In Lebanon, Afro-Asian migrants celebrate with 90-year-old U.S. priest

BEIRUT (CNS) -- To celebrate his 90th birthday, U.S. Jesuit Father Martin McDermott spent the day among the kingdom of heaven -- as he affectionately refers to the migrant community he has served in Lebanon for more than 40 years.

And members of the "kingdom" shared their love with the priest, with some saying his spiritual guidance kept them on the right path.

In his homily at the Sunday English Mass at St. Joseph's Jesuit Church in Beirut Nov. 6, Father Martin referred to his age: "I didn't expect to get to here."

After Mass, in the Afro-Asian Migrant Center on the second floor of the church, Father Martin was seated at the head of the table, where he was lovingly served a buffet of home-prepared foods by the migrants.

As they presented him with a cake topped with a big sparkler candle, the group sang "Happy Birthday" in English, Tagalog, Arabic and French, punctuated with high-pitched ululating, typical of celebrations in the Middle East. "We love you," they told him in unison.

The ladies then assembled, announcing "Father, this is for you," and joined in a line dance, singing, with hand actions, "Praise the Lord ... to God be the glory."

"It's good to be 90," Father Martin said, beaming.

"You are the reason for all our blessings, Father Martin," Youssef Abi Kamel told the 90-year-old priest, reverently shaking his hand.

Abi Kamel, a Lebanese, was baptized by Father Martin, and it was at St. Joseph's Church that he met his Filipina wife, Maria Theresa. Father Martin married them 21 years ago and baptized and confirmed their three daughters, now 12, 16 and 20 years old.

"He's the light in the church," Abi Kamel told Catholic News Service of Father Martin. "He's like the shining, Statue of Liberty here. The amount of love we all have received from him is beyond what words can express."

"Father Martin, may you live 190 years, as long as we need you. Happy Birthday," Abi Kamel told the priest.

Francisca Castillo, 67, who has worked in Lebanon for 40 years as a housemaid, told CNS, "Father Martin is my idol."

"When we come here (from our countries), we are alone. Many times, I cried, but the spiritual guidance of Father Martin kept me on the straight path."

In his homily at the Mass, Father McDermott shared his path to the priesthood and the influence of Mary in his life.

When Father McDermott was growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, his father, an orthopedic surgeon, would never charge a fee to a priest or a nun.

At Christmastime, "all sorts of gifts came from priests and convents for our family." In particular, Father Martin was drawn to reading a Bible and books sent by a Jesuit priest.

"Then one time, a beautiful picture came from the convent, of Our Lady, showing her immaculate heart. I put it in my room, and I used to talk to her."

In prep school, because he was a bit taller than the rest, he was made goalie for the soccer team.

"The team was not very good, and I was not a very good goalie either. But the team blamed me," Father Martin recounted to laughter. "I discovered that if I prayed to Our Lady and said three rosaries, things would go better on the soccer field."

Father Martin said he heard his calling for the priesthood from Mary when he was around 14.

"Later on, I felt Our Lady wanted me to become a Jesuit, so I did. It all went very well," he said in his homily.

Ordained in 1964, Father Martin's view of the priesthood was and still remains, as he told CNS, "To give yourself to our Lord. To serve him, wherever and however he wants."

Since 1981, Father Martin also served as spiritual adviser in Lebanon for the Missionaries of Charity.

"They sent me all over," to places like Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Albania, where he led spiritual retreats for the sisters.

"It helped me," he says of his time spent with the Missionaries of Charity. "When you're near holy people, you get holy. It was a blessing for me."

When he went to Boston for a knee replacement in 2016 and was recuperating, the regional Jesuit provincial "had never met me, but he decided because I was over 80, that I would stay in the infirmary. That is, waiting for my funeral," Father Martin recalled with a giggle.

"I immediately emailed the provincial here (in Beirut) because I had been living here 45 years on loan ... I asked, 'can I join your province?'"

The Beirut Jesuit provincial agreed and arranged for Father Martin's return.

"It was a narrow escape," Father Martin said of the possible "sentence" of inactivity in the U.S. infirmary. "I love being a priest."

With the same determination, Father Martin recovered from another knee replacement this September.

The migrants missed him so much during the Sundays he was recuperating that they would gather in the courtyard of the Jesuit residence to sing for him.

"I was like the pope, from my window," he told CNS.

In October 2021, the local Latin-rite bishop informed Father Martin that a team of three younger Jesuits was appointed to lead the migrant center. He took it in stride, and most of all is happy that the migrant center is assured of a future.

"They are doing a lot of good things," he said, "and they still let me play on the team."