The cranky jubilarian

The cranky jubilarian

By Mick McCarthy, S.J. '87 and William Rewak, S.J.

Jerry McKevitt, S.J., speaks on the past and future of Jesuit higher education at the spring 2015 Bannan Institute. Photo by Max Westerman '15
Jerry McKevitt, S.J., was a scholar, teacher, reverend, and chef. And he chronicled the history of Santa Clara and Jesuits in the West.
Nunc Dimittis: Read a poem and the text of Fr. Rewak's comments from the vigil service.

Rev. Gerald L. McKevitt, professor emeritus of history and University historian at Santa Clara University, died Sept. 18, 2015, at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos. He was 76 years of age.

Jerry was an expert on Jesuits in the western United States. He wrote the definitive The University of Santa Clara, A History, 1851–1977 and worked with George Giacomini Jr. on the coffee table photography book Serving the Intellect, Touching the Heart: A Portrait of Santa Clara University, 1851–2001. His last book was the award-winning Brokers of Culture: Italian Jesuits in the American West, 1848–1919. He also wrote numerous articles, including "Built by Immigrants," published in the Fall 2007 edition of Santa Clara Magazine.

After undergraduate and graduate studies in history, Jerry entered the Jesuit novitiate at Los Gatos in 1963 to begin training for the priesthood. He was ordained in San Francisco in 1975 and began a lifetime association with Santa Clara.

Jerry served as professor, chair of the history department, University archivist, University historian, and rector of the Jesuit community. In 2004, he was named the Ignacio Ellacuría University Professor for Jesuit Studies at Santa Clara. At the time of his death, Jerry was working on a book-length history of Jesuit higher education in the United States. In April, he gave a talk on that subject for the Ignatian Center's Bannan Institute.

Following is a transcript of the homily given by Mick McCarthy, S.J. The text of Fr. William Rewak's vigil service, along with a poem he wrote, can be read via the link on the right.

Onesimus and Beloved

There are three prefatory points to this homily.

One. In the roughly 75 pages of instructions Jerry left for the rector to carry out on the occasion of his death, Jerry stipulated this requirement for his funeral homilist: He must understand the difference between a homily and a eulogy. The former expands on Scripture; the latter panders to the congregation by telling cute stories about the deceased.

Two. Many a time I drove home with Jerry from the funeral of a Jesuit. And often I heard him say this: “That homily was disgraceful. The preacher made it sound as if the deceased cared more about his evening Scotch than his daily prayer. And that he spent his religious life more out of love for the Giants than for Jesus.”

Three. In tonight’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, St. Paul speaks about his good companion, the former slave Onesimus. And in Greek, the word “onesimus” means “useful.”

In Fall 2013, Jerry had surgery to remove a tumor the size of a baseball from under his arm. I was with Jerry until right before they put him under anesthesia. I held his hand as we waited in pre-op, and the nurse asked Jerry: “Is this your handsome son?” When Jerry just chuckled, she looked at his chart and discovered to her embarrassment that he was a Catholic priest. Mortified, she slunk out of the room. Then Jerry really started chuckling.

It so happens that, while he was recovering from that surgery in Los Gatos, Jerry celebrated his 50th anniversary of entrance into the Jesuits. Of course, the old grump complained about being trapped up there and having to attend this party against his will. “I’ll just sit in the back until I can slip out quietly,” he told me. So I wrote him a note urging him:

Mac (which is what he always called himself), surrender to your better angels. Besides, Reverend (which is what I always called him), your perseverance through half a century as a Jesuit is extremely encouraging to me. It is a sign of hope that the life I entered is in fact worth my whole life and sustainable for the long haul. And while I am sorry I can’t be at the Jubilee, I feel joy for the great cloud of witnesses, among whom you have become such a major figure in my life. With love, “Your handsome son.”

About 24 hours later, this email from Jerry appeared in my in-box:

Beloved and handsome (I'll take your word for it) son,

Your thoughtful note gave the cranky jubilarian something to ponder.

It's difficult to comprehend how one's [own] perseverance [in religious life] has meaning beyond the private and personal. That there might be larger significance, as you suggest, is consoling.

I've always entertained the fantasy—more than a fantasy really, a hope and deep desire—that when we meet, the Lord will greet me with a new name—perhaps "Onesimus." We aspire to live a life useful to him, but the fruit of that aspiration remains unknown.

That very darkness [of not knowing] is merciful, of course. But still the ego craves a signpost that one is on the right road. Your kind note did that for me. Thanks for illuminating the path.

[I’ll have you know that] I conducted myself well the entire day and even enjoyed the celebration. Mac was banished; Onesimus ruled. The liturgy, which I observed (in its entirety, if you please) with a few others, from the choir loft, evoked even an occasional tear of joy. You shamed me into appropriate behavior during social and dinner with the other jubilarians. I would even go so far as to say that I was useful to them. That, of course, was the best part.

[Signed,] Rev

Many of you know that, as good as Jerry was at listening to the slightest stirrings of another person’s heart, he was hardly as generous in exposing his own. So for me his email has always been a key to understanding this man I loved and revered. It refers to what he once told me was one of his favorite passages in Scripture (which George Giacomini read from the Letter to Philemon). And it gives us an image—a very compelling image—of how he conceived entrance into eternal life.

That he longed to hear the Lord call him not Jerry but “Onesimus” (“Useful One”) tells us definitively what he most desired his life to be. Clearly that began early, as the eldest brother to five younger sisters. Jerry would often speak of how, when you were young, he fed you and looked for ways to encourage you. Early on he developed a habit of worrying about you. That never left him. As late as in the last months, whenever he had a bad night and was willing to tell me about it, Jerry often said that he had another “Oldest Brother Nightmare.” He would dream vividly of situations where he had to take care of you and protect you or your children. And in the dream he would feel terrible anxiety that he wouldn’t be able to. So he woke up troubled. It was his worst nightmare, in which to those he loved most deeply he was not useful.

Admittedly, to those of us who grew up in an age when we were encouraged to follow our passion, when it is often all about me, the desire to be useful (of all things) seems a bland, uninspiring, and a pretty sorry goal for life. But in this, too, Jerry was a deeply instructive mentor. One afternoon at our villa in the Santa Cruz Mountains, we found ourselves talking on the porch about the Gospel passage from Luke we just heard Jim Flynn read. Jerry admitted this too was one of his favorite Scripture passages. Jesus tells us:

So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’

“But Jerry,” I said. “How pathetic is that! Isn’t this just an invitation to groveling and false humility?” And Jerry said, "No, Mick. It is a consolation. We don’t have to create the Master Plan; we don’t have to save the world or have the answer to every question. We only need to pay attention to whatever a situation presents or even more important, whoever walks into our lives and stands before us on any given day. To ask, 'How may I serve you, how may I be useful to you?' to say what Jesus teaches us ('we have only done what we were obliged to do') is not to engage in some false humility," Jerry told me. Rather, it’s a huge relief. We have to take Jesus at his word and trust in that.

The fruits of this attitude of self-effacement, this humility, this sense of perspective were most obvious in the relationships so many people had with him. He loved his sisters, his nieces, his nephews. When he was not doing something directly useful to you, he was praying for you and planning little ways to encourage you. He loved his life in the Society of Jesus. And while he could be a curmudgeon in later years, he often gave me a privileged insight into just how much he cared for the brothers. He loved his circle of old friends. He loved being a good citizen of the University, a useful colleague in the department, a patient scholar. He loved being a teacher. And I suspect his greatest gift was being a mentor to so many people in so many different ways. 

It’s important to note that Jerry’s way of being in the world was not the result of sudden inspiration or natural genius. Jerry, his whole life long, patiently cultivated this habit of the good servant. It was the fruit, finally, of a Jesuit life that always looked to Christ, that was always thinking somehow of Jesus, who calls us to a deepening humility, who asks us to follow him humbly and in poverty, and who teaches us to yield everything to him.

We ask only for his love and his grace and trust that’s enough.

As I said in my letter to him on his 50th Jubilee, to see a man over years cultivate these very dispositions with grace and perseverance is the source of deep encouragement and joy for us all. Of course, at times it was maddening when those of us who loved Jerry wanted to hear about his health or how he was doing personally, and he sputtered and stuttered and stopped. “Oh no, no, no, you don’t want to hear about that.”

But in a religious culture that can over-dramatize its high aspirations, in an academic culture that is often self-engrossed and self-justifying, in a larger American culture that constantly regards itself as exceptional, Jerry’s own desire to be useful was a gracious astringent to the common bloat of self-importance. May we learn from his example.

Finally, then, let us pray that Jerry gets his life-long desire. That when he meets the Lord he is greeted by a new name.

For Jerry’s sake, let’s pray that he hears the Lord tell him that he has, after all, been wonderfully useful: and in that, Jerry will hear, literally, the announcement of his salvation, the news of his redemption.

But let’s also ask God to surprise Jerry.

In that first reading, his sister Barbara read from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord tells Israel not to fear. He says: “I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine.” But the name the Lord uses is not Onesimus (Useful One). Rather, it is a name that Jerry once, at least, called me: “Beloved.”

Let us pray that that’s what Jerry hears the Lord call him, and that Jerry not flinch away from such loving attention on him. But that for once, and for all eternity, he may hear the Lord calling him “Beloved.”

Beloved, for all you have humbly done as an older brother and father-figure to your sisters, your nieces and nephews, the young Jesuits and others who have looked to you for guidance.

Beloved, