Arts and Culture

Death of a Hero: Remembering Father John Kavanaugh, S.J.

by Father Robert Lauder

ON NOV. 5 of last year, Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., author of Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (New York: Orbis, Revised edition, 1991, pp. 194,) died. Not only was he one of my heroes, I was blessed to also have him as a friend.

Though I recall that the last time I had contact with John was through a phone conversation more than a year ago, I cannot recall exactly the sequence of events that led to our friendship. I suspect that my first contact with Father Kavanaugh was when I heard him give a talk on consumerism. I was greatly impressed by his presentation and even more by him.

Even now, many years later, I can recall my excitement listening to John’s insights into our society. Probably after that lecture, I read Following Christ in a Consumer Society. Then I think I played some role in having John become one of the first occupants of the Paul E. McKeever Chair of Theology at St. John’s University. Father McKeever taught theology at the university for several years. When he died, the university established a chair in his honor.

Great Blessing on Campus

I think John was the occupant of the McKeever Chair for two semesters. Having him on campus proved to be a great blessing. Whenever he made a presentation that I was able to attend, I saw that the reaction of the audience was similar to mine when I first heard John lecture. It was easy to sense the enthusiasm and excitement among those listening to John present his ideas. What came across in his lectures was not so much a striking oratorical style as deep insights presented by someone who believed totally in what he was presenting. He was one of the most charismatic speakers I have ever heard.

The following is from Father Kavanaugh’s preface to the revised version of Following Christ in a Consumer Society:

“I write for two quite disparate groups, who share, if little else, the wholeheartedness of their diverse commitments to either social justice or the life of faith. I am especially writing for those who, while committed to faith or justice, have acknowledged and admitted a need for something to either embody their faith or sustain their passion for equity. In the past few years, I have been privileged by friendships with both kinds of persons. I have seen many priests and nuns committed to work in city ghettos, having lost their sense of faith or prayer, soon lose their passion for the poor. I have talked with married couples clinging to their faith, struggling to ward off a loss of passion for each other and for life. And I continue to dream of bringing together radicalized Christians who seek the support of a profound faith with intensely orthodox believers who seek to give their faith a concrete historical impact.” (p. x111)

My experience has not been exactly the same as Father Kavanaugh’s, but I know people who would fit into the two groups that he addressed in his book. Perhaps I am a cockeyed optimist, but I want to believe that if members of these groups in a prayerful surrounding sat down, and calmly talked with one another about what their faith means and how they see the role of Catholics in our society, progress would be made. Perhaps they would not agree completely, but maybe much misunderstanding would be removed.

John divides his book into two parts. In the first, which he calls “Commodity Form,” he analyzes how we are tempted to exist in a consumer society, basically thinking of ourselves and others as things. In the second, which he calls “Personal Form,” he presents what it means to perceive, value and live in the person of Christ.

I strongly encourage anyone who is involved in teaching theology on any level to read the book. It is special.

During the time that John was at St. John’s University, I mentioned to him that I was hoping to write a book on the Catholic novelist Walker Percy. John was enthusiastic and months later continued to encourage me to keep working on the book. I am not certain that I would have ever finished the book without John’s enthusiastic encouragement.

Just before the book was published, I asked John to write a comment that might appear on the cover of the book. Of course, he agreed and wrote a wonderful endorsement of my work. I just re-read the endorsement and was once again touched by John’s kindness. He referred to my book as a labor of love.

I think all of John’s priestly work was a labor of love. He was an inspiration to many.[hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.

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