Walter M. Abbott, S.J., remembers the day in the early 1960’s. He was working in his room above the offices in the old America editors’ residence on West 108th Street in Manhattan, when a call came in from the real estate expert who had been looking for a more suitable building to house the magazine. He went immediately to the property on West 56th Street and was so impressed that he called Thurston N. Davis, S.J., then editor in chief, and told him to come down right away. It held 45,000 square feet of space, enough for both editorial office and residential use. Father Davis shared his enthusiasm, the decision was taken to buy the building, and Father Abbott set out on a successful fundraising campaign. America has been here ever since.
While that coup is certainly not the least of Father Abbott’s accomplishments in a long life, it is also not the greatest. Several of his projects could vie for that title. Toward the top of the list would be the publication of the original paperback English translation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which appeared only a month after the council ended.
Right up there would also be his role in arranging one of the stellar moments in personal ecumenical relations, when he organized a meeting between Pope Paul VI and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. W. A. Criswell. Time was short, but working through the night he secured all the necessary permissions and was able to escort Dr. Criswell and his party to their audience. On leaving, Dr. Criswell was stopped by reporters, who recognized the significance of the event. Asked what he thought of the pope, Dr. Criswell replied: “I’ve just spent time talking with the pope, eyeball to eyeball. I can tell you he is a saint. I know a saint when I see one, and he is a saint.” The story made front pages all over the world the next day. And it was a moment of personal healing for Father Abbott. His Baptist grandfather had estranged himself from part of his family when Walter’s own father became a Catholic.
Also high on the list would be his project for an ecumenical commentary on selected Bible passages, published as a pamphlet in five languages and given out to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. Hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed during the council.
How had Father Abbott come to America, and how did he come to be sent to Rome? Talent and happenstance seem to be at the root of both stories. Walter was a student editor at Boston College High School, and he honed those writing skills through the long Jesuit course of studies. After a stint of teaching he was called to the staff by Thurston Davis, and did all that an editor does and more. During that time he published in America an article on ecumenism and the Bible. In Rome Cardinal Augustin Bea, S.J., read it, summarized it, put the topic on the agenda of the council and included the article among the preparatory material for the council’s document on divine revelation.
The upshot was that he was called to Rome to be on Cardinal Bea’s staff and to be part of the efforts of the council, often sitting next to John Courtney Murray, S.J., in the council assembly in St. Peter’s.
As Cardinal Bea was frail and elderly, it fell to Father Abbott to be his feet and his eyes. He traveled extensively on his behalf, with the advantage of attracting less attention. On one trip to Australia, he was met by a monsignor in a huge limousine “like a hearse,” loaned by Australia’s largest brewery magnate.
These are just some of Walter Abbott’s memories, and they come to the fore now because of a worthy and ambitious project undertaken by Richard W. Rousseau, S.J., called the New England Jesuits Oral History Program. Father Rousseau and his volunteer staff are interviewing older Jesuits and collecting recollections about their life experiences. The interviews are being recorded, transcribed and edited for publication. The technique of the interview allows for a degree of spontaneity and humor often lacking in more formal memoirs. The interviewers are also experts, with a reservoir of knowledge that allows them to remind and lead their subjects. The results are rich. A byproduct of the project is the reflection stimulated in the subjects themselves, giving them an enhanced sense of their worth and the value of their work for the church during their long lives.
Of course, not everyone has been on a first name basis with cardinals as Walter Abbott was, but the potential richness of the Oral History Program will be obvious to all who read the headlines of this week’s newspapers. New England Jesuits worked in Baghdad for decades, for example, and they have valuable stories to tell.
Some of the senior New England Jesuits still work in the Caribbean, and stories are being lived daily. The home front, too, will provide material. We look forward to reading all about it.