Andrea Pozzo, Triumph of St. Ignatius of Loyola, 1685 (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend, Georgetown University and the Jesuit parish across the street from it held a wake and celebrated the funeral liturgy of church historian Father John O’Malley, S.J. If you’re at all clued into “Jesuit stuff,” you’ve probably read something that John wrote. He was a prolific writer, particularly about the Jesuits and the councils that shaped Catholicism across the centuries, especially the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), whose consequences are still being hotly debated. It was characteristic of John that he could make the impact of church councils every bit as riveting as the latest papal biography. John had the rare ability to speak equally well to a scholarly audience and everyday Catholics as well as non-Catholics.

When I was a young man during  my training in the Society, I spent three years studying philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. Whenever there was a Jesuit funeral, the provincial superior would end the funeral with three “points”—lessons to be learned from the life of this man. 

I knew John for thirty  years. There are many who knew him far better than me, but these are three things that he taught me. 

Don’t Be Satisfied with What They Tell You

As far as I can tell, pretty much anyone who ever had John for class had this shared experience: he would be lecturing about some aspect of the Council of Trent, Vatican II, or the Catholic Reformation. And then upon completing a thought, he would step to the chalkboard, draw a huge question mark on it, and say simply, “So what?”

Father John O’Malley, S.J.

Time and again in his life, John listened to the inherited wisdom of a group, some truth that had been passed down for generations, no doubt in hushed voices, something that was supposedly beyond question. And then he questioned it. 

For instance, before The First Jesuits, his 1993 book about the early history of the Society of Jesus, much of the historical literature about the order was written by Jesuits through the lens of approbation and piety. It was hagiography rather than serious historical analysis. No doubt some Jesuits were satisfied with that approach; it gave us inspiring stories to use in teaching people about the Society. But John looked at our early history with the eyes of a Harvard-trained academic. And in doing so he uncovered aspects of the early Society that had never been known. His work ended up inspiring a whole field of Jesuit historical research. 

It was the same with his study of church history. Where the tradition had grown comfortable interpreting sixteenth-century  Catholicism as an opposition to the Reformation, John pointed out the ways that the Catholic Church flourished and grew, the art, ideas, practices, and orders (including the Jesuits) that emerged during that period. To express all of that as “Counter-Reformation” was to misunderstand and limit what had happened. Once again, his work opened up a whole new field, which is known today as the Catholic Reformation or Catholic Revival.

Although I think John delighted in the idea of being a bit subversive (in his tweed coat, blue Oxford shirt, and plaid tie, no less), he asked the questions which he did out of curiosity more than rebellion. He really wanted to know the point of certain held truths, their practical value or social significance. His scholarship and teaching was marked by an interest in discovery. Each “hallowed truth” was like an ancient pyramid that he was thrilled to show was not solid rock but instead contained unknown riches within. 

Even the truths John told himself were open to self-scrutiny. After getting ordained a priest, John planned to pursue a doctorate on Reformation history and spent a year in Austria studying German while completing the last stage of Jesuit formation. It was a miserable year: the sun never came out, the building he lived in had no heat (and hot water for baths only on Fridays and Saturdays), and the food was terrible. “We joked among ourselves that it was the only place on earth where one could simultaneously gain weight and die of malnutrition,” he wrote in his memoir, The Education of a Historian.

At the end of the year one of his classmates invited him to go with him to Italy for a week. John did not want to go. He had absolutely no interest in Italy. But the classmate wouldn’t take no for an answer. And almost immediately upon arrival, the beauty of Italy, from the fineness of the art and the architecture to the flavors of the food, completely overwhelmed him. While he was having gelato for the first time one afternoon in Florence, it hit him: Why go into German history? He had been miserable the entire year of preparing to do so. Why not study Italian history instead? In later life John would often talk about this first trip to Italy as one of the most important moments of his entire life.

Our world has truths it wants you to accept uncritically, and our church does, too. John’s life and scholarship showed how much more treasure there is to be found if you ask questions and explore beyond the delineated margins. 

The Way You Speak and Treat People Says Everything 

The biggest battle that John fought as a Catholic historian was over the question of the significance of Vatican II. As the rush of excitement and enthusiasm for Vatican II was quelled by Pope John Paul II’s efforts to centralize power and the teaching authority of the church more and more around himself, it grew more and more fashionable to say that Vatican II did not constitute any real change or development of doctrine. It couldn’t, the argument went, because the church never changes. In truth, this argument was a strategy of anti-Vatican II hierarchs who wanted Catholics to believe there was no questioning any of the reactionary, out-of-touch views that the Church had presented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was an absurd argument, of course. You had only to go to Mass, where suddenly the readings and prayers were in your native tongue rather than Latin and the priest now faced the people, to see that, in fact, a great many important things had changed with Vatican II. But it became a central tenet to the JP II Vatican, one insisted upon by then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI. 

