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Memories and lessons from Fr. John Kavanaugh

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In the winter of 1982, before the Simon Recreation Center was finished, when West Pine was still a street in a decaying city, coursing through the heart of the Saint Louis University, a buddy and I enrolled in a course called “The Philosophy of Evil,” taught by Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J. While acquaintances from my high school class had gone on to Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, I sat there, too close to home, in an indistinct classroom building in crumbling, mid-town St. Louis.  But honestly, I would not change my education for anyone’s.  At the time, there was nothing dazzling about the outward appearance of SLU’s inner-city campus, but inside, the classroom was on fire.

I had not known what to expect.  I had gone to a Catholic grade school for three years, and those years were among the worst of my life.  There, I was one of the few African American students, and I always remained outside the close-knit German, Irish and Italian tribes that dominated the culture of a school where parents sent their children for a Catholic education and with some resistance to integration.  The priest was the tribal chief.  But I was told the Jesuits were different: quiet, cerebral, ascetic, rigorous and
courageous.  I had the strange, romantic image of “the exorcist” in mind: The scholarly expert of lost rituals, lean, tall, long coat, clerical collar, homburg hat, attaché case, lit in the fog by a street lamp. A man at once ancient and modern, whose struggle against evil is not only concrete but constitutes a specific body of knowledge that can only be obtained by mastery of the humanities and of ancient and modern tongues.

Then, Kavanaugh stepped into the classroom, looking like a bearded James Bond-Sean Connery — charismatic, lean and athletic, no clerical collar but dressed in black slacks and a black knit shirt.  When he stood outside the classroom during breaks, smoking a cigarette, he seemed more a like figure from a French New Wave film than a character from a classic, 1973 horror flick.

I have never had a classroom experience like that before or since then. Nearly every student seemed to beam with love for Kavanaugh.  I cannot imagine that anyone was indifferent. And I am certain no one was hostile.  He lectured the way he preached, with a
gentle, high-tenor voice, taking full advantage of both rhythm and dynamics, like an extraordinary street musician, who can stop the passing crowd in its tracks.  I think that few spaces in the world could have compared to that classroom.  Teacher and students brought their entire selves, mind, body and spirit. We journeyed together, testing, proving and understanding spirituality, truth, life, justice, the good and God.

And Kavanaugh brought into that classroom a unique aura, as if John the Baptist himself had wandered in from the desert on a diet of locusts and honey to share elements of his journey with other sojourners.  There were rumors that he had been one of the “St. Louis Jesuits,” whose music had touched the souls of people throughout the world; that he had gone to India to work with the poor and Mother Theresa; that he had studied thinkers who had wed Jesuit, Jewish and Eastern spirituality. And in those early days of the Reagan-era, he openly embraced one of the most controversial of Catholics:  Dorothy
Day, the radical, anarchist and pacifist advocate for the poor and homeless.  Like Day, his passionate commitment to social justice grew out of a fairly orthodox commitment to Catholic tradition and morality.  He brought these experiences into the classroom. They did not intimidate; they invigorated.

For me, the most magical aspect of his teaching was his relentless desire to recognize Christ in everyone, in the poor, the rich, the dying, the student.  Everyone felt she or he had something to contribute, to teach him, to add to his journey in the discovery of Christ.  It changed me when he copied and distributed something I had written about Albert Camus’ “The Fall” and read it with the same voice that he read the Gospels with in Church, tasting every word, as if it were pregnant with significance.  He recognized me as he recognized his other students.  And I’ll never forget how 20 years later he would
approach my dying mother, ravaged by two years of radiation and chemotherapy, touching her, holding her face in his hands, looking deep into her suffering, searching for Christ in the face of a 67-year-old woman.

What an amazing message for a philosophy professor of the early 1980s – railing against narcissism, objectification, materialism, consumerism and the sexual revolution; advocating for the lives of unborn children, convicted criminals on death row, peasants in El Salvador, enemies of the state, all of the oppressed.  He changed us all deeply, intellectually and spiritually, touching us with his fire.

After graduating, I went on to study at the University of Chicago and in France, still treasuring my unique education at SLU.  I became a newspaper journalist and eventually returned to SLU as a professor of English.  And though my arguments changed, and my trust in Western metaphysics diminished, I carried the fire he lit deep within. Who would not want to be the type of teacher he was, emulating him, recognizing students, touching lives?  But I always felt I fell far short of his example. But I tried, though imperfectly.

Meanwhile, this professor that I loved became a friend. Every time I met or saw him, often in front of Adorjan Hall, passing by his office or sitting over a lunch in Jesuit Hall, I would try to share with him something that contributed to or even challenged his message.  Eventually, I would also send John email messages about books I was reading or controversial topics in the news.  It is a strange feeling as (right now) I search my email for a conversation we had last Christmas about a homily he delivered that seemed so different from the ones he preached in the past – a homily about John the Baptist.  I hope he won’t mind my sharing this private communication, but it touches on what I feel he meant to us as students and teachers at SLU.  The subject of the message was “Another John.”

I wrote:


“A few weeks ago, you preached a sermon on John the Baptist. It unsettled me a bit. I have thought about it again and again … I think I have heard you preach about John before. As your namesake, you must feel a particular connection to him. But there was a darkness to your sermon that I had not heard before. It almost seemed to end with more
of a question than an exhortation … you seemed to be asking (and I could very well be wrong): ‘What does a life matter as the quotient of evil in the world seems to change so little?’  Anyway, I have thought about your sermon and you and the truths you have entrusted to me and your other students. I always worry that I have not lived up to that
trust. And in a western, conventional way, I know that I have not. But here is (I have attached) my response. It is a review of the work by another John [Wideman], the writer that I write about. I suppose he is about your age, maybe a little older, and his novel — Fanon – I think presents Frantz Fanon as a John the Baptist figure whom he links with his own life. And this book is darker than his others. But in my review, I hope I respond to the darkness, this word darkness reminding me of one of the strongest images of the novel, comparing his works to candles lit in a dark room: ‘All those pretty candles lit one by one with so much care and hopefulness, then one by one they gutter out, and when you peek over your shoulder, the room’s just as black as when you started.’  Anyway, I hope you have time to read this and I hope it means something, because you changed my life and rather than gutter out, I light others.”

He responded:

“Dear Stephen, so good to hear from you. The day after the homily you remember, I went to the hospital … The dark is not like Wideman’s. I am filled with hope and know we make a difference. As I age, the major difference, it seems to me, is in the lives we touch and share, not so much in movements or theories. As Paul wrote, “in the end, three things last….”

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