One of the great figures in contemporary Jesuit history died this summer. On June 22, Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J., died at age 92 at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York. “Vinny,” as he was almost universally known (“Vince” to his family), was not only a former president of Fordham (1963-65) but also served in Rome as an assistant (beginning in 1965) and then as a general assistant and general counselor (1975-81) to Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus. After Father Arrupe had a debilitating stroke in 1981, he appointed Father O’Keefe to be vicar general of the Society.
Shortly after Father O’Keefe’s appointment, Pope John Paul II appointed his own “personal delegate,” an Italian Jesuit, Paolo Dezza, to take over the governance of the Society of Jesus, effectively replacing Father O’Keefe. Jesuits worldwide were stunned, and hurt, by the pope’s decision. Father Arrupe wept when he heard the news.
When Father O’Keefe was serving as superior of the America House Jesuit Community in the late 1990s, he was often asked by Jesuit superiors to speak to young Jesuits not only about his own life as a Jesuit and his work alongside Father Arrupe, but also about this painful chapter in Jesuit history. Vinny’s take was that a few of John Paul’s advisers had spoken against the Jesuits and had convinced the pope of the Society’s (supposed) widespread disobedience. And, as Vinny frequently noted, when Father Arrupe spoke to John Paul, he was often so deferential that he was unikely to mount a “defense.” At the same time, Father Arrupe would say to some Jesuits, “Please make it easier for me to defend you!” Despite Father General’s efforts, the mistrust continued.
After the “papal intervention,” many commentators predicted widespread disobedience among the Jesuits: public statements, mass exoduses and acts of disobedience. That never happened. Both Father Arrupe and Father O’Keefe pointed Jesuits worldwide to their vows of obedience. Later Pope John Paul would speak warmly of both the Society’s obedience and of Father Arrupe; the pope also visited Arrupe in the Jesuit infirmary shortly before his death in 1991. (Privately the Holy Father was said to have been dismayed about having been misled about the Jesuits.) In 1983 Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., was elected superior general in a general congregation of Jesuits from around the world, and he became a trusted adviser of Pope John Paul.
Many Jesuits credit Vinny’s faithful response to the papal intervention as a calming influence in the Society of Jesus at that critical time. For that reason, among many, he was beloved among thousands of Jesuits worldwide.
For myself, besides being privileged to listen to Vinny’s lighthearted recollections of Father Arrupe and his more anguished stories about the papal intervention, I will most remember Vinny as a consummate host. After so many years in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, where he welcomed guests from around the globe, he had a rare talent for welcoming with a smile pretty much anyone who dropped by. He also told some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard.
Vinny often told of the Jesuit superior general’s being asked (frequently), “Where is the Society of Jesus going?” and surprising everyone with his response. Father Arrupe, comfortable with the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit and with living in times of uncertainty, answered, “I don’t know!”
Where is Vinny going? To reside forever, we pray, with his friend Servant of God Pedro Arrupe, with all the saints, and with the Lord he served in both good times and bad.