A decade or so back, after he had been turned down, yet again, for full membership in the Jesuit order, I asked Father Paul Mankowski why he didn’t pursue his priesthood in an arena where he would be more appreciated—such as the Sydney archdiocese, then presided over by Cardinal George Pell. As his reply indicated, my question had entirely missed the point of his remarkable life. His calling was to be an American Jesuit. His goal wasn’t to be lauded by his peers or to be personally fulfilled. It was to do his duty to God by selflessly serving an order that rarely hid its scorn for him.
Shocked by his untimely death in September 2020, Father Mankowski’s friends and admirers have since sought to celebrate the man they loved, and to commemorate his life of exemplary service. Jesuit at Large, a collection of his essays and reviews—several of them originally published in First Things—edited by his friend and sometime collaborator George Weigel, is their latest effort, but it shouldn’t be their last. It whets our appetite for more insights into the character of this prophetic man.
I can’t think of anyone more self-assuredly out of step with the temper of these times: physically strong, mentally resilient, spiritually robust, intellectually fierce, and personally humble, yet supremely confident in the mission of the Church and his own order—far more confident, in fact, than its leaders. He would have gladly been an apostle among the infidels and a servant to the faithful (as indeed he was in many different capacities, including as a chaplain in Jordan). No one was better equipped for a life of heroic virtue—yet he was often rejected by his own peers because he refused to accept their limp accommodations with a world they were supposed to be baptizing.
Paul was a prolific writer—of letters, skits, and parodies as well as essays and articles. These were often published anonymously, because his Jesuit superiors had banned him from writing under his own name. This collection, important and worthwhile though it is, barely scratches the surface of his interests and his erudition. At heart, each piece reflects his fundamental objection to the Jesuit establishment and to that of the Western Church more generally: that the professed servants of God have been sidetracked from the faith-filled administration of the Mass and the other sacraments into forms of politically correct social service.
There’s a pathos to these essays. Whether it’s the “Tames in Clerical Life,” the religious superiors whose main purpose is to avoid rocking the boat or taking a stand rather than preaching the gospel; or the radicalized nuns and their theology of sexuality in “What I Saw at the American Academy of Religion,” the underlying theme is Paul’s dismay at the misdirection of religious life. To Paul, one of the supreme delinquents was the late Father Robert Drinan, the American Jesuit who spent a decade in the U.S. Congress as a left-wing friend of abortion: to Paul's mind, how could an ordained priest think for a moment that being elected to office was more worthy than administering the sacraments, and how could a professed Jesuit conflate promoting the faith with leftist social advocacy?
The final 40 pages of the collection comprise “the Drinan files,” largely Paul’s account of the to-ing and fro-ing between Drinan, Drinan’s then Jesuit provincial, and the then Jesuit superior general about whether Drinan’s political candidacy had ecclesiastical approval. With the consent of the Jesuit archivist, Paul had researched the Jesuit files, which he then made available for publication. What’s self-evident is the deception and the dissembling of the two senior American Jesuits, plus the weakness and acquiescence of their ultimate superior. Paul’s reward for this whistleblowing was decades of ostracism, supposedly for breaching “confidentiality.” Naturally, the order’s derelictions were glossed over in his official Jesuit obituary which, amidst the bromides, disingenuously noted that he had “had his theological, philosophical and political differences with many of his Jesuit brothers and, at times, superiors.”
While these essays deserve the widest possible audience, full of insight and instruction though they are, Paul’s life is even more powerful than his arguments. More people should be more familiar with it, because he exemplified the Church at its best and bravest. It was impossible to spend time with him and not be uplifted and invigorated. He was living proof that it was possible to be a fine man as well as a good priest, even in these most uncongenial of times. When we were students together at Oxford University, I joined the boxing club at his urging, essentially to spend more time with this ultimate muscular Christian. In Paul, there was at least a glimpse of “Christ my brother.” Largely thanks to his inspiration, after Oxford I spent three years in a seminary before realizing that faith in God’s servants wasn’t quite the same as faith in God himself. Still, it’s a start.
Weigel’s biographical introduction cites Paul’s letter to a young man who had inquired about joining the Jesuits. Despite everything, said Paul,
if I had to do it all over again . . . I would enter the Jesuits tomorrow . . . (because) there are advantages to belonging (even) to a corrupt and largely subversive order. . . . First . . . is that the orthodox men you meet are orthodox for the right reason: because they believe it’s the truth, not because it’s a shrewd career move. . . . They are excellent men; better at any rate than I deserve to have as friends . . . who will not leave your side when it looks like you’re fighting a losing battle. . . . The Jesuit vow . . . says “And as You have given me the desire to serve You, so also give me the grace to accomplish it.” He does.
Paul Mankowski deserves a full biography. For making the faith come alive to a skeptical Western audience, there could hardly be a better subject; and, in his friend George Weigel, St. John Paul II’s biographer, there could hardly be a better author. So back to you, George—there’s more to do.
Tony Abbott was the prime minister of Australia from 2013 to 2015.
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