Meeting Father Dennis Linehan in the library of America House

I remember very well the first time I met Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., in America House. I had just been hired to work for Patrick Samway, S.J., as his literary assistant back in the 1990s, and as part of my responsibilities I was to be the “house librarian,” that is, to manage the periodicals and books that are shelved in the library on America House’s sixth floor.

It wasn’t very big; it just had two tables, one center table for the daily newspapers and their readers, plus two wall-sized shelves, which contained Catholic, Jesuit and secular materials. Two Queen Anne wing-back chairs completed the décor of the room; they were for those serious readers who planned to stay longer than the five-minute newspaper “glancers.”

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Being a new employee, I was still feeling my way around the building and getting to know who was who. I had applied one year previously for the position and another fellow got hired and I got the requisite “we’ll keep you on file” letter—or so I thought. It was exactly one year later that I received a package of America magazines with an accompanying letter from Father Samway asking me if I was still interested in applying for the job. Boy, was I! I accepted with alacrity and that’s how I found myself in the library facing Father Linehan, seated in that wing-back chair.

It was in this learned environment that I began to know the acquaintance of a scholar, a gentleman and a compassionate priest.  I tentatively said hello to the man seated before me. I immediately relaxed; he was friendly and kind and we were both mutually curious. He wanted to know about me and I wanted to know about him, so I fired the first volley: “Nice to meet you, Father. Are you here long?” And with that, Father Linehan told me his life story, including his ordination to the priesthood. I was now part of the America family.

Father Linehan was a really a Renaissance man: he was intellectually gifted, socially aware, ever curious and yet—most importantly—compassionate and pastorally sensitive. He could ruminate on all things, from church matters to the political realm, as well as items of culture. He had a keen eye and ear and nothing got past him.

Once, out of the blue, he “pontificated” on the glories of baseball and what a sport it was. His enthusiasm for it was so great that he even got me—a certified non-athlete—hooked on it, too. And in time, I learned, though he was Irish—a man very proud of his County Kerry roots—he couldn’t stand Bing Crosby’s Yuletide “Christmas in Killarney.” “Mere schmaltz,” was Father Linehan’s verdict.

That was another thing about Father Linehan—his Irish roots. He was equally proud of his County Kerry lineage and his Philadelphia background. As far as he was concerned, he was a blessed man when it came to his heritage and his faith. Until I met Father Linehan, I never met a man or woman who was as proud of being Irish as he was—that is, apart from my own Cavan-born father. (Father Linehan loved it when every St. Patrick’s Day, instead of the usual card, I gave him the fat holiday editions of the Irish Echo and the Irish Voice. It was the kind of Irish thing that he could spend hours on.) Indeed, his Irishness showed in the way he signed his name—in green ink.

The most important thing to know about Father Linehan was that he was a priest: a good priest, a kind priest, a compassionate priest. Like any of the best, he was always available if you needed guidance, consultation or just a plain-old good bull session. He was a teacher and a writer, but he was a pastor, too. He often said Mass for nuns in a convent not far away from America House. And like the best, he served even when he might not have felt his best. He was human like anyone else and there were days I’m sure when it was hard to be of service when he was not feeling up-to-par. But he served.

I know this because he offered me spiritual and practical guidance when I most needed it, in the period after my father suffered a nearly debilitating stroke. Caring for him would have been too much for my mother to handle alone (strong-willed and faith-filled as she was), so I made the decision to quit my job at America House. I had been there for eight years and though I hated to leave, I knew I had to, for I was needed at home. Over many heartfelt talks with Father Linehan, he convinced me that my decision was the right one, given the circumstances. In our final meeting, Father Linehan consoled me with these words: “Go where God takes you.”

I have never forgotten those kind and compassionate words or the man behind them. My father died some years after I left America, having never fully recovered from the stroke as well as the early onset of Alzheimer’s. I came back to work here three years ago, after Pope Francis’ election. And now, last week, on September 23, I learned of the death of Father Linehan at the age of 74. I was heartbroken at the news—I have not felt this way since my own father died eight years ago.

Father Linehan had been in ill health in recent years and his suffering is now over. I take comfort in the fact that such a good man and priest is now in the loving presence of the Father he served so faithfully and with dedication and compassion. I am grateful to have known him and I will always be thankful that I once met the acquaintance of the man who once sat in that Queen Anne chair and who was Irish to his very core, but who was first and foremost a priest.

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