Leader in Jesuit education offers a final lesson on dying well

A few weeks ago I received a mysterious phone call. It was a faraway voice uttering sounds that I could not comprehend. Perhaps it was my fault. My hearing is not as sharp as I would like it to be. I asked who was there, but couldn’t understand the answer. It is only now that I am sure it was my Jesuit friend John Schlegel, calling from his hospice in Omaha, where he had gone to allow the final phases of his pancreatic cancer, discovered last February, to do its thing. He had sent me a gift—his own medallion of St. Ignatius—and I had tried several times to phone him to talk about it but had not gotten through. Maybe now he was having a good day and was trying to respond. Last week I tried again, but a priest friend at Marquette who had talked to him recently explained that John could go at any minute; nevertheless we would try again next Monday. But today is Tuesday, Nov. 17, and yesterday he was gone.

We first met at Georgetown University. I had just been ordained in 1967 and lived at Georgetown as a priest in the dormitories while working for my Ph.D. in American Studies at George Washington University. John was a Jesuit scholastic taking graduate courses in political science. I was 34, he was 24, but those 10 years were not a barrier to friendship. He was bright, had some strong political positions a little to the right of mine—and a little humility—and was in exceptional physical condition, which he maintained to the last days of his life. Above all, he was a lifelong rower; I had rowed in high school. If I remember correctly, we did some long distance running, which was one of the few sports where I could hold my own.


I went on to teach journalism at Fordham, be a dean at Rockhurst College and Holy Cross, teach at Loyola New Orleans, be assistant dean at Fordham, teach at St. Peter’s College and settle in here at America five years ago. Through all this, John and I stayed close, even though a year or two could pass without seeing one another. He went on to succeed me as dean at Rockhurst, to become dean of Marquette, vice president of John Carroll, president of the University of San Francisco, president of Creighton, the president and publisher of America magazine.

Somehow we kept connecting: I visited him in San Francisco and Omaha and he visited me in New Orleans, where he was on the Loyola board. A highlight was his ordination and first Mass in 1973, when we stood in his backyard in Dubuque overlooking the Mississippi River for a cook out celebrating his priesthood. Somehow he got a kick out my coming from a far away big city (Fordham in the Bronx, to a little back yard in Dubuque. Neither of us foresaw that I would return to Dubuque when his mother died at 95 in 2013.

The evening after the funeral, after he had spent time with his family, we went to a local pub to talk. For years our friendship had been nourished mainly at dinners where we could open up and share what was happening in our lives. And this ritual rose in importance as the years passed. We often talked about one another’s future: Would he become president of a new university to be built in Hong Kong? What was I discovering as I researched my biography of Jesuit Congressman Robert Drinan? Where will I be in the future when or if the America office moves?

I just discovered in my files a letter of recommendation I wrote in 2011 for him for an important international position. I’ll quote only two sentences, which shed some light on the kind of person, at least in my observation, he was. On how he relates to others, for example, in entertaining 10 visiting faculty at dinner: “His manner is mild, his sense of humor is good, he is careful not to dominate, he leaves the group feeling they have all had a good time and liking the university.” On relating to different cultures: “In no sense is he hampered by some notion of American superiority…. Meanwhile he is very conscious of the Society’s commitment to social justice. He once told me he was interested in the refugee apostolate.”

From 2011 to 2013 he served as publisher and president of America to update the administration of the magazine, build up the board of trustees and facilitate fundraising. It was the first time since 1967 we had lived in the same place. Though extremely busy he made time for our friendship; but what excited him the most was the pastoral work in New York parishes, work he would continue at Marquette.

In June he answered a letter in which I reported, with disappointment, that, because of my age, I might have to live in the province infirmary, Murray-Weigel Hall, on the Fordham campus. I love Fordham, but I don’t like to picture myself in retirement. He replied that he understood how I felt, but: “You are 82, but a young 82, I am 72 and a very young 72. So take the decision to prayer. I doubt they will change their collective mind.”

Then in February 2015 he wrote to his friends about his future. On a visit here in a local French restaurant he told me about his meeting with a group of cancer specialists who could not guarantee that any procedures would be sure to significantly prolong his life. So he would spend his last months visiting his friends around the world, saying goodbye, sometimes with parties; he even met with the pope. He concluded his letter: “I have taught you [and you me], married you, baptized your children, buried your loved ones, and picked your pockets; at the same time we skied, hiked, golfed, played raquetball, cooked, listened to opera and drank wine. God is indeed a gracious and generous God. Because of you I do not fear death.”

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Bill Mazzella
2 years 11 months ago
Ecce quam bonum!


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