RIP Vincent O'Keefe, SJ
One of the great figures in Jesuit history has died. On Sunday, Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J., died at age 92 at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York. “Vinnie,” as he was almost universally known, was not only a former president of Fordham (1963-1965) but also served as an Assistant (beginning in 1965), and then General Assistant and General Counselor (1975-1981), to Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. When Father Arrupe had a debilitating stroke in 1981, he was appointed by Arrupe as Vicar General of the Society of Jesus, during an immensely challenging time in Jesuit history.
Shortly after Father O’Keefe’s appointment as Vicar General, Pope John Paul II appointed his own “personal delegate,” an Italian Jesuit, Paolo Dezza, to take over the governance of the Society of Jesus, effectively replacing Fr. O’Keefe. In his book Contemplatives in Action, about Jesuit spirituality, William A. Barry, S.J., a former Jesuit provincial, was candid about the reasons behind the intervention: “Pope John Paul II showed how much he mistrusted the Society by appointing his own personal delegate, Paolo Dezza, S.J., to run the Society.”
Jesuits worldwide were stunned, and hurt, by the pope’s decision. As Kevin Burke, SJ, recounts in his book Pedro Arrupe: Essential Writings, Arrupe wept, “overcome with grief when he heard of this extraordinary intervention.”
When Fr. O’Keefe was serving as superior of the America House Jesuit Community in New York, he was often asked by Jesuit superiors and provincials around the globe to speak to young Jesuits about not only his own life as a Jesuit and his work alongside Father Arrupe, but also about this painful chapter in Jesuit history. Vinnie’s take was that some of John Paul’s advisers had spoken against some individual Jesuits (particularly those active in liberation theology) and had convinced the pope of the Society’s widespread disobedience. And, as Vinnie frequently noted, when Fr. Arrupe would speak to the pope, Arrupe was often so deferential, and so in awe of the person of the pope, that he was less likely to mount a “defense.” At the same time, Arrupe would say to those Jesuits, “Please make it easier for me to defend you!” But despite Arrupe’s efforts the “mistrust” continued.
After the papal intervention in the Society’s governance, many commentators both inside and outside the Vatican predicted widespread disobedience among the Jesuits: public statements, mass exoduses, acts of disobedience. That never happened. Both Father Arrupe and Father O’Keefe pointed Jesuits worldwide to their vows of obedience, even in the midst of such difficult times. As Barry wrote, “It was made clear to all Jesuits that Father Arrupe and his assistants expected obedience to and respect for the pope’s decision.” (Around that time, in case anyone missed the point, a photo of Arrupe kneeling at John Paul's feet was sent to all Jesuit houses, with a quote from one of the founding documents of the Society: Soli Domino ac Ecclesiae Ipsius sponsae, sub Romano Pontifice, Christi in terris Vicario servire: "To serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth." ) Later, Pope John Paul would speak warmly of both the Society’s obedience and of Father Arrupe; the Holy Father also visited Arrupe in the Jesuit infirmary shortly before his death in 1991. (Privately the pope was said to have been dismayed about having been misled about the Jesuits.) In 1983 Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, was elected as superior general in a General Congregation, and became a trusted adviser of Pope John Paul.
Many Jesuits credit Vinnie’s faithful response to the papal intervention as a calming influence in the Society of Jesus. For that reason, among many, he was beloved among thousands of Jesuits worldwide. “In many ways he kept us alive, when we were so misunderstood,” a Jesuit wrote to me yesterday. It is a tribute to both his important role in Jesuit history, and the great affection in which he was held, that the Secretary of the Society announced his death to Jesuits across the world yesterday with a letter that began “Father General has asked me to announce the death of Father Vincent O’Keefe."
For myself, besides being privileged to listening to Vinnie’s typically lighthearted recollections of Fr. Arrupe and his more anguished reminiscences about the intervention, I will most remember Vinnie as a consummate host. Vinnie was perhaps the most hospitable man you could imagine. Ater so many years in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, where he welcomed guests from around the globe (he also spoke several languages), he had a talent for welcoming with a smile pretty much anyone who dropped by, and making them feel at home: a community member's mother, a journalist, a Jesuit novice, a woman religious who knew him decades ago in Rome, a former Jesuit, a reader of America magazine, the niece of an old neighbor, a complete stranger. He also, by the way, told some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard.
During his own time as associate editor at America, Jim McDermott, SJ, made a series of marvelous videos with Vinnie, focusing mainly on his recollections of Fr. Arrupe, his time in the Jesuit Curia and the papal intervention. Below is my favorite of these videos, which includes my favorite Arrupe story, when the superior general surprises everyone with the answer to the oft-asked question: “Where is the Society of Jesus going?”
Where is Vinnie going? To reside forever, we pray, with his friend Servant of God Pedro Arrupe, with all the saints, and with the Lord he served in both good times and in bad.
May he rest in peace.