Remembering Father James F. Keenan, a model of Jesuit life
My brother Jesuit James F. Keenan has died at the age of 86. There are many who will surely write obituaries remembering Jim’s contributions and tell of the impact he had on so many lives, especially in his work in education, as past educator, headmaster and president of various Jesuit schools and, until his death, as director of donor relations for the East province of the U.S. Jesuits. (Jim shared the same name and initials as the Jesuit priest and moral theologian at Boston College.) I have lived with Jim in the same community since August 2019. Short as that time has been—even if life lived with someone during the years of the pandemic counts for more—I could not have asked for a better model of Jesuit life and a more supportive brother in the Lord.
When I heard of Jim’s death on Monday, waking in my birth village in central northern Portugal, the first thought I had was how happy he would be that I am here visiting my mother on my annual vacation after a reporting trip for World Youth Day in Lisbon. A meal or even a brief encounter in the corridors of our community above his cherished Xavier High School in New York would not pass without Jim asking: “How is your mother?”
Jim remembered everyone—even my mother whom he had never met or spoken with. A special occasion would not go by without a phone call or a handwritten note from Jim.
As others have already said, in the few days since his death on Aug. 13, through video tributes, texts and messages on social media, Jim remembered everyone—even my mother whom he had never met or spoken with. A special occasion would not go by without a phone call or a handwritten note from Jim. I was fortunate to interview Father Keenan for a video that America produced for Pentecost Sunday, in the second year of the pandemic, when the world was beginning to reckon with the pandemic’s effects on our social fabric and our faith.
We thought it a good idea to ask older Jesuits who had already lived through many upheavals in the world and the church to share their timely wisdom. Only a few soundbites from Jim’s interview ended up in the final video, but I recently returned to the soundtrack of that video to hear his voice, and to see what might be there that could help me and our Jesuit community, his beloved family, and his legion of friends and students to find solace in our sadness. Here are selections of the interview—edited for clarity, length and style—so that we can remember Jim in his own words.
On the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on ministry
How has the pandemic affected your spiritual life?
Well, my active spiritual life has been mainly reaching out to alumni from the different schools that I was involved with. And they have families. Many of them have had to cancel things like baptisms, weddings. It is difficult to go visit somebody in a nursing home or a hospital. So my work has been curtailed by the hospital directives [restricting visitors]. So my active ministry, as far as reaching out to people in need, has been cut back.
This year had its ups and downs—times when you said, “Lord, where are you?” And I think most people would feel that way. But I know that the Lord is present when something just out of the blue might happen. Someone calls to say thank you, and you’re not expecting it. That is a very positive and uplifting sign. And I say, “Thank you, Lord.”
If you have to think back over this past year, what’s been a really difficult experience of the pandemic in your life?
It’s that personal contact that I have felt has been lessened if not lost because of the pandemic. I spend more time on the phone, trying to console family members, rather than being in person with them, and I find that difficult. I’d like to visit people, but not being able to go see somebody in a nursing home or hospital has been very difficult and even painful, especially when it’s people that I’ve known for many years.
2020 had its ups and downs—times when you said, “Lord, where are you?”
What has it been like to be distanced from your loved ones?
That has been difficult, especially when the first time I saw my immediate family was eight months—from last summer to the middle of winter. Fortunately, we had the phone, but that’s difficult, and trying to keep up with people, especially those who you know have been hurting—those who lost their jobs, experienced loneliness in their own lives or had to go through the death of a loved one. It’s tough when you’re not there in person with them. And that’s what they had expected us to do in the past. Most Jesuits were very good at that—being available to be there for somebody when they have a need, especially during times of surgery or death.
That connection is interesting; it aligns with what we often like to say about the Holy Spirit in the church. When Jesus leaves us, he leaves us with the Spirit. In the same way, even though we can’t be in person with somebody, there is something that remains with them. So, for you, what is that spirit in the church that has been with people for all time, but especially perhaps during these times?
I would say it was knowing that people were always available. If you called them, they would be there to encourage me and my coworkers. They would also ask how you’re doing and say, “Can we do something?”
