VATICAN CITY, April 8 -- It would be an exaggeration to say that John G. McDonald is a nobody in the Roman Catholic Church.
After all, among his 150 fellow students at the Pontifical North American College, the biggest U.S. seminary in Rome, McDonald is well-known for his shrimp gumbo, which everyone agrees is delicious, and for his colorful stories about growing up in the small town of Citronelle, Ala. But as a second-year theology student, still two years away from ordination as a priest, McDonald, 28, is not exactly a household name here.
So what was he doing up there on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica on Friday, surrounded by archbishops and cardinals, presidents and prime ministers, reading from the New Testament to a crowd of 300,000 people and a worldwide television audience of millions during the funeral of Pope John Paul II?
"I was proclaiming the word of God -- and trying to hide my Southern accent," was his answer.
Through a combination of serendipity and tradition, McDonald was chosen to play the most prominent role of any American in the funeral Mass, eclipsing all the U.S. bishops, archbishops and cardinals in attendance.
By tradition, papal funerals use a variety of languages to demonstrate the universality of the church. Those used this week included Latin, Greek, Polish, Spanish, English, French, German, Swahili and Tagalog.
Like any Catholic Mass, a papal funeral also has three readings from the Bible, of which two are delivered by laypeople. Only the third reading, which is from one of the Gospels, must be delivered by a deacon or a priest.
According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who presided at the Mass, the pope chose the passages to be read at his funeral. But John Paul apparently left it up to the Vatican's master of liturgical ceremonies to select the readers. Needing a layperson and a native English speaker for the second reading, a Vatican official made a phone call Wednesday morning to Kevin C. McCoy, rector of the North American College.
McCoy, in turn, consulted with his faculty and selected McDonald. During his first year at the seminary, McDonald had been formally "installed in the ministry of lector," McCoy explained in an interview Friday. That's the church's way of saying he's qualified to read in a service. Moreover, the Alabama native had done a fine job each time his turn came to do a reading at the seminary's Masses, the rector said.
On Wednesday afternoon, less than 48 hours before the funeral, McDonald got the job. The only hitch came at a rehearsal Thursday night in St. Peter's Square, when McDonald began to read his passage from Saint Paul's letter to the Philippians.
"What is that cadence in your voice?" the master of ceremonies asked.
"That's a Southern accent," McDonald replied.
Though he was nervous after that encounter, McDonald said, he calmed down when a classmate, Mark Lenneman of Helena, Mont., assured him, "The Holy Spirit will provide for you in the moment that you need him."
The son of a banker and an English professor, McDonald was raised as an Episcopalian. He became a Catholic while attending Loyola University in New Orleans, a Jesuit-run school where, he said, "for the first time in my life I met a group of people that I respected on every level and who were excited about their faith."
He also credits the influence of his maternal grandmother, who owned a small bank in his home town and, he said, was the first lender in southern Alabama to provide mortgage loans to blacks at the same interest rate as whites got. "I remember as a small child staying at her house, and even though she had perfect vision, she would have me read the Bible to her," he said. "I just thought that's what everybody did with their grandmother."
At the seminary, McDonald is usually in the chapel each morning by 5:30 a.m. One of his required courses is on the "cardinal virtues" of prudence, fortitude and temperance. ("Cardinal sins" is an optional seminar). His biggest challenge so far in Rome has been finding okra for his gumbo, which he finally located at an African market. Before Friday, the largest audience he had ever addressed was 400 people at a church service in Guntersville, Ala.
As for muffling his accent, it wasn't all that hard.
"I'm a professionally trained speaker, and when you're in that kind of venue and proclaiming the word of God, you have to be understood," he said. "But in the end I did it the way I wanted, and I hope a bit of the South came through."