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Peacemaker priest ‘made the kingdom of God believable’


The U.S. church lost one of its most colorful and most radical priests Oct. 17 when Jesuit Fr. Richard T. McSorley died at Georgetown University Hospital of complications related to coronary artery disease.

An ex-prisoner of war, McSorley, 88, founded Georgetown’s Center for Peace Studies, as well as two Catholic Worker communities. McSorley was a staunch pacifist who maintained friendships with presidents and paupers alike. A teacher and author, he produced several books and hundreds of columns and articles on subjects related to peace and justice.

In a letter of condolence read at McSorley’s Oct. 22 wake, former president Bill Clinton recalled a 1969 trip to Europe where he and McSorley “prayed for peace together” in London, and visited a peace center in Oslo.

“Fr. McSorley was a man of great character who always stood by his abiding commitment to promoting and expanding his belief in the cause of peace,” Clinton wrote, “fearless in the face of harshest criticism, unwavering in his search for moral reason while inspiring many to do the same.”

McSorley may have been best known for his quote -- “It’s a sin to build a nuclear weapon” -- that adorned a poster that sold thousands of copies during the height of the Cold War.

“The taproot of violence in our society today,” he wrote, “is our intent to use nuclear weapons. Once we have agreed to that, all other evil is minor in comparison. Until we squarely face the questions of our consent to use nuclear weapons, any hope of large scale improvement of public morality is doomed to failure.”

Born in Philadelphia, the second of 15 children in an Irish Catholic family, McSorley joined seven of his siblings in religious life. Throughout his 70 years as a Jesuit, the tall, thin, soft-spoken priest, who almost always wore his Roman collar, maintained friendships with scores of people, from the many students he taught at Georgetown to numerous members of the Kennedy clan. He celebrated a private Mass for the Kennedys the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.

At his wake and funeral, tributes were delivered from friends, family members, fellow Jesuits and Catholic Workers.

In a posthumous letter to “Uncle Dick,” McSorley’s niece, Rosemary Traoré, wrote: “You touched the lives of people from the prostitutes at 14th and N, the homeless who lived in your car, the thousands of students you taught, the conscientious objectors you counseled and supported. … Your range of contact with humanity resembled that of Jesus. You spent time with the rich and the poor. You were comfortable with everyone and anyone.”

Despite an 18-year difference in age, Sr. Rosemary A. McSorley of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus said she always maintained a close relationship with her brother whose “joyfulness in life is what I remember.”

A poverty lawyer who is the 15th McSorley sibling, Rosemary McSorley said her brother strummed a ukulele and used silly magic tricks to make people happy. “I think that’s a sign of holiness,” she said.

On the Georgetown campus, McSorley raised Cain demonstrating against the school’s ROTC program, and by leading various protests. In his younger years, McSorley rode a bicycle around campus. For longer trips, he drove a rickety old car that was plastered in peace bumper stickers. He was arrested several times for civil disobedience, and he maintained a close friendship with noted peace activists Philip and Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan.

Several of McSorley’s Catholic Worker friends led a candlelight procession from the campus to Holy Trinity Catholic Church for the 8 p.m. funeral Mass. The marchers carried a banner that stated: “Wage Peace -- Practice Nonviolence.” McSorley’s casket was adorned with a flag with the Catholic Worker logo.

Recent Georgetown graduate Maura McCarthy was one of several McSorley friends who offered reflections at the funeral Mass. McCarthy, 22, who was McSorley’s assistant for the final four years of his life, recounted the story of a deep friendship shared between “a young woman and an old priest,” which included the frequent celebration of the Mass for the two of them.

McCarthy said McSorley never celebrated Mass without including a homily.

“No matter what gospel we read, his homily always ended up being a talk against war, and about how the church has to stop support of all killing.”

Pax Christi USA mourned McSorley as “one of the great Catholic peacemakers of the 20th century.” A former Pax Christi USA national council member, McSorley was honored in 1992 as a Pax Christi USA “Ambassador of Peace.”

Jesuit Fr. John Dear, who was an editor of McSorley’s writings, wrote, “In the Christian tradition of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr., Richard McSorley was a voice for peace in a war-torn world. He said no to violence, war and nuclear weapons and yes to nonviolence, peace and life.”

In his eulogy, Jesuit Fr. Thomas M. King said McSorley “went as a lamb among wolves,” and he “somehow made the kingdom of God believable. ... He made peace believable.”

King, who first met McSorley 50 years ago when he was a young novice, said many people “didn’t agree with everything Dick said, and Dick would say, ‘That’s all right, you have a right to be wrong.’ I think that was his way of telling us we had a right to be ourselves.”

In an NCR interview, author Colman McCarthy, who wrote McSorley’s obituary for The Washington Post, said McSorley was not fully appreciated at Georgetown, where administrators never honored McSorley’s request to create a peace studies major.

“Sure, Dick McSorley was a man of many gifts, but you have to wonder why Georgetown administrators kept him on the margins all those years,” McCarthy said, adding that instead of peace studies, Georgetown invited “war supporters” such as Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger and Jeane Kirkpatrick to teach classes “all in the name of balance I suppose -- yeah right.”

McSorley studied philosophy, and took a teaching assignment in the Philippines. In December 1941, a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, McSorley and other Jesuits were rounded up and sent to a Japanese concentration camp, where he remained under harsh conditions until he was liberated on Feb. 23, 1945.

McSorley became an early opponent of segregation when he observed the effects of racism during a 1948 assignment at a Maryland parish. “He underwent a deep faith conversion to the gospel message of social justice and equality,” Dear wrote.

“It really changed my life,” McSorley later wrote, “to come right out of theology school where racism was never once mentioned to discover that the church was racist in practice. White people came to Communion first. Blacks had to wait outside. Blacks sat on one side, whites on the other. I had never seen anything like that before. I had never heard anything about racism in the seminary or in Catholic schools.”

Peace activist Paul Magno, who was McSorley’s student in the late 1970s, said McSorley visited him when Magno was serving a federal prison sentence for a Plowshares action. Although celebrating Mass was prohibited in the prison, McSorley used a small bottle meant for contact lens fluid to smuggle in wine so he could clandestinely offer Mass for several inmates in the visiting area.

Magno said McSorley taught students that war might be conducted in the service of oil, the flag, power, dollars “or other worldly things,” but he taught that war “will not be serving Jesus Christ, and that’s why we cannot be part of it.”

In an interview with a student newspaper, McSorley said: “I see my mission in life, as God has made it known to me, to help make the Catholic church what it should be, a peace church. To be a Christian means to have respect for life in all its forms and in today’s nuclear age, that means Christians must become active witnesses for peace and must firmly oppose all forms of war.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002