Pursuing Justice Through Love

Cara McMahon '99, '07, '10


Sitting in a classroom that suddenly felt cold and drafty, she thought about her ethics assignment and hoped, as she put pen to paper, that the recipient on the other end wouldn’t realize the ink stain in the margin revealed a momentary hesitation that caused her pen to leak. After all, what does a Catholic schoolgirl say in a letter to an inmate on death row?

Cara McMahon ‘99, ’07 (MA), then just a sophomore at the Academy of Our Lady of Peace, doesn’t remember exactly what she wrote. Nor does she recall everything the convict said in his typed response. She remembers his admission of guilt, his remorse for his crimes and his plea with her to care for the world and change the trajectory of someone’s life. That inspired how she lives her life.

McMahon graduated from USD in 1999 with bachelor’s degrees in theological and religious studies and sociology. She worked as a campus minister from 2000 to 2006 and earned a master’s degree in pastoral care and counseling in 2007. From 2008 to 2010, she earned a second master’s degree in global development and social justice from St. John’s University. She came to USD again in 2012, for yet another assignment, to lead the Center for Christian Spirituality. Her story abounds with full circles — interesting moments when life repeats lessons previously taught. What others think of as coincidental, McMahon considers the work of God.

Q: You mentioned you were “born a Catholic.” What does that mean for you?

A: You always hear people say, “I’m Irish Catholic” and they think it tells you everything you need to know. My parents came to the United States in 1968 from Dublin, by way of South Africa and then Canada. Both my parents lost their fathers when they were very young so they were raised by two pretty phenomenal women. My most prominent images of my grandmothers are through the lenses of faith and prayer. They had an authentic trust in God. My folks were raised with that same trust and passed it on to me. My parents worked hard to put us through Catholic school. I’ve been Catholic-educated my whole life. Those who have inspired me the most are people who live, very intentionally, committed to God and faith-based social justice.

Q: What drew you to study religion and sociology?

A: I loved the study of God. I liked that we could study aspects, like the historical Jesus and the Church and Catholic traditions, but was also intrigued by the fact that we’ll never really be able to know everything entirely because — it’s God. Sociology is the same way because society is constantly evolving and changing. I had no idea those things would eventually make sense in my life and in who I would become. I just studied what I loved. When I was 28 years old, I went back to OLP and became an ethics teacher. Full circles. I’m all about it.

Q: How has religion and sociology, and your background in pastoral counseling and social justice, shaped the work you’ve done in other countries?

A: At OLP, I wasn’t just a social ethics teacher. I also ran the service immersion program and took students to Tijuana. My goal was to create relationships that helped students understand how God works through people in the world.

In Tijuana we worked at various sites. One was a home for women, called Casa de las Madres de Caridad. The other was a home for men called Casa Juan Diego.

I would bring the students to the home for men and watched them clip the men’s toenails, give haircuts or change their bedding.

At school, I could ask them to pick up something off the ground and might be met with a sigh of exasperation, but in doing this kind of work, they never complained. That’s when you realize it’s a humbling privilege to be part of the works of mercy.

Q: USD is at the center of many full circles in your life. What brings you back?

A: In March of 2000, I got an email asking if I’d like to apply to be a campus minister at USD. I sent in my paperwork, did my interview over the phone from Ireland and left the next day to backpack around Europe for two months. I found out I was hired while standing in a train station in Madrid.

My new job was, largely, to run the University Ministry programs based in social justice education. At the end of my second year as a campus minister, I went to Peru for the summer. I grew up in the St. Rose of Lima parish in Chula Vista and couldn’t wait to go to Lima, Peru — another full circle. I lived with the Sisters of the Holy Faith in a barrio neighborhood where they ran a center for children with special needs.

I met a 6-year-old boy named Adrian who was completely disabled and couldn’t speak. Another boy, Cesar, was about the same age. He could see and hear and was completely able-bodied, but couldn’t speak. They were best buddies.

One morning, their teacher brought out a doll. She was showing Adrian the head, the hands and the arms. She asked, “¿Adrian, donde está la cabeza?” “Where is the head?” He couldn’t move and couldn’t talk and I wondered how he’d answer. Cesar picked up Adrian’s hand and pointed it at the doll’s head. It was the most beautiful moment of solidarity I’d ever seen.

Q: What’s the mission of the Center for Christian Spirituality and how is the center evolving under your leadership?

A: In 1985, USD established the Institute for Christian Ministries, which was endowed by the Society of the Sacred Heart. The institute had two roles. It offered a community-service element by sponsoring ecumenical programs, leadership training and resources for parish programs. It also offered an academic element, including a theology degree that started in 1985 and a graduate degree in pastoral care and counseling, which was established in 1989. Maybe not so coincidentally, that was the same graduate degree I earned 18 years later. There’s another full circle.

The name changed in 2001 to the Center for Christian Spirituality, but we’re still fulfilling the mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart.

I’ve learned so much and have become a more spiritual person because of the Center for Christian Spirituality. The people I work with — people who are doing contemplative prayer or who work in health care to help people care for themselves spiritually — have challenged me to pray more, to live more simply, to spend time in silence and to focus on Scripture. This has been a gift.

Q: You’re also a member of USD’s Council for the Advancement of Catholic Social Thought. How do you define Catholic Social Thought and its role at USD?

A: Catholic Social Thought is the body of moral teaching that addresses the Catholic Church’s response to many social ills and injustices in the world. The Catholic Church seeks to be attentive to the needs of the world by providing teachings that eradicate oppression and make way for a more loving human family and a more Christ-centered existence. The social teachings of the Church are rooted in Scripture and draw from Catholic theology, to encourage, challenge and demand those of good will to persist in the pursuit of justice through the most loving avenues possible.

The university honors Catholic Social Thought by dedicating Masses, lectures, events and other academic endeavors to seven themes: option for the poor; call to family, community and participation; solidarity; dignity of work and the rights of workers; dignity of the human person; and rights and responsibilities.

Catholic Social Thought is my academic joy, the stuff I come alive to. I think young people want to know about this. It’s what Pope Francis calls us to live right now. It’s not the entire religion or the entire faith, but it’s an aspect, or a lens, that has helped me glimpse God in the most challenging and meaningful ways. Catholic Social Thought is a tradition that has made me proud to be Catholic.


Catholic Social Thought has been the light that casts a glow on Cara McMahon’s journey so far. Where she’ll go and what she’ll do next, only God knows.

“We have no idea how God will work through us,” McMahon says. “We don’t know the things we’ll be challenged by or what will eventually become blessings and gifts.All I know is that I can see the heart of God in the hearts of people. Nothing competes with lessons I’ve learned because of the people God has put in my life and the relationships He has given me.” —Krystn Shrieve

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