David S. Toolan, 1935-2002

At Home in the Cosmos, the title of the last book written by David S. Toolan, S.J., can also serve to describe his life. When our longtime associate editor and treasured friend died on July 16, he did not know that his book had recently won an award for theological writing from the Catholic Press Association. By that time, in the last stages of the cancer he had battled for years, he was no longer able to use words. A man who had dazzled with words, in writing and in conversation, he gradually had even those taken from him. He was left only with touches and facial expressions to communicate. In those last days what he communicated was serenity, assuring us of his acceptance of God’s power and God’s will.

David had been a Jesuit for 44 years and a priest for 35. He had been a teacher, editor, spiritual counselor and superior of his Jesuit community. In each of those roles, he communicated his faith and serenity with remarkable ease and gentleness. He did not come by these admirable qualities by accident, any more than his vocation came out of the blue. David attributed his goodness, which he modestly acknowledged, to his parents and grandparents and took the blame for his own foibles. Eight years of Jesuit education in high school and college at Georgetown prompted him away from the law, a natural choice in a family of lawyers and politicians, and toward religious life.


Being a Jesuit suited him in the most wonderful way. (At the funeral Mass, his nephew John said that “wonderful” was David’s favorite word.) He reveled in the conversation and interchange of community life. Excited by the ecumenical possibilities of the 1960’s, he chose to study for a doctorate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas after ordination. Both as a teacher and as an author, his zeal and enthusiasm were transparent.

David had a wonderful sense of humor. In many ways it saved him from becoming angry or morose because of his equally strong sense of justice. Raised in New Jersey and in Maine, where he was born, he was surrounded by material comfort and emotional support. His exceptionally loving family provided him with a concern for others as he observed the charitable work of his parents and grandmother. During summers in pre-Castro Cuba, he saw serious poverty and was horrified by the gulf between the rich and the poor. Later this horror translated into action, as he wrote movingly about the exploitation of the developing world, its resources and its people. Always something of a patriot, he deplored the actions, and inaction, of successive U.S. governments in their dealings with less prosperous nations. Equally, he was elated to write about the efforts of individuals and groups to ease poverty in developing nations. Even as his illness weakened him, he traveled with Catholic Relief Services to Central America to see the accomplishments of the U.S. Catholic Church on behalf of the needy. Returning exhausted, he let his sense of humor take over. “Surely they could have found some devastated villages closer to a main road for us to visit.”

Just as he loved his country, he loved the church. He was spared full awareness of the present crisis in the U.S. church, but he was acutely pained by reports of theologians being treated with anything less than the candor and fairness he would have expected. Despite that pain, the enthusiasm about Catholic Christianity that first energized him four decades ago never left him. He was too familiar with Sacred Scripture, church history and was himself too good a theologian ever to give in to discouragement for more than a brief moment.

David’s contribution to America was enormous. Always cheerful, always faithful, he managed to generate a spirit of excitement and energy around him, even when he had little physical energy himself.

For years he was also the director of the Catholic Book Club, silent and uncomplaining as he plowed through the piles of manuscripts on his desk. When asked by his successor how to choose books, his one-word answer said far more than a paragraph: “arbitrarily.” And then came that famous laugh. He worked hard, took responsibility and was delighted when he had picked a winner. He wrote articles and editorials on so many topics that he became the “living rule” for the other editors. “Know something about everything, and everything about something.”

David’s grandmother had a daily morning conversation with St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Were we able to ask David in a similar way what heaven is like, we know what he would answer: “Wonderful!”

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10 years 11 months ago
Jim, my husband, and I write to express our condolences to you and your America and Jesuit associates on the death of David S. Toolan, S.J. (8/12). Dave had been a colleague-at-a-distance since we were first associated with him during his days at Commonweal. We had not known that he was suffering with cancer, so the notice of his death in The New York Times was a shock and a sorrow for us. We join with you now in celebrating his life and honoring his passing.

10 years 11 months ago
Your “In Memoriam” tribute to Dave S. Toolan, S.J., (8/12) captured the special character and personality of the young man I met when we were both at Bellarmine College in 1959.

On first meeting Dave I had the instinctive reaction that he was always destined to be a Jesuit. He had all the qualities even then of a great Jesuit—intelligence, discernment, spirituality and judgment. There was something special about him. He had a warm and engaging personality. He seemed wise beyond his years and was blessed with an understanding far beyond his experiences. He was a great individual, whom you could approach, and you could become his friend without any qualifications; you did not need to pass a test. I immediately recognized him from his obituary.

He was a true son of St. Ignatius Loyola, brilliant and caring and a wonderful Jesuit.


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