Monday, February 10, 2020

An Old Book About an Almost Forgotten Time

Recently, someone asked me if I had a copy of James Gillis: Paullist, the biography of the famous priest, written by Father James F. Finley in 1958. I had to admit that I didn't have one (and, in fact, had never read it). Asked if I would like his copy, I said, "Of course," and I told him how the author had lived with us when I was a novice and had begun one of his talks to our group with the same vivid image of the throngs converging on the Paulists' New York parish church to hear Gillis lecture on "False Prophets" on Sunday evening, October 21, 1923, with which the book begins.

Father James Martin Gillis (1876-1957) was an interestingly complex figure. He advocated for African-Americans' rights and spoke out against anti-Semitism. Sadly, however, his memory has been forever tarnished by his isolationist opposition to President Franklin Roosevelt and his embrace of the "America First" movement. Politics aside, however, through his preaching, lecturing, magazine publishing, and radio ministry, he was undoubtedly one of the major public voices of the Catholic Church as it moved into the mainstream of American society in the first half of the 20th century, at a time when preaching, lecturing, magazine publishing, etc., mattered much more than they do now because people paid so much more attention to such things, whether because religion mattered more then or simply because there were fewer other distractions.. At Cardinal Cushing's insistence, what was then called the Catholic Information Center in Boston was named after Gillis in 1957.

To be honest, I read the book more because of its author than its subject. I was curious how he dealt with the religious community dimensions of Gillis' life  and how he addressed the less attractive aspects of Gillis' personality. I knew the book would be a well written entry into late 19th-century and early 20th-century Catholic life in the US from the perspective of mid-20th-century America, a time when the Catholic life in this country seemed most fully developed and when the standing and influence of the Catholic Church in this country seemed to be at its zenith. And that task the book does fulfill.

Boston-born Gillis was a smart student who graduated from Boston Latin School and eventually went on to seminary, where influenced by a talk given by a visitor, the famous priest Walter Elliott, Gillis found his inspiration. "I prayed to be a missionary with half the zeal of Walter Elliott," he recalled later in life. Ordained a Paulist priest in the first year of the 20th century, Gilllis went on to further studies and teaching, to parish work in Chicago, and from there on the then highly favored work of preaching Missions (including in his case Missions to non-Catholics), before setting into the main mission of his life in the form of the more famous works with which he is mostly (and uniquely) associated.

Finley highlights Gillis's accomplishments but also the dynamics that held him back, brilliance beset by personality flaws and a (perhaps not unrelated) propensity to illness. Also on display is unique challenge of individual stardom within the theoretical egalitarianism of religious community.

Notwithstanding the universal scope and relevance of such considerations, Finley's account - even while written within the world and Gillis had inhabited - already has an air of elegy. Of course, brilliant people will always strive, succeed, and suffer setbacks because of the limitations of their personalities and other circumstances beyond their control. Versions of that will happen in every time and place and will result in interestingly complex life stories worthy of the biographer's art. That said, Finley's account is less interesting for what it recalls about one now almost forgotten figure from the previous century than what it remembers and how it portrays the aspirations of that singular era.

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