One of the great members of our editorial staff, one of the great Jesuits and one of the greatest men I’ve ever known died on Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday, at age 92. John W. Donohue, S.J., joined America as an associate editor with the April 1, 1972, issue and retired after the issue of June 25, 2007. It is difficult to convey how much he meant to the editors and staff here over those many years.
When John arrived, the editor in chief, Donald Campion, S.J., informed readers (in this column) that John “did his doctorate in education at Yale, taught at Fordham University, was the first dean of its much-admired Thomas More College [for women] and has written several books. You will shortly catch a further glimpse of his editorial hand at work in a special issue on the increasingly critical topic of religious education.”
That “editorial hand” helped America for 35 years in scores of unsigned editorials, as well as frequent signed articles, essays and reviews. He was among the best of writers: clear, erudite, gracious, witty—and frequently surprising.
One example: When Christopher Hitchens launched an attack on Mother Teresa in his book The Missionary Position, John told me he planned to respond. “Good,” I said. “Show them how perfect the saints were!” John did the opposite in an article published in May 13, 1995, called “Holy Terrors,” which reminded readers that many of the saints were far from perfect, offering a litany of “difficult” saints, like the irascible St. Jerome. John quoted one of his teachers, who said of the “vehement” St. Cyril of Alexandria: “We don’t know anything about the last 10 years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he became a saint.” In a few pages, John politely refuted Hitchens, informed readers and, incidentally, changed the way I looked at sanctity. It was a brilliant piece.
John was what religious men and women call a “living rule.” Were the Society of Jesus ever to lose its Constitutions, we would need only look to him to see how our life should be lived. He was devoted to “Our Lord,” as he invariably said, to the Eucharist and to the church. A man of ascetical routine, he rose each day at dawn to celebrate Mass. On Saturdays he walked (less rapidly as the years passed) to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to hear confessions. He lived his vows with the seriousness and joy they deserve.
Somehow, he combined austerity with humility and humor. When I was a Jesuit scholastic (John called me “Mister” in the old style until the day of my ordination), I dropped by his spartan room. On his bed, I noticed an alarmingly old bedspread: a thin candlewick fabric—frayed, faded, ancient. “Father,” I said, “I think it’s time for a new bedspread.” “Mister,” he said, “That is the new bedspread.”
We loved John not so much for his lucid writing, his vast wisdom, or his unflagging industry, but for him. John was unfailingly polite, refreshingly mild and very witty. “I have to do an editorial on Bosnia,” he said one day in the mid-1990s about that complex topic. “What are you going to say?” I asked. “As little as possible.” Mostly, to use an underappreciated word, he was kind. John was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and so one of the saintliest.
The engine of his remarkable life was his faith. His was an open, expansive and deeply traditional piety. In John’s last hours on earth, as he lay in his bed in the infirmary, a Jesuit read to him the close of the Anima Christi: “In the hour of my death, call me. And bid me come to Thee, that with all Thy saints I may praise Thee, for ever and ever.”
Ever the man of tradition, John W. Donohue, S.J., answered with words from the Rite of Ordination that summed up his long service to Our Lord: “I am ready and willing.”