Knowing that the gift of friendship had not diminished at all; it was just that you couldn’t share it personally, that was the difficult part. Knowing that they were there for you was the uplifting aspect, one of the few positive aspects during the pandemic. They would also be there; sending a basket of fruit periodically to cheer you up, and sometimes even chocolate. And that went a long way.
On Pentecost and the church
If you had to define the Holy Spirit, how would you define it?
It comes down to sharing; being able to share one’s goodness, one’s talents with somebody in need, especially when we consider that the festival of Pentecost was a celebration of the harvest and giving thanks. It’s about being able to give thanks for the gifts that you have and how you share them with somebody. Whether that’s a family member, coworker, stranger, somebody who is lonely—how do you express to them that they are loved? They can only be loved by you. And hopefully, they feel God’s presence through you; you have to notice that through your own life of prayer.
What has the spirit been teaching you during this past year?
I think the Spirit has been trying to get through to me to be more patient with people; patient with the type of work I have some involvement with, but also patient with the greater church; trying to understand that I don’t always see where people might be going, especially those who are hurting, such as the elderly and the sick. It’s important that people feel included.
The Holy Spirit comes down to sharing; being able to share one’s goodness, one’s talents with somebody in need.
How does patience for you relate to the experience of this year in terms of thinking about death? How has your own relationship to death shifted, especially during times of uncertainty?
Number one, I haven’t thought about it that much. But two, I can’t be there with an individual who is dying. I mean, we lost six Jesuits at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia—two of them were younger than me, and one of them I knew well. The virus, the bug, whatever we want to call it, was brought in by somebody from the outside, and they were susceptible to whatever weakness was in their own bodies. That’s hard to understand and to accept, both on a physical and emotional level.
What do you think the Holy Spirit is saying to the church today?
I hope the Spirit is saying, and I think the Spirit is saying, [is] for the church to be certainly more open—open to ideas from all the people, not just the clerical element, but the people who sit in the pews and those who are not sitting in the pews for various reasons—to listen, to be available to them when they need an open ear, and to ensure they feel that they can talk to somebody. However, that’s not always true; some people feel the church may not be listening to them.
Think of some of the leaders in the church at different times; how they made mistakes, realized it, and then made an about face and said, “O.K., Lord, you’re directing me in a new direction.”
What do you have to say to them about the church?
I tried—number one—to listen. Number two, ask them to have hope and to be patient, that we are all human, and that people do change, do come around. Think of some of the leaders in the church at different times; how they made mistakes, realized it, and then made an about face and said, “O.K., Lord, you’re directing me in a new direction.” Think of Ignatius Loyola himself, he certainly started out on one path and ended in a very different path.
Tell us more about Ignatius and how you see that shift in his path.
In his early years, he was certainly a person of his environment—which was an environment of courts, lovely women and being in the military. That was all he really knew. He was very uneducated, as far as even the basics went. And in the healing process after he was wounded in battle, slowly, he began to realize that there’s something else in life. And that began through reading. The readings that he did at first were of a spiritual nature—because as it turns out, we are told in his autobiography, that they were the only books available. Interesting. They were the only books available—not what he was looking for. So the Lord used what was there and slowly brought him around, to reflect, and then he actually had his own reconversion—his own rebaptism, really, little by little.
What about young people who’ve lost hope in the church? What do you have to say to them about losing hope in the church?
When people lose hope in the church, I remind them that it’s not the end of the world because the church evolves with people. And the person—you try to give them that sense of feeling that they are the church.
I was talking with a Jesuit who was a chaplain at a college out in Indiana, and he was surprised by how the number of college students continues to come to the liturgy on Saturday or Sunday. That has given him great hope, and he’s pleased with that. But then again, he’s available to them, and that’s important. You have to be available. The young people have to see that you’re there for them.
What are you most looking forward to now that the pandemic has abated?
Just being able to enjoy friendship; I am looking forward to being able to be with people to celebrate with them on their festive occasions, and when there’s sadness also. But mainly being able to celebrate Mass at home with them, be there for an anniversary, to make a visit to the hospital, to let them know that they are loved by the Lord and that they are important. Just being with people to let them know that their presence is important as you grow closer to the Lord; they bring the Lord to you.