Evangelization is open-heart surgery, says surgeon turned priest

A version of this story appeared in the Aug 28-Sept 10, 2015 print issue.

by Jose Kavi

Contributing editor

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Fr. James McTavish, a Verbum Dei missionary from Scotland, has been working in the Philippines for the past 11 years. He attended the first pan-Asian conference of moral theologians here July 16-20, where he presented a paper on "Justice and Health Care — When Ordinary is Extraordinary."

McTavish shared with NCR about his transition from a successful plastic surgeon to a Catholic priest and moral theologian and his concerns for a just world.

NCR: You were a surgeon and now a Catholic missionary in Asia. How did it all happen?

McTavish: That is a long story. In mid-1990s, I was working as a surgeon in Edinburgh, Scotland. After finishing my fellowship from the Royal College of Surgeons, I did specialization in different subjects. Then I spent six months doing plastic surgery.

Plastic surgery?

Most people think that plastic surgery is just about beauty. But plastic is a word from Greek which means remolding or remodeling. So, this specialty is called reconstruction. I took [this up] because I felt a call to heal the world.


I went to Sydney, Australia, in 1998 as part of my specialization. I was in a new world very far from the United Kingdom. It was a moment for me to return to my faith. Although I was born and raised a Catholic, I was so busy with my career in my 20s.

Two events made me listen more carefully to the Lord's call. On my 29th birthday, I was humming along with a song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." One of my friends suddenly asked me, "Is it true, you still haven't found what you're looking for?"

I was annoyed and said to myself, "Hey, give me a break, it is my birthday. I'm just enjoying [myself] and not making any philosophical statements."

But his question bugged me afterward. I had all the things in the world. … All the ticks. Travel — tick, career — tick, money — tick, friends — tick. But the last spot, "Have you found what you're looking for?" I couldn't tick it honestly.

The second incident happened in the hospital. One day, I was called to the emergency room to see a 26-year-old man who tried to commit suicide [by] cutting through his wrist. We operated [on] him from midnight to 8 a.m. Later that day, when I went to see him, he looked very sad. I tried to comfort him, "Hey, everything went well. It was a good operation. You got a long way to go but you should be OK." He started to cry and I asked him, "Why are you crying, you should be happy. We have fixed your hand."

He said to me, "You fixed my hand but you did not fix my life."

My first reaction was irritation because I had worked the whole night. "My goodness, where's the gratitude?" I thought to myself. But in another part of me, I felt like I'm not going to spend my life doing things that are not going to help people.

When did you finally decide to become a priest?

Soon after, I met some sisters of the Verbum Dei community, who taught us to pray with the word of God. One night, they asked me to reflect on John 14:6, which I had probably heard before. But that night, the words impacted me, especially when Jesus says, "I'm the life." …

At that moment, I felt Jesus was looking at me. I said, "Lord, I'm giving you my hands as a surgeon but if you want I could give you more but I don't know what else I could do for you. But I know I want to heal this world." 

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