In Washington, DC, 25 years ago today, Paulist Father Jim Young died after a short illness. He was only 46 years old, still seemingly in the prime not only of a vigorous life but of a distinguished priestly career. A Philadelphia Irish Catholic, Jim had entered the Paulists in 1960 and was ordained a priest in 1967. He’d ministered at Chicago’s Old St. Mary’s Parish and Boston’s Park Street Paulist Center and at the Weston School of Theology, and was nationally known for his pioneering work in outreach to Divorced Catholics. From 1978 to 1986, he served as Director of Formation and Superior of the Paulist Washington Community, the role in which I came to know him. Jim was Director of Formation my entire time at St. Paul’s College, and was also my personal Formation Adviser.
Jim was a1960s liberal. Raised and formed in the vibrant, urban, ethnic, pre-conciliar Church, he was part of that aggiornamento generation that had eagerly embraced change and was pushing in new directions. But Jim was also a liberal in the good sense that he was someone secure enough to be open to and accepting of others, and so free from the rigid intolerance of any political incorrectness, whether in politics or in religion, that is so often found in liberalism today.
No doubt, it was precisely that open and accepting character that enabled him to recognize the varied gifts and differing talents of the seminarians he governed. He saw value in me, when certain other prominently placed Paullists did not. His approach seemed to be to try to discern what gifts and talents a particular student might have to offer and how that person might serve effectively and well as a Paulist priest. Even in the perennial battleground that was the liturgy at that time, he once remarked that what he called a “campus ministry” style of liturgy was not the only legitimate option and that it was perfectly proper for a Paulist to prefer a more traditional and elevated form of worship.
Jim was an optimist, whose joy in his own ministry was not only evident but infectious. It permeated the environment at St. Paul’s College in the early to mid-1980s. Undoubtedly there were flaws in the formation program, which was obviously enough a creature of its time; and there were things to be challenged and corrected. But the overall atmosphere at St. Paul’s College in my time was positive. As individual seminarians, we all had our ups and downs, and some left. But for most of us, I think, it was a good and growing experience of what is nowadays called “human formation.” Overall it was happy place – a good and relatively safe place to get to know oneself and others and God.
We were a small group compared to the numbers that building had been built to accommodate, but we were a large group compared to the smaller formation community of more recent years. And the building helped too – creating community by forcing us to spend much more time together than the radically renovated contemporary building does. There may be something to be said for having to shave next to each other every single day!
I left St. Paul’s College to begin my diaconal assignment on February 7, 1986. The only time I saw Jim again was the following May at the Paulist ordination in New York. I remember how he smiled when he saw me at the pre-ordination festivities and how happy that made me. Looking ahead to my own ordination (which I then expected would be happening one year later), I wrote to ask him to preach at my First Mass and received a nice card from him promising to do so. When he became ill later that summer, I called him in the hospital. Apparently as yet unaware of the gravity of his illness, he told me he expected to have to return to St. Paul’s College to convalesce before moving to his new assignment in San Francisco. Not being in Washington myself, it was only in his final days that I learned how seriously sick he really was. By the time I returned to Washington to attend his funeral, I already knew that I would not be ordained a priest the following year and so found myself mourning not only a good friend and mentor but also the vocation he had so supportively encouraged me in.
In his homily at Jim’s funeral, Fr. George Fitzgerald said: “I believe that at the core of Jim’s priestly ministry was a passion to steer people from the pain back to the beauty which God sees in all his creatures. In this sense, to so many anguished hearts, Jim was simply a beautiful guy. To one he was a friend, to another a teacher, to someone else a spiritual guide, to still another a ray of hope, a vessel of compassion, a help in time of trouble.”