Patrick J. Ryan S.J. has graciously granted permission to publish the homily he delivered at the funeral of Father Francis Canavan S.J., who passed away February 26 at the age of 91:
Fordham University Church
Readings: Job 19: 1, 23-27; Resp.: Psalm 23; Philippians 3:20-21; Luke 12:35-40
Father Frank Canavan, S.J., Professor Emeritus of Political Science here at Fordham University and a long-time member of the Fordham Jesuit community, a Jesuit for seventy years and a priest for 59, has completed his course on earth. There are so many things that could be said about Frank, and especially by those who have known him longer than I, who have only known him for a bit more than 25 years. I am grateful to several of his Jesuit contemporaries who have helped me to fill in my picture of Frank, and especially Fathers John Donohue and Joseph Dolan. In the second reading, an excerpt from Paul’s epistle to the fledgling Christian community at Philippi, Paul strikes a chord on which I would like to play a few variations: “We have our citizenship in heaven; it is from there that we eagerly await the coming of our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Frank was a citizen of many realms in this sublunary universe: the United States, of course, concretized at first in Queens and Nassau, where Frank grew up. He attended Jamaica Model School in Queens, many years after another famous Jesuit and citizen of Queens, John Courtney Murray. In 1935, Frank at the age of 18 came from Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst in Nassau to the beautiful Bronx where he became a citizen of Rose Hill as a freshman in Fordham College. It was at Fordham in those years that Frank began to think philosophically, since the undergraduate curriculum in those years was largely shaped by philosophical and theological curricular exigencies. Among Frank’s exact undergraduate contemporaries at Fordham College at that time are the aforementioned Fathers John Donohue and Joseph Dolan, as well as the late Fathers William Hogan, Robert Sealey and Robert Gleason. Near contemporaries at Fordham were Fathers Joseph McKenna, James Finlay and Gerald McCool. Each of those former Fordham undergraduates who became Jesuits afterwards would make signal contributions to the life of Fordham and to the intellectual life of their times.
Four years after his enrollment at Fordham, just as he was finishing his undergraduate years, Frank heard the call of Christ the King and became a citizen of Hyde Park in the Hudson Valley in September 1939. The Jesuit novitiate at the time was located (very ironically in view of Frank’s later political leanings) next door to the family home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. After his two years of novitiate Frank became a citizen of St. Louis, Missouri, for three years, where he imbibed neo-Thomism under the tutelage of Saint Louis University’s distinguished philosophical faculty. After two years of teaching at Regis High School in Manhattan and Canisius College in Buffalo (two more citizenships gained!), Frank completed a Master’s degree at Fordham before beginning his theological studies at Woodstock College in Maryland, thereby becoming a citizen of what Baltimore cabbies call “the land of pleasant living.”
After Frank’s ordination to the priesthood in 1950 and the completion of his licentiate in theology in 1951, he spent much of one year racking up another citizenship at Auriesville, New York, in the valley of the Mohawk. There he underwent the final stage of Jesuit religious formation on the grounds of the Shrine of the North American Martyrs.
Eventually Frank went to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where he studied under the direction of John Hamilton Hallowell, a political philosopher and Episcopalian who worked on political theory from a pronounced Christian perspective. Frank’s dissertation on Edmund Burke, the 18th-century Anglo-Irish political philosopher, started him on a career-long interest in Burke’s thought and its relevance to contemporary politics. His years in Durham made him not only a citizen of North Carolina but also one of the early Fordham Jesuits whose doctoral training took place in prominent non-Catholic universities.
His first assignment, after Duke, and, I believe, before Duke as well, was to the faculty of Saint Peter’s College in Jersey City. Jersey City, proof positive for the resurrection of the dead every election day, taught Frank a few things about political realities that Edmund Burke had never considered. Those years in Jersey City prepared Frank for a stint as an associate editor of the Jesuit weekly journal of opinion, America. During that period Frank was present in Rome for several sessions of the Second Vatican Council and followed with interest the work of his mentor at Woodstock, John Courtney Murray, on religious freedom and the separation of Church and State
Frank came back to his alma mater, Fordham, to teach in the Department of Political Science in 1966 and became emeritus from that Department in 1988. His political apprenticeship in Jersey City proved valuable in the yeoman service he eventually rendered to the Faculty Senate and the University at large, a task to which he brought the energy of a ward heeler. Always conservative, in the intellectual tradition of Burke, Frank could agree with his intellectual hero that one should—and I quote—“Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.” Although Burke never apparently said them, Frank would also have agreed with the words often attributed to Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Frank was always a good man, and he always did something. His teaching and writing on constitutional law and the scope of personal liberty made a mark in the study of political philosophy in American academe.
A few notes on Frank as a friend: if Frank was conservative politically and intellectually, there was one area in which he was rather radical, his Irish Republicanism. This was an orientation I shared with him and I sometimes engaged him in conversation about developments in County Tyrone, whence his grandparents came, and the rest of the two-thirds of Ulster still under British rule. On American politics, whenever I would meet him at our local polling place, I was fairly sure that he and I were cancelling each other’s vote out. But Frank had a sense of humor about his own conservatism. I met Frank on the Fordham Metro North platform one warm late afternoon in September 1998 when we both were headed to the 80th birthday party in Manhattan of then Father Avery Dulles. In view of the heat, I asked him why he was wearing a black fedora. “I thought,” he replied, “one stopped wearing a straw hat after Labor Day.”
As a member of the Jesuit community Frank could be constructively ironic, as when he once remarked of a an abandoned plate and cup left on a table in the Jesuit community coffee room on the ground level in Faber Hall that it was evidently a sign of the recent departure of “one of Ours of noble birth.” When the community was told by an anxious Rector that the telephone bills were too high, Frank echoed a slogan of AT&T at the time: “Too many of our men reached out and touched somebody.”
Many here this evening will remember that Frank loved the theater; he frequented performances at the Roundabout Theater with several of his Jesuit and lay colleagues. Fewer will remember that he was surprisingly devoted to ballet and admired extravagantly the dancer Suzanne Farrell. Frank was a man of many parts, not easily pigeon-holed; he was what Robert Whittington said in 1520 about Thomas More, “a man for all seasons.”
Frank’s many citizenships here on earth have come to a peaceful conclusion. Even if, like Dean Swift, saeva indignatio sometimes afflicted Frank when he considered the disregard in much of the United States for human life in all its stages from conception to natural death and the general neglect of the principles of natural law, he remained to his last days a basically peaceful and happy man. He deeply appreciated the care he received from the staff in the last years of his life at the Province infirmary in Murray-Weigel Hall. Frank, always an active man heretofore, found himself surprised and pleased with his life in that community of prayer and witness. On behalf of all of us I wish to extend my thanks to Father Marzolf and to Father Scanlon for all that they and their staff did for Frank and continue to do for all our men there.
What Frank wanted for all his seventy years as a Jesuit, for his ninety-one years and more as a man and a Christian, he has now attained. His Vindicator stands forth upon the earth; the Son of Man has come at last and girded on his apron to serve his faithful servants at table. He has seated Frank with the Canavans and the Jesuits and all his other families. Let the heavenly banquet begin.
May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
Patrick J. Ryan, S.J.
Vice President for University Mission and Ministry
FURTHER READING: The 1991 book Pins in the Liberal Balloon* is an excellent collection of Father Canavan's essays for Catholic Eye, which won the praise of Father Richard John Neuhaus .
*All commissions on Amazon purchases made through this blog go toward helping pregnant women who suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum. For details, click here.
Pictured: Father Canavan at the 2005 Human Life Foundation dinner.