RIP John W. O’Malley, SJ: The Doyen of Catholic Historians Who Helped Save Vatican II From ‘Oblivion’


John W. O’Malley, SJ, renowned 20th century church historian and longtime teacher, died yesterday, September 11, after a brief battle with cancer. He was 95 years old. Father O’Malley is known for his scholarly works on the last four ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church as well as for his numerous writings interpreting the history of the Society of Jesus in the 20th century; he also mentored many Jesuits and a generation of scholars of American Catholic history.

“John O’Malley was special. With great simplicity, he educated and supported generations of scholars,” said Dr. Emanuele Colombo, a professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago, who conducted a series of interviews with Father O’ Malley who have been published in 2020 in the Journal of Jesuit StudiesTold America by email. “He saw it as one of his tasks, and he did it with great ease and lightness – or, better, with joy.”

“Father O’Malley had a gift, through his writings and lectures, for immersing students in the fascinating drama of history.”

Born in Tiltonsville, Ohio, in 1927, Father O’Malley entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 in what was then the Province of Detroit. In his 2020 interview with Dr. Colombo, he noted that the Jesuits initially did not accept him because he had attended public school and had only two years of Latin; after enrolling for a semester at John Carroll University for an intensive Latin course, he was accepted into the novitiate.

During his Jesuit training, he taught history for three years at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago and studied theology in West Baden Springs, Ind. In 1957 he was ordained a priest and sent to Austria to complete his Jesuit training and study German in preparation. for a doctorate on the history of the Church in Germany. He would later recall a week-long trip to Italy at the end of his year there as a life-changing moment. “I will never forget the moment my eye caught Giotto’s polychrome marble bell,” he wrote in his 2021 memoir. The formation of a historian. “He took my breath away.”

Finding the whole trip “like lightning from heaven”, he decided to forgo German history and instead pursued doctoral studies in Renaissance history at Harvard University, during which time he studied at the American Academy in Rome; he also studied at I Tatti in Florence and was present in Rome during the Second Vatican Council.

“Father O’Malley taught his class without the sense of smugness which would have been warranted given his many intellectual achievements.”

After receiving his doctorate, he taught and served in administration at the University of Detroit, now the University of Detroit-Mercy, from 1965 to 1979. Father O’Malley served as a delegate to Congregation 32 general of the Society of Jesus in 1974. -75, a monumental event in the history of the order. He taught for many years at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, now the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and at Georgetown University, where until recently he was Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Theology.

Dr. Brenna Moore, professor of theology at Fordham University, had Father O’Malley as a professor during her doctoral program at Harvard University. “John showed me that it was possible to study something that seemed so serious (“the history of the Church”) with warmth, vitality, love and humor. I was so lucky to take his classes when Weston was at Harvard Square,” she said. America by email.

“John provided his students with a way to address the big and deep theological questions: what is the church? How to grasp what is mysterious and transcendent in words and communities? He showed me how to think about the things that are now central to my academic life,” Dr. Moore wrote. “He was also generous outside of class, pointing me to articles and people who could help me on my way as a young scholar. He was so loved by so many people including me.

Kevin Jackson, Studio Production Operator at America, had Father O’Malley as a teacher in 2019 given his many intellectual accomplishments,” Jackson said. “He took his students seriously and encouraged us to ask the question, ‘So what? Why is this important? »

“Father O’Malley had a gift, through his writings and lectures, for immersing students in the captivating drama of history,” Jackson said. “Who would have thought that a book on Vatican II could be read like an adventure novel? I am deeply grateful for the gift of his life and for his kindness to me as a teacher, mentor and friend.

“John provided his students with a way to address the big, deep theological questions.”

Father O’Malley is the author of a dozen books, including Gilles de Viterbo on the Church and the Reformation: A Study of Renaissance Thought (1969), Praise and Blame in Renaissance Rome: Rhetoric, Doctrine, and Reform among the Sacred Orators of the Papal Court, c. 1450-1521 (1979), The first Jesuits (1993), Four cultures of the West (2006), What happened at Vatican II (2008), Trent: what happened at the Council (2012), Saints or devils incarnate? : studies in the history of the Jesuits (2013), The Jesuits: a story from Ignatius to the present day (2014), Jesuits and popes: a historical sketch of their relationship (2016), and Vatican I: The Council and the Formation of the Ultramontane Church (2018). In 2019, he published his latest scientific work, When bishops meetat the age of 88. In 2021, he publishes his autobiography, The Making of a Historian: A Weird and Wonderful Story.

Dr. Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University, emphasized the importance of Father O’Malley’s scholarship to the current understanding of contemporary Catholic history. “In What happened at Vatican II, O’Malley’s emphasis on Vatican II as a ‘linguistic event’ has revived interest in the Council from a historical and cultural perspective in a deeply changed ecclesial and world situation,” said Dr. Faggioli in an e-mail to America.

“In a unique way, O’Malley helped rescue Vatican II from oblivion but also from subtle forms of repeal and delegitimization,” Dr. Faggioli continued. “He saw, before many of us, that there was a real need, if not an urgency, to make a new and different argument about Vatican II in the Catholic Church, where the memory of the conciliar event was often nurtured by those with a veteran mentality. This mentality was well-intentioned but also unable to reach new generations or the peripheries of the post-Vatican II church establishment.

Father O’Malley was also editor of numerous scholarly volumes and published hundreds of articles in scholarly and popular journals in the fields of American Catholic history, Renaissance history, history of the Jesuits and the history of the Catholic Church. He contributed to America for 50 years, with his last article, on the rise of the papacy in the second millennium, published just three months ago in June 2022.

“His impeccable scholarship was always for the purpose of helping others, not for his own reputation or advancement.”

One of the principles he used to guide his own scholarship, Father O’Malley said in 2020, was “if I really understand what’s going on, I can explain it to a smart ten-year-old.” Noting that this risked oversimplifying, he said: “This approach is a form of self-correction: I have to be humble enough to recognize that if the ten-year-old doesn’t understand, that means deep down, I didn’t understand.”

“John O’Malley was the doyen of Catholic historians, who taught generations of Jesuits, priests, religious men and women, and lay people how to understand Church history,” said James Martin, SJ, editor of America, who was a student of Father O’Malley at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. “His book The first Jesuits was a revelation to me. Until then, I had read countless biographies of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, each duller than the last. Next is John’s stunning book, deploying John’s secret weapon: he was a terrific writer: subtle, lucid, funny.

When Father O’Malley was honored by Harvard University with a Centennial Medal in 2016, Francis X. Clooney, SJ, fellow Jesuit and Parkman Professor of Theology and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School, l described in the citation as “a sound and respected historian whose research has shed new light on the Catholic Church as it has grown and changed over the past hundred years.

Father O’Malley, wrote Father Clooney, “has made this history accessible and relevant to new generations of students, scholars and leaders. In all of this, John integrates intellectual and professional excellence with the sincerity and simplicity of a priestly vocation lived in 70 years of religious life. His impeccable scholarship has always been for the purpose of helping others, not for his own reputation or advancement.

Funeral and burial arrangements were not yet available at the time of publication.

“He was loved by his readers, students and Jesuit brothers,” Father Martin wrote yesterday. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t like or admire him.”


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