Friday, February 27, 2009

Remembering Francis Canavan S.J.—Part 1

Yesterday, I linked to outside articles by or about Father Canavan. Today, some personal remembrances:

I first heard of Francis Canavan S.J. in April 2006, at a monthly gathering of writers in Manhattan, when one of the fellow regulars, Dimitri Cavalli, handed me an unexpected gift in honor of my entrance into the Catholic Church that Easter vigil.

It was a copy of Pins in the Liberal Balloon,* the 1990 book of columns written for Catholic Eye** by Father Canavan. Dimitri had known the Jesuit priest while studying at Fordham, where Canavan was a professor of political science for many years.

The book stayed on my shelf for a while, as I had lots of reading to do as a new Catholic, being particularly interested in the writings of saints, and wasn't too eager to peruse a work by a modern-day author I had never heard of. Finally, one day that summer, I started taking it with me on my daily commute to work as an associate news editor at the Daily News, and was quickly hooked.

I had only recently been able to wean myself off the expensive habit of purchasing volumes of Ignatius Press's anthologies of G.K. Chesterton's Illustrated London News columns. Now, here was a writer of my own time, composing "quick hit" columns on culture-war topics, and, like Chesterton, doing so with depth, clarity, and wit.

I had thought the days were gone when writers like Chesterton or his idol Samuel Johnson could write newspaper stories about current events that were worth reading years later. The idea that someone could do so in the digital age, when so little of what seems like an interesting read today is worth digesting next week, let alone next year, was terrifically inspiring.

Wanting to meet the author, I contacted Dimitri, who, if I recall, said that Father Canavan was still alive but that he had not seen him for some time. Soon after, a chance remark to my friend Michael Potemra, the books editor of National Review led to the exciting news that Father Canavan regularly lunched with the staff of the Human Life Foundation (publisher of  Human Life Review), which shared its offices with National Review at the time. Michael told Faith McFadden of Human Life Review about my desire to meet him. Delighted that Father Canavan had won a new fan, she generously arranged for me to sit at his table at the foundation's awards dinner that October—coincidentally on his 89th birthday.

Father Canavan was born October 27, 1917. To give you an idea how long ago that was, it was fourteen days after the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima and eleven days after St. Maximilian Kolbe founded the Militia Immaculata. I think of his entering the world as a sort of lagniappe of that outpouring of grace.

Meeting him at the dinner was a joy. I asked him about his life and the stories came pouring out.

From then on, until I last spoke with him thirteen days ago, there were many more stories.

As can happen with age (and sometimes, I find, at my age), he would often retell the same stories. There was one he told so often —in nearly every conversation we had—that I came to see it as his Ur-story, encapsulating the message of his life and work. It would come to mind whenever we were discussing the changes in American culture since the 1960s—which was often, since we shared an interest in the wounds caused by the sexual revolution and how to heal them.

Father Canavan was the humblest man one could hope to meet. Although he was a brilliant cultural observer, he rarely if ever took credit for his observations. Instead, he would mention a comment someone else had made, adding his own perspective. His Ur-story usually began with his noting that, as a writer in Commentary had observed, the Sixties were really about a rebellion against authority. Then the narrative would begin:

"Now, back in the Sixties, I was an associate editor for America magazine, and I used to envy the international correspondent. He would get to travel to places like El Salvador. I traveled to Washington."

There in the capital city, Father Canavan would visit his friend Father Brian McGrath S.J., who was the administrative vice president of Georgetown University at a time when the hallowed school was becoming a hotbed of radicalism. On one occasion, during a time when he was himself seeing the effects of radicalism firsthand as dissent overtook America, he shared with McGrath his concerns about the direction things were going.

He told the Ur-story with slight additions and emendations each time, but the punch line was always the same: "Father McGrath told me that a professor said to him, 'What are you worried about, Father? You guys can't lose."

The message, he explained, was that even a Georgetown professor could see that the secular culture had nothing to offer in comparison to the Church. The liberalism that fueled the decline of morality had no real substance. The longings of hearts could find their fulfillment only in what the Church had to offer—only in Christ.

To understand what that story meant to Father Canavan, and why he felt compelled to share it, is to understand the joy that was essential to his makeup, as well as his deep desire to inspire others to keep fighting the good fight.

During the time we were friends—two years and change—hearing him tell and retell the Ur-story, it seemed to me that he was becoming as a finely polished stone. The intervals between the retelling of it became shorter and shorter. It was as though he were becoming more and more pure, the traces of disillusionment and anxiety being purged, so that all that would remain of his spirit would be a song of praise—ad majorem Dei gloriam.

I had an image that when the priest, who was physically more fragile by the day, got to the pearly gates, the only luggage he would take with him would be his Ur-story. He would tell it to St. Peter, and by the time he got to, "You guys can't lose," that would be it; "OK, you're in."

To put it a different way, as another Jesuit friend, Father Sean Raftis, says, for some holy people as they age, the veil between heaven and earth becomes very thin. It did seem that way with Father Canavan.

To be continued tomorrow. Please pray for the repose of Father Canavan's soul.
*All commissions on Amazon purchases made through this blog go toward helping pregnant women who suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum. For details, click here

**Catholic Eye is an excellent monthly newsletter that does not have a Web site. It is published by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc., which shares its headquarters with Human Life Review: 353 Lexington Ave., Suite 802, New York, NY 10016. Subscriptions are $34.95 per year prepaid, first-class postage included.

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UPDATE: Fordham has published a brief obituary of Father Canavan with details of his wake and funeral. The first of the two Masses is at the home for aged Jesuits where he lived.