I just found out that an old college professor of mine, George, died in his sleep recently. He was 84. I’m sad because he was one of those people I wanted to get in contact with to say thank you, and I never did. A few years ago, I emailed his son – a former Jesuit – and he gave me George’s address. I was thinking about sending him a copy of my recent book, to show him that something of what he had taught me had stuck with me, that his lessons mattered. But I never did. I felt it would be showing off. Now I wish I had.
George taught theology at a Jesuit university but he was an inspiration for a small circle of Catholic would-be intellectuals in the city. He was a layman, father of seven, not a priest or religious, and he delighted in shocking his students with frank (often obscene) comments about sex, race relations, war and peace, and so on. In that, he was a child of his time (I studied with him in the late 1970s). But George was a lot more. He introduced his students to a whole different world, a world in which Christianity and Catholicism were vital and urgent and had important things to say to the world. He introduced us to heavy-weight thinkers like Bernard J.F. Lonergan (his hero) and Karl Rahner, to Bernard Cook and Rollo May and Erich Neumann. When I was only 18, I was being initiated into the arcane world of transcendental Thomism. More of it stuck with me that George ever realized. Just two days ago, someone asked me in a business meeting what I meant by method, and I rattled off Lonergan’s definition taken from Method in Theology: “A method is a normative pattern of recurrent and related operations yielding cumulative and progressive results.” I first read those words on a photocopied handout that George handed out in class and expected us to memorize, more than 35 years ago, and I can still repeat them verbatim. He had that effect on people.
George opened to his students his big, rambling Craftsman house on the hill … and his long suffering wife, and even children, must have had their fill of it. I remember dozens of us crowding into his living room on Friday nights. A priest friend would say Mass, and then we’d drink beer (Miller!) and listen to a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish (one of George’s favorites) or Bernstein’s Mass. We would talk late into the evening, as George patiently answered the thousands of questions his students would put to him. George taught us that Christianity, and Catholicism, were worth fighting to understand, and that there just might be answers to our questions. He was an unabashed theological liberal, of course, as were many people in those days, but I would frequently see him at the daily noon Mass the Jesuits would celebrate in the college chapel, and, when some student would make a snide remark about “little old ladies and their rosary beads,” George would dig down deep into his pockets and pull out his own, well-worn rosary, which he kept with him always.
George was also a voracious, intense, careful reader. More than anything, he taught me to read. He always highlighted everything with yellow markers, a habit I picked up from him and continue to this day. (Ask my children: Most of my books have yellow highlight pens stuck in the middle. There are dozens of them all around the house. ) He always carried around an armload of thick books – Lonergan’s Insight (his Bible), of course, Method in Theology, Gerhard von Rad’s Old Testament Theology, Bernard Cook, Erich Neumann’s The Origins and History of Consciousness, but many others as well. He was the first person to introduce us to the Dutch Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx and his massive trilogy on Christology. He taught his students to read and appreciate Karl Rahner’s Theological Investigations. He was a big fan of Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body and Carl Becker’s The Denial of Death. One of my prized possessions is a copy of Peter Chirico’s Infallibility: The Crossroads of Doctrine, which George recommended to me. (“You need to study infallibility,” he told me, “so you know what it is to really know something is true” – a very Lonerganian idea, of course.) George was always carrying around a dog-eared copy of R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, and three or four years ago, for reasons I can’t fathom, I looked for it on Amazon and bought a copy. I had never read it, and, because I knew George thought so highly of it, I wanted to. In short, George taught hundreds of eager, enthusiastic, philosophically-inclined students what was worth reading.
Finally, George introduced his students to the world of radical Catholic politics. He was a big fan of the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. He told me about the lay Catholic theologian and pacifist James Douglass and his Shelley, who led anti-nuclear protests at a submarine base. Because of George, I read everything Daniel Berrigan ever wrote. Although today many of us are far from George’s left-leaning politics, and are, like most white males of our generation, increasingly anarchist in our political outlook, we are and always have been skeptical of the U.S. war machine and America’s nation-building ambitions. That is no doubt due to George’s influence and that of the anti-war circle in which he moved.
I only spent two or three years studying with George, off and on, more informally than formally. He was an easy teacher. But his influence on my life was enormous. In fact, I would say he shaped the ultimate direction it took. I remained a Catholic and became a Catholic writer mostly because of what I learned from George and his circle of friends and fellow teachers. I wanted to be like them.
George died just a few miles from where he used to teach, at home, in the same leafy, old-time neighborhood where he always lived. He was married for more than 50 years. He taught theology for two decades at the university and also worked as a director of religious education. He was a parishioner at his local parish for more than 50 years. I guess George was a role model for me about what a lay Catholic married man can be, at least intellectually. He had his rough edges, of course, and no one would ever accuse him of being a saint, but he taught me and many of us what it was like to be a passionate, engaged, politically active, intellectually rigorous, questioning yet faithful, lay Catholic. May he rest in peace and may perpetual light shine upon him.
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