Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Paul Mankowski, a Jesuit of the Chicago province, who has just died—too soon at only 66—was probably the most striking man I have ever met. My friendship with Paul crept up on me, toward the end of Michaelmas term at Oxford in 1981. He was a Jesuit scholastic, two years into Latin and Greek philosophy at Campion Hall; I was a politics and philosophy freshman at The Queen’s College. We met through the Australian priest and doctoral student John Honner, who’d taken me under his wing as a newly arrived Jesuit alumnus.

Paul was not exactly your average student for the priesthood: handsome, athletic, not very abstemious, and capable of devastating locker room humor. He’d had at least one serious girlfriend before joining the Jesuits. As someone then wrestling with the prospect of a vocation, once I’d got used to his occasional intensity, I didn’t just crave his company as a friend but as a role model too. At 24, I’d decided that the priesthood was the greatest calling to which a Catholic man could aspire, in part because of the priests I’d come to admire; but Paul was the first contemporary I’d found who was both an utterly committed Jesuit and a “normal” human being.

To call him a “muscular Christian” wouldn’t do justice to his intellect and his emotional depth; or to his capacity for friendship with women while remaining chaste. But his ability to keep the faith through thick and thin and to live a life of relentless self-discipline must have required singular inner strength. Earlier, at Sydney University, I’d been ready enough to assert the Church’s teaching (on the sanctity of life, for instance) while usually conceding that “hard cases make bad law.” Unlike me, Paul never felt the need to curry favor by making intellectual concessions—and to this day, almost 40 years on, I’ve never quite lost that sense of being the lesser man.

In January 1982, the pair of us were marking the start of a new term at the old Eastgate hotel. At some stage, Paul mentioned that the university boxing club, which he’d joined earlier, was short a heavyweight. I’d done a season’s sparring at Sydney, mostly to be able to give as good as I got on the rugby field, so a bit reluctantly said “yes” a couple of beers on. After one session, I’d decided to make my excuses—but Paul then turned up to present a brand new skipping rope. His vow of poverty mattered so much that his clothes were mostly hand-me-downs from dead Jesuits; so this was a big deal and I didn’t have the heart to quit. The two Oxford “blues” I would never have had without him are among the highlights of my life. In the ring, Paul’s practice was less to throw punches than to keep standing: a stoicism that he was to need soon after.

Regular letters from Paul subsequently helped to keep me going during three years of being a square peg in a round hole as a student for the diocesan priesthood back in Sydney. It was readily apparent, though, that he was already “on the outer” with his Jesuit superiors. His was a robust, straight, manly faith that respected Scripture and tradition. Theirs, in Paul’s eyes at least, was shape-shifting and far too attuned to the “signs of the times.” At times, I wondered whether he didn’t “protest too much,” but the scales fell from my eyes after a few days spent at the Jesuit house at Harvard, where he was then doing further studies. The contrast between Paul and the other residents circa 1990 could hardly have been more sharp; and, to me, all in his favor.

By the time of his ordination, Paul was well on the road to becoming the Jesuits’ fiercest internal critic. Sometimes, writing under his own name and sometimes using a pseudonym, he excoriated priests and bishops who’d only wear a clerical collar to a protest meeting or who thought that celibacy could be selective. His satire was devastating; his judgments uncompromising; his logic impeccable. For all their commitment to Christian charity, religious superiors have never coped well with criticism, especially when it’s justified, so Paul endured years of ostracism within the order. Literally for decades, he was on the verge of expulsion and denied the opportunity to take final vows.

Meanwhile, he was a professor of ancient Semitic languages to students in the Vatican; no doubt inspiring many of them to become better priests. For about a decade until 2012, he was an annual visitor to Australia, teaching a much-in-demand two-week course in practical apologetics at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne. I recall an intellectually rigorous and personally challenging sermon to the sleepy church of St. Martin de Porres in Sydney. It was hard to grasp all he said and impossible to live up to what he asked but the parishioners mobbed him afterward all the same.

Why did he have to be so unappreciated by his own colleagues; why not join the less militantly progressive Australian province; or be incardinated into the Sydney Archdiocese where George Pell was a friend and fan, I sometimes asked. But this, of course, would have been taking too worldly or too self-centered an approach. Paul’s self-appointed mission was to prod the Jesuits into once more being the special forces of faith and if that meant that he was often a lonely outcast, so be it.

The hardest battles are with the people who are supposed to be on the same side. There are no medals for internal fights, however necessary. The strength of character and the moral courage required is all the more heroic because it’s invariably only recognized posthumously. I hope the Jesuits grasp what they’ve lost and start to give him the respect he always deserved. Especially because prayer is not my forte, this tribute is my way to honor a man I loved.

Tony Abbott was the prime minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles