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Remembering Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J.

Sickness brought me this thought, in that scale of his:

Why should I be dismayed, though flame had burned 

The whole world, as it were a coal,

Now I have seen it weighed against a soul? 

(W.B. Yeats)




Father John. Brother John. Friend John.

Dear … John.


Fr. John Kavanaugh, 71, began the ultimate journey last week, passing beyond our dominion. And all of us who knew and loved him are poorer for his absence, but richer for having shared the life of this rare and memorable human being.


He could bang an Irish drum or strum a weathered guitar with elan, puff a cigarette with abandon and swig a stein of Guinness with gusto. And in his grad-school days, he could often be found at venues like John D. McGurk’s, doing all three … simultaneously. He loved his work, his family, his friends, his students, travel, Ireland, India and soccer.


He was not your standard-issue teacher, priest or man.


If students needed a challenging course that shed light upon their path, gave them insight beyond the classroom and forged a hopeful, ethical vision of and for humanity, they signed up for a Fr. John class. And they did so for years, in droves — despite the fact that he often scheduled 8 a.m. classes to cut down on the heavy traffic. (It didn’t work. For, as one student once told a colleague: “He makes philosophy seem like … important fun.”)


If you were a colleague, you turned to John for a fair and reasoned assessment of whatever controversy was casting its shadow across the campus, the city, the country and the world beyond — seeking the light of his compassion, the wisdom of his experience and the sagacity of his education. And he always gave of himself, took the time … to listen, advise and lend a hand, often unexpected, often on your shoulder. He rarely chided, often smiled and seldom censured; and he kept his counsel ever faithful, ever pure. He was never on vacation from his vocation.


And if you were a priest, he was your priest, friend and counselor. His legendary decency and genuine humility punctuated with equal measures of kind countenance and twinkling affection, inspired confidence. And if anyone ever needed a voice of compassion, or a touch of eloquence or an exemplary tribute — usually buttressed with a dash of profundity, the call would go out to summon Fr. John. And he would always answer that call.


Thus, for a time, now … melancholy may be our normal state. And though Fr. John would assuredly tell us that this, too, this feeling of the void, shall pass —we will miss, immeasurably: that stubbly beard; that half-smile of shared and recognized humanity; that soft chuckle of appreciation for both wit and wag; and that little glance of affection, over the rims of his spectacles, endorsing our dreams and sustaining our hopes. The absence of all … all … leaves us feeling stricken, solitary, distant, heavy of heart.


Farewell, Fr. John.

Godspeed, Brother John.

Thank you, Friend John.

Dear John.

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