The bond between New Yorkers and NYPD Detective Steven McDonald is a very strong one that grew over more than three decades from the day he was shot by a teen assailant while on duty as a police officer in Central Park in July 1986, to his forgiveness of that same young man, to his personal witness in bringing that message of forgiveness and faith to audiences near and far.
New Yorkers and people around the nation and the world were moved by the final tributes paid to an officer who, despite physical limitations and suffering, understood what it meant to serve and carry out his responsibilities to his city, family and faith in a way that brought him deserved recognition and honor.
With McDonald’s death on Jan. 10, we spent a lot of hours last week preparing the coverage in this issue and on our website, cny.org. As I leafed through the old clippings and photos in our files, I was proud of how we stayed with his remarkable story through the years and decades. Almost every staff member who worked in our editorial department during that time had a chance to cover such a story, right up to one by reporter Dan Pietrafesa about a forum, “Gun Violence and the Police: A New York Perspective,” which Detective McDonald participated in at the Sheen Center in Lower Manhattan in late October.
I came across a few of my own bylines, including one on a 1988 story for The Tablet newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, headlined “Faith in God Fills Paralyzed Officer With Hope for Future.” It was about an Advent prayer service at St. Helen’s Church in Howard Beach, Queens, where Detective McDonald and his wife, Patti Ann, spoke.
That headline was a pretty accurate depiction of a life that took an unexpected turn 30 years ago. In interviews and regular conversations last week, people universally expressed admiration for Detective McDonald, and a few shared personal stories of interactions chronicled in another story in this issue.
One honest person told me that she still struggled to understand how he could forgive the person who shot him. My response was that Detective McDonald allowed God’s grace to work through him.
I saw that grace close-up on numerous occasions. My family worships at St. Agnes Cathedral parish in Rockville Centre, where McDonald grew up. The McDonalds now live in nearby Malverne, but through the years he continued to be a regular presence at St. Agnes. There was a spot near the front of the church where I often remember him sitting at Mass. More recently, there were a few times I was surprised to hear him serving as the lector, from his place in the body of the cathedral.
Then, there was the time when I recently attended a men’s prayer meeting at St. Agnes and found Steven leading the other members in the Rosary and other prayers. This past Sunday, I found out that he was the founder of that group, which originally met in his house. The information came in a homily by the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. William Koenig, who called Detective McDonald “a son of St. Agnes.”
Msgr. Koenig also said that one of Steven’s family members, speaking about how they had prayed for a miracle in his physical recovery, said she now realized that their prayers were answered in the life that he was able to lead since he was shot.
His personal witness to his Catholic faith, through the healing power of forgiveness and reconciliation, was extraordinary. That he did it all while continuing to proudly serve the New York Police Department only adds to the story.
Maybe the thing that sticks to me the most about Steven’s forgiveness is that he spoke about making the decision to forgive over and over. That repeated choice made a big difference in his life, and it’s one I will try to emulate in my own.