Fifteen years ago today, one of the Paulist Fathers’ eloquent 20th-century mission preachers died. James Finley, CSP, was 81 years old when he died, and his active preaching days were long behind him. Indeed, that whole Catholic world that had provided the rich connotative context for much of Jim Finley’s ministry was itself already long gone.
It was already gone when I first met Jim at my first evening meal at the Paulist Novitiate on August 24, 1981. Jim was by then living in retirement at Mount Paul, pursuing his private activities (some writing, some retreat ministry, etc.). He lived in a simple suite of rooms on the second floor, down the hall from the priests’ common room. Generally, we saw him only at dinner. Having come out of his room (or returned from whatever he might have been doing elsewhere), Jim socialized with his brother priests in their cozy common room, then came downstairs with them for dinner with us novices. One month into our novitiate, Jim gave us a “Day of Recollection.” Later he would give us individual preaching coaching. An assertive man with strong opinions, Jim quite consciously adopted a somewhat diffident stance in the novitiate – involving himself with us and our formation only to the extent that such involvement was welcomed by the novice master. Fortunately, my novice master seemed quite happy to invite Jim to coach us in our bumbling first efforts as preachers and to be a significant personal presence in our small novitiate community.
During my Washington years, I returned to visit Mount Paul on occasion and always enjoyed the opportunity to knock on Jim’s door and spend an hour or more chatting with him in his room. After my 1986 catastrophe, those visits became more frequent and even more appreciated. From 1987 to 1994, I was based in New York – first at Good Shepherd, then at our 59th Street Mother House. More than just a pleasant pace to spend a day off, Mount Paul became one of my places of personal refuge, where I felt welcome (thanks to the kindness of my novice master and his successors) and somewhat “at home” (in a way I could never feel, for example, in the renovated St. Paul’s College). The awkwardness of my anomalous status accompanied me, of course, wherever I went – no less so at Mount Paul. But, whereas I would scrupulously avoid the both the priests’ common room and the students’ common room on the rare occasions when I visited Washington (acutely conscious of not really belonging in either place), I always felt welcome both in the upstairs common room at Mount Paul and in Jim’s “office.” I cherished chatting with Jim about my life – and how I was coping with its anomalies – and appreciated that he liked me enough actually to care about how I was doing.
After ordination in Toronto in October 1995, I flew to New York for “First Masses” on consecutive Sundays at St. Malachy’s and Good Shepherd. During the week in between, I visited Mount Paul and, while there, was invited to celebrate Mass in the novitiate chapel. It was November 9, the feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran. To everyone’s surprise, Jim showed up in the congregation. As he said to me afterwards, “I don’t usually do this, but I’ve waited so long for this day.” It was a small gesture, to be sure, but one that touched me immensely.
His health started deteriorating significantly during the subsequent months. When I was in New York for vacation the following summer, I drove to Oak Ridge to see Jim for what turned out to be the last time.
Experiencing him as we did at Mount Paul, one could easily forget (or possibly not even know) about his “active” years. Besides preaching, he had served the community as Vicar General and had written on preaching, on senior spirituality, and – most famously, I suppose - a Paulist biography, Guardian of America: The Life of James Martin Gillis. Aware of all that, I sometimes felt for him in his seemingly hidden away retirement. But much more than whatever he had done in his active career, what mattered most to me were his personal kindness and his genuine interest in my fate.Requiem aetarnam dona ei, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat ei.