John was one of many who insisted the “continuity” argument was inaccurate and that Vatican II constituted a significant change in the life of the church. And his most important contribution to that work was his insistence on the significance of the style and voice of Vatican II. Where the church had tended to speak in a cold, juridical, and technical language that served to separate it from both the world and its own people, positioning its leaders as sitting on high in judgment, the documents of Vatican II were warm in tone and spoke often of the need for dialogue both with the world (and other religions!) and within the church. They had a humility that was new, an openness, even a sense of gratitude and wonder.   

O’Malley insisted that this style of conversation could not be discounted as mere ornamentation, just a new way of saying the traditional things. It constituted an entirely new vision for the church, one in which the church was a friend rather than a superior, a searching pilgrim rather than an all-knowing judge. At its heart, the Council was about the “how” of the Church, that is, the manner in which the Church was going to be church, and its tone and style were the fullest expression of what it had discerned. 

And one could point back to the voice of Vatican II to call bishops to account: a style of church that does not behave collegially, that does not listen as well as speak, that denies or limits the participation of lay Catholics, that is not open to change is in fundamental error, disconnected from what it is to be church. It’s exactly the idea that Pope Francis has presented time and again to the bishops and Roman Curia over the last nine and a half years. 

Vatican II session (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s also the way that John himself treated people. He was a fine priest, but first and foremost he was a colleague and a friend. He entered into conversation, as he did his research, eager not only to share but to learn and to be dazzled by the ideas of others. For decades he worked at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, a small Catholic school that trained people to work in the Church (including myself). And like many of his colleagues there, John saw the work of scholarship and teaching as alive and exciting, a chance not to indoctrinate certain ideas and suppress others but as a shared journey into exciting and exotic places where who knows what we might find.  

When Boston College bought Weston and summarily moved it out of Cambridge to its suburban campus in Chestnut Hill, John “retired” to Georgetown. It would be fair to say he was saddened by what seemed like an unnecessary amputation of the school he had devoted so many years to. I wonder if that move didn’t seem to him like an expression of exactly the top-down style of church he had spent decades critiquing. And yet he didn’t let those events discourage him. He flourished at Georgetown, publishing many books and sharing with students and colleagues that same enthusiasm and friendship that he appreciated about Vatican II. And the openness and warmth of his relationships spoke volumes about who he was and what he believed. 

The World is to be Experienced and Savored

I first met John the year before I entered the Jesuits. And as I have tried to get my head around the idea of him being gone over these past several days, I was delighted to remember that he actually introduced me to two of my favorite liqueurs—sambuca, a deliciously-warm licorice-flavored drink which he usually garnished with a few espresso beans, and the sweet neon yellow limoncello, a bottle of which he always seemed to have on hand in the freezer. I can remember the look on John’s face as he would offer these drinks. It was like he was introducing you into a wonderful secret. 

For [John], the world was a garden, and he delighted in the chance to be affected by all that it had to offer, both intellectually and physically. “Pleasure” was not a dirty word for John, but rather something to be treasured and shared with others.

There will be many, many people grieving John’s death right now, and I would guess more than anything it will be this quality of him, this invitation to savor the world, that we mourners will have in common. In both lectures and everyday conversation, he regularly spoke with feeling on art and architecture, music and opera. For him, the world was a garden, and he delighted in the chance to be affected by all that it had to offer, both intellectually and physically. “Pleasure” was not a dirty word for John, but rather something to be treasured and shared with others. Maybe he saw the ministry of his priesthood itself as about helping others into the freedom and wonder that Italy had given him long ago. 

A few years ago John and I had dinner at a restaurant in Washington. I was going to interview him the next day for a podcast about Jesuits who had managed to get old without getting hard inside (a hazard of religious life). That conversation would prove to be rich and thoughtful (and funny) in exactly the ways that John always was. But it’s our dinner together that will always stay with me, in particular his honesty and vulnerability as I talked about some of the questions of my own life. With John, even hard things could be savored and shared. 

John O’Malley was a loving friend. And his life and scholarship offered wisdom about being human and happy that I hope will help others for a long time to come.  

Jim McDermott, S.J., is a screenwriter, journalist, and associate editor for America.