I was in his room one afternoon and he asked me to try on a suit jacket he’d recently come by. He was clearly excited for me to do this. So, I pulled it on and tried to puzzle out his enthusiasm. Beige and a little threadbare, it wasn’t a bad-looking coat really. Maybe even vintage enough to look cool—if one had the right accessories. I prepared to act grateful for the gift he was obviously about to impart.
“Look inside” he urged. I took it off and found a small tag stitched inside the collar. With a slight squint the tiny script revealed the identity of its previous owner, Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist on whose work Tom was recognized as a leading authority.
A grin spread across my face till it grew nearly wide as his. I well understood that to Tom, this should be like a baseball player suddenly discovering he was standing in Babe Ruth’s spikes or a Thomist realizing he was holding Aquinas’s pen. “Does it fit you? Do you wear it around?” I dumbly asked. “I’m giving it to the library for their collection” he replied as he returned it carefully to its hanger. I think he would really have preferred to wear it.
It’s amazing that he is no longer with us in the way we’ve known and loved him. What’s almost as amazing is that this isn’t the lead headline of every newspaper. I wish everyone had the chance to know him. I want to shout to the world—this is how we’re meant to live!
He was eighty years old but what a lie that feels. Tom was a rare bird in every way, including his genuine timelessness. In his eyes one could see a soul of perpetual youth—alive and ignited by unquenchable whimsy, intelligence and enchantment. I think if I had to name the single characteristic I found most appealing in him, it was his enchantment with existence and the divinity he saw shimmering within it.
I met him when I was a Jesuit novice and he was sent from Washington to teach us. From the start he encouraged me to learn how to think critically in that spirit of enchantment and how to cultivate my mind. Arguably, it’s been one of his less successful projects. He also encouraged me to read and to write. And though my poems never seemed to impress him much, he recently recited from memory one I’d given him in 1978.
Most of all, he encouraged me to be a priest. He treasured the priesthood and loved his vocation. He viewed it a gift entrusted to him, and for the thirty-one years I was privileged to know him, he was an unfailing example of its humility, integrity, and charity. He was looking forward to my ordination, and it grieves me that he won’t be there. But, of course, he will—his priesthood now fully conformed to Christ’s.
Students were known to describe him as being, “All mind with just enough body to hold it together.” But I’d adjust that because what that delightfully eccentric physicality really held together was faith, hope and love. For, if I may be so bold, Tom’s exquisite kindness opened to holiness.
The last thing he gave me to read was an article he wrote this year, reflecting on the forty plus years he served his beloved Georgetown. In it, he traces the historical events, seismic cultural shifts – all the changes of those decades. But throughout those years, like the unified rosary he prayed bead-by-bead, Tom gave palpable, daily, witness to the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Doing so, he reminded us that we too are invited to accept the stole of priesthood—the “yoke that is easy”.
On Saturday we will gather for the Mass of Resurrection. So many lives have not just been touched but changed by this man I doubt Dahlgren Chapel will be able to hold all who will converge to say, “Thank you.”
Whatever good has become of me, were you to go to the heart of it, you’d glimpse Thomas Mulvihill King. Teacher, brother, precious friend, be with us in prayer and pray for us in God’s Kingdom, that we may all be united with you there.