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James T. KeaneJanuary 16, 2024
John W. Donohue, S.J., in 2008. (Youtube/America Media)

When I first started as an intern at America 20 years ago this month, I didn’t have a computer for the first week or two. Instead, I used an ancient Apple desktop in the editorial office; it worked fine, but I was always nervous that it would randomly give me the Mac sad face and I would lose all my work. “It could be worse,” Jim Martin. S.J., told me. “Father Donohue works on a typewriter.”

It was true. John W. Donohue, S.J., an associate editor at America since 1972, was still using a Smith Corona in 2004. And he had no use for the internet: If he needed to research a subject, he walked to the library. I tried to burn him a CD once—he had expressed some interest in Bob Dylan—but he took one look at the instructions on how to play it and politely demurred. Matt Malone. S.J., former editor in chief of America, noted once that Father Donohue was “not afraid of ‘the new ways’ as he referred to the late 20th century, but he wasn’t exactly impressed either.” Father Donohue put it even better at an editorial meeting once: “A gentleman need offer no reason for his resentment of change.”

“Were the Society of Jesus ever to lose its Constitutions, we would need only look to [John Donohue] to see how our life should be lived.”

It kept him in good health and full of wit. When he died on Ash Wednesday in 2010, he was 92 years old. When asked at his retirement party in 2007 if he had any words of wisdom for the staff of America, he said “I’m not quite sure why I should retire. I’m only 90.”

In his 35 years on staff, Father Donohue served as the magazine’s foremost expert on education and public policy, but he was also a prolific book reviewer and writer on science and spirituality. He authored several books, including St. Thomas Aquinas and Education (1968) and Catholicism and Education (1973). He was a careful editor, someone whose years as a teacher before coming to America gave him a discerning editorial pen and a kind but firm voice. He was also respected by the entire staff for his piety and ascetic life—including saying Mass every morning in the house chapel at 4:30 a.m.

“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,” Father Martin once wrote. “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.’”

“John was what religious men and women call a ‘living rule,’” Father Martin wrote. “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.”

John Donohue, S.J.: "The saints would be neither useful nor accessible exemplars if they had always been blameless and had always traveled over uplands in the sunlight.”

“John once gave me two framed icons because he said he had no space on the walls of his room,” remembered America’s deputy editor in chief, Tim Reidy. “The images now hang in my son’s room.” We all knew, of course, that the walls of Father Donohue’s room were almost completely bare.

Donohue typewriter
The typewriter of John Donohue, S.J., at America Media. (Photo by Christine Lenahan)

Father Donohue was born in 1917 (only eight years after America was founded) and entered the Society of Jesus in 1939. He taught at Canisius High School in Buffalo during his Jesuit formation, an experience he wrote about four decades later. After ordination, he earned a doctorate in education at Yale and became a professor at Fordham, teaching for 13 years in the school’s graduate school of education. In 1963, he was named the first dean of Thomas More College, Fordham’s women’s college, where he served until 1966.

“Father Donohue was a Fordham institution,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham at the time, said at Donohue’s death. “In his long career he has done as much to shape the character of the University as any single person. Father Donohue will be greatly missed by Fordham, by his Jesuit brothers, and by generations of grateful students.”

Despite his disinterest in technology, Father Donohue did have an uncanny ability to keep up with current events, as his response to a literary contretemps in 1995 showed. Christopher Hitchens, then writing for Vanity Fair and The Nation (that’s right, Hitchens, noted Islamophobe and shill for the second Iraq war, was a contributor to The Nation for many years), had penned an essay in the February issue of Vanity Fair, “Mother Teresa and Me,” recounting the events of the making of a B.B.C. documentary on the famous nun and saint, “Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa.” The title tells you all you need to know about the program, which Hitchens wrote and narrated. He later expanded his polemic into a full-length book.

Father Donohue, who probably didn’t read The Nation and definitely didn’t read Vanity Fair, heard of the article and researched some of Hitchens’s claims (including that Mother Teresa was guilty of “unholy materialism” and “groveling to earthly powers,” and that she was “a tireless and self-sacrificing campaigner for Vatican fundamentalism”) and offered a polite, learned and detailed dismantling of the polemicist in a long article for America, “Holy Terrors.”

“Mr. Hitchens seems to assume that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly,” he noted. “If he were to coast through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he might be surprised to find that even though all the canonized and the beatified had become great Christians by the time they died, none of them was beyond criticism at some point or other in his or her lifetime.” Then he listed some of them, as well as their foibles and the reasons the church considers them saints. St. Jerome. St. Cyril of Alexandria. St. Catherine of Siena. St. John of Capistrano. (A good Jesuit, he didn’t include the early wanderings of St. Ignatius.)

​​“What might Christopher Hitchens, or anyone else, conclude from this amateur canter through 15 centuries of Christian history? On the one hand, we should certainly not suppose that the saints were not greatly different from the rest of us,” Father Donohue wrote. “They were vastly different because by grace they really did give themselves wholly to God.”

However, he concluded, the saints “would be neither useful nor accessible exemplars if they had always been blameless and had always traveled over uplands in the sunlight.”

We still have Father Donohue’s typewriter in the office, a relic of a holy man.

We still have Father Donohue’s typewriter in the office, a relic of a holy man.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Lament,” by Nicholas Montemarano. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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