John W. Donohue, S.J., RIP
One of the great members of our editorial staff, one of the great Jesuit priests and one of the greatest men I have ever known has died at age 92. John W. Donohue, S.J., began as an associate editor at America with our April 1, 1972 issue, and finished with our June 25, 2007 issue. It is impossible in a few lines to say how much he meant to all of the editors and staff here, or describe what a wonderful man, priest, colleague, confessor and Jesuit he was. You’ll be hearing more from us in an upcoming issue about the man.
When he began working here, the then-editor in chief Donald Campion, S.J., wrote that John “did his doctorate in education at Yale, taught at Fordham University, was the first dean of its much-admired Thomas More College 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 three decades, as John wrote unsigned editorials and current comments, as well as frequent (signed) articles, essays and reports. He was among the best of writers here, always elegant, witty, concise. And frequently surprising. One example:
When Christopher Hitchens launched his attack on Mother Teresa in his book The Missionary Position, John told me that he would respond in print. “Good,” I thought. “Show them how perfect the saints were!” John did exactly the opposite, in a May 13, 1995 article called “Holy Terrors,” which reminded readers that many of the saints were far from perfect, listing a litany of “difficult” saints, like St. Jerome and St. Cyril of Alexandria.
“Mr Hitchens seems to assume,” wrote John, "that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly. If he were to coast [one of John’s favorite words] through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, he might be surprised to learn find that even though all the canonized and beatified had become great Christians by the time they had died, none of them was beyond criticism at some point or other in his or her liftetime.” John went on to quote one of his own teachers, who said of the rather “vehement” Cyril of Alexandria, “We don’t know anything about the last ten years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been in the years in which he became a saint.”
I remember laughing when I read John’s superb article. In a few words, he (politely) rebutted Hitchens, informed readers, and, incidentally, changed the way I looked at the saints. It was a brilliant piece.
But all of us here loved John not so much for his lucid writing but for him. Unfailingly polite, refreshingly mild, hard-working into his 90s, ever ready with an encouraging word, frequently very, very, very funny (“I have to do an editorial on Bosnia,” he said to me one day in the mid-90s, referring to that incredibly complicated topic. “What are you going to say?” I asked. “As little as I can.”) and, most of all, to use a simple word, kind. John was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I think I can say, one of the saintliest.
We will miss John greatly, but we rejoice that he is united with “Our Lord,” as he said, with the Blessed Mother and with all the saints, of which I believe he is one.