Cambridge, MA. It has been a pleasure to write this occasional blog for America, but perhaps never more than today, when I have the opportunity to celebrate, in this small way, the birthday of my father, James J. Clooney, who turns 90 on March 30th.
Born in Jersey City in 1919, Dad grew up mainly in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, where his stepfather worked as the custodian for Holy Ghost Parish for some years. (Dad’s mother and father came from Ireland. His father William, who worked as a groom in a stable on Long Island, died in an accident - kicked by a horse - soon after my father was born; his mother Elizabeth (née Callahan) remarried, raised a larger family of which my father was an integral part, and lived into her 80s.) After graduating from high school (St. Michael’s) and a brief interlude working at a newspaper in Brooklyn - the Eagle, I think - Dad entered the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrew-on-Hudson in 1938. Fr Leo Weber was his novice master, and Fathers Daniel Berrigan, Joe Spellerberg and America’s own John Donohoe among his many classmates. Luckily for me and my sisters Mary and Regina, he stayed only for about 20 months — and then found his true vocation outside the Society. All his long life, to be sure, he has been influenced by that short but significant sojourn in the Society.
Providentially — and this must be a rarity — Dad met my mother Irene (Harrigan) due to his reading of America, a habit already established even in the 1940s. They were both employed in war-related work at the Bush terminals in Brooklyn. Dad was accustomed to read America while riding the elevated train to work; he met another America reader, who in turn introduced him to a friend of his — my mother, who also worked at the terminal. Mom and Dad married in 1944, just before he went off to the Pacific for several years of Navy duty (1944-1946). (During the war years, my mother dutifully took apart each issue of America and mailed it to Dad in pieces that would satisfy the standards for war-time military mail!) Upon his return, Dad was a New York City policeman for almost 20 years. After retiring from the police in 1964, he worked for the Archdiocese, in Catholic Big Brothers, until his second retirement in the 1980s. Thereafter, he and my mother were inseparable companions in a second retirement — or a second, real honeymoon, unlike the truncated one during the war — until her death in 1999 after 55 years of marriage. Continuity has been a great thread in his life, and he has been fortunate to live in the same house on Staten Island since 1953. And, I might add, it is a house he has cared for devoutly with his own hands, undertaking everything from painting the exterior to interior renovations almost entirely on his own.
All these years, Dad has been a great reader — America for a lifetime, of course, National Geographic for some decades; in later years, he has also become fond of the National Catholic Register, books of history, detective novels, and old reliable books of theology and spirituality. A devout Catholic of the “old school,” one might say, his has always been a straightforward Catholic faith, strengthened by a deep confidence in the authority of the hierarchy, devotion to the rosary and meditation, and most importantly, a love of the Eucharist. He was a regular lector in church for many years and is still, at 90, a daily communicant.
Ever in good health, in recent years he has become (again) a regular rider of the Staten Island ferry, subways, and express buses that take him around the city and back to his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Family remains at the center to his life, and it is fortunate that my sisters Mary and Regina live close by on Staten Island. His three grandchildren, Michael, John, and Jim, are a source of great pride and joy for him.
Now, in our family, he is almost the only surviving member of the generation that was so deeply marked by the Depression, the war, and the great changes in the American sense of family and church in the 1950s and 1960s. (Thankfully, his half-brother John Sweeney and his wife Camille are still healthy and well, down in Virginia.) Growing old gracefully is a challenging task, but Dad has managed his many years very well, and at 90 is content and at peace. He may, or may not, it seems, live to 100!
It is a surely vocation in itself to keep open the eyes of faith, to remain expectant of God’s coming, even while living by memories, even at 90. As I mentally search the Bible for parallels, I think right away of Simeon who, even in his old age, still believed that the promises made to him by God would come true, and he would indeed meet his Christ: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Few topics have been more written about than that of fathers and sons, and we men rightly see bits of ourselves in our fathers and our sons. While as a Jesuit I have foregone the prospect of contemplating sons, I can look to my father with curiosity, gratitude, and love. In so many ways we are different — and in so many ways I live out in my generation the possibilities and hopes he has lived in his 90 years.
Happy birthday, Dad!