Death of a great Jesuit and historian

September 12, 2022 in Featured News, Featured Podcasts, News

Highly renowned church historian John W O’Malley SJ died at the Colombiere Jesuit Community in Baltimore on 11 September, aged 95. He had a long and illustrious career as a writer and teacher on the history of the Church from the Renaissance to the present.

He is remembered here in Ireland for giving two memorable talks, one in 2011 and the other in 2015 when he also spoke with Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications about his work. In the interview above he gives his reaction to the election of Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit, and the implications of that election for Varican 11.

Fr O’Malley’s earliest works mostly concerned the Church in early modernity, from the Reformation on. Central here, of course, was the life and thought of St Ignatius and the early members of the Society. In 1993 he published The First Jesuits with Harvard University Press, and it has since been translated into twelve languages. Learned and incisive, it has become the standard introduction to the early history of the Society, both for the general reader and for Jesuits themselves. In more recent years he has contributed two more volumes to the history of the Jesuits, namely The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present (2014) and The Jesuits & the Popes: A Historical Sketch of Their Relationship (2016).

Fr O’Malley happened to be in Rome on a research fellowship in the early 1960s, and he witnessed all the excitement that Vatican II aroused. He paid close attention to the new perspectives on ecclesiology that emerged in the course of the Council, and he brought these into play in his work on the Church in early modern times. Less than a decade later he began also to write articles specifically about Vatican II itself, and he continued to do so over the following decades. This work eventually led to the publication of perhaps his best-known work, What Happened at Vatican II (2008). He followed this up with similar studies of the theological culture and the dynamics of earlier ecumenical councils, Trent: What happened at the Council (2013) and Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (2019).

In 2011, Fr O’Malley delivered a lecture in Belvedere College SJ, Dublin, on ‘Interpreting Vatican II: The Controversy and Its Solution’. In it he said that if we are to truly understand what happened at Vatican II we must examine carefully three documents: the Constitution on the Church, the Declaration On Religious Liberty and the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions. “These were topics that were hotly contested,” he said, “and that was because there were deep values at stake, like collegiality and papal primacy.”

He returned to Ireland in 2015 at the invitation of the Irish 1814-2014 Restoration Committee, who organised a series of lectures in conjunction with the National Gallery of Ireland under the title ‘Passion and Persuasion, Images of Baroque Saints’. Fr O’Malley gave an illustrated talk on ‘The Jesuits and the Arts in the Tridentine Era’. “The Society of Jesus was probably the most prolific patron of the arts in the Baroque era,” he remarked, and he illustrated his claim with detailed treatments of Jesuit contributions to Baroque music, painting, architecture, and design. Listen here to an interview on the topic he gave to Pat Coyle of Irish Jesuit Communications when over Dublin.

There was more to John W O’Malley than erudition and a monumental career as academic and church historian, of course. He impressed everyone with his gentleness, his cordiality, and his humour. In the words of James Martin SJ, reminiscing on the occasion of Fr O’Malley’s death,

John wasn’t loved just as a scholar or teacher, distinguished as he was in those categories. He was loved by his brother Jesuits, his students and friends, as a person: a holy and generous Jesuit priest. Unfailingly kind, helpful, generous, mild, curious, modest (even for his humorous occasions of faux-pride) and always interested in you. John was never too busy to answer a question, give you some advice, point you to some resource or tell you some funny story. He had a great talent for friendship, and it was reciprocated.