James Martin, S.J.August 27, 2012

One of the great figures in contemporary Jesuit history died this summer. On June 22, Vincent T. O’Keefe, S.J., died at age 92 at the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in New York. “Vinny,” as he was almost universally known (“Vince” to his family), was not only a former president of Fordham (1963-65) but also served in Rome as an assistant (beginning in 1965) and then as a general assistant and general counselor (1975-81) to Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the superior general of the Society of Jesus. After Father Arrupe had a debilitating stroke in 1981, he appointed Father O’Keefe to be vicar general of the Society.

Shortly after Father O’Keefe’s appointment, 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 Father O’Keefe. Jesuits worldwide were stunned, and hurt, by the pope’s decision. Father Arrupe wept when he heard the news.

When Father O’Keefe was serving as superior of the America House Jesuit Community in the late 1990s, he was often asked by Jesuit superiors to speak to young Jesuits not only about his own life as a Jesuit and his work alongside Father Arrupe, but also about this painful chapter in Jesuit history. Vinny’s take was that a few of John Paul’s advisers had spoken against the Jesuits and had convinced the pope of the Society’s (supposed) widespread disobedience. And, as Vinny frequently noted, when Father Arrupe spoke to John Paul, he was often so deferential that he was unikely to mount a “defense.” At the same time, Father Arrupe would say to some Jesuits, “Please make it easier for me to defend you!” Despite Father General’s efforts, the mistrust continued.

After the “papal intervention,” many commentators predicted widespread disobedience among the Jesuits: public statements, mass exoduses and acts of disobedience. That never happened. Both Father Arrupe and Father O’Keefe pointed Jesuits worldwide to their vows of obedience. Later Pope John Paul would speak warmly of both the Society’s obedience and of Father Arrupe; the pope also visited Arrupe in the Jesuit infirmary shortly before his death in 1991. (Privately the Holy Father was said to have been dismayed about having been misled about the Jesuits.) In 1983 Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., was elected superior general in a general congregation of Jesuits from around the world, and he became a trusted adviser of Pope John Paul.

Many Jesuits credit Vinny’s faithful response to the papal intervention as a calming influence in the Society of Jesus at that critical time. For that reason, among many, he was beloved among thousands of Jesuits worldwide.

For myself, besides being privileged to listen to Vinny’s lighthearted recollections of Father Arrupe and his more anguished stories about the papal intervention, I will most remember Vinny as a consummate host. After so many years in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, where he welcomed guests from around the globe, he had a rare talent for welcoming with a smile pretty much anyone who dropped by. He also told some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard.

Vinny often told of the Jesuit superior general’s being asked (frequently), “Where is the Society of Jesus going?” and surprising everyone with his response. Father Arrupe, comfortable with the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit and with living in times of uncertainty, answered, “I don’t know!”

Where is Vinny 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 bad.

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9 years 2 months ago
I knew Vinny O 'Keefe when I served on the faculty of the North American College In Rome. On occasional Wednesday evenings he would serve as confessor for the seminarians and stay for supper with the faculty. Always soft spoken and gracious he  was filled with the wisdom borne of experience and maturity in the religious life.  His recounting of Pope John Paul's decision to ask Robert Drinan  S.J. not to run for office again in the House of Representatives was mesmerizing.  Fr. O'Keefe and Fr. Gerald Sheehan,S.J., another American in the Jesuit Curia at the time, visited the Vatican to appeal that decision to the then Cardinal Secretary of State Agostino  Casaroli.  The moment Cardinal Casaroli told them that the decision was made by the pope himself the American Jesuits closed their file folders, stood up and shook the Cardinal's hand assuring him that the appeal was over. Vinny said " once we knew it was the Pope's decision, game over. Jesuits obey."
Bill & Sue Carrington
9 years 2 months ago
Perhaps Fr.Martin could share some of those wonderful jokes.
9 years 2 months ago
Vinny O' Keefe's good humor, competence and common sense are well-known from the rec rooms of the NY Province to the halls of the Vatican and beyond. However, Pope John Paul II's reassessment of his view of the Society in light of the response of the members of the same was also accompanied by the reality that, in 1981, the reach of the Roman Catholic community into eastern Europe, China and then Soviet Union was largely dependent upon obedient Jesuits who put themselves at considerable risk for the sake of the Gospel. While the influence of Fr. Frantisek Lizna on Vaclav Havel, a co-signer of Charter 77 and fellow prisoner in Prague's Pankrac prison; or the establishment of clandestine apostolates and formation programs in Hungary,the USSR and China, as well as the faithful witness of so many Jesuits in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and other nations suspicious and often hostile to Catholicism, may be little known by the wider public; the reality was cerainly known to Vinny O' Keefe. Once it became known to Pope John Paul II, I think he rethought his judgment concerning the Society, Fr. Arrupe and Vinny. It was a two way dialogue of mutual respect.

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