by the Passionists in Pennsylvania.
The centenarian priest’s compassion is still demonstrated daily by his fervent prayer life, another example of this community’s devotion to the Passion.
“Whatever is going on prayer wise, he’s always participating,” Father Murphy said. “We have morning Mass, and he’s there, usually early, and he’ll stay later, doing his prayer. He’ll be in church all the time.”
Father McMillan confirmed that his prayer list is lengthy, with much of it based on current events, from the war in Ukraine to gun violence on the streets of New York.
“The individual cases that you run into reading the paper or on the television — just terrible crimes,” he said. “I pray for the salvation of those who are guilty and pray for some peace for those who have been hurt.
“It’s a full-time job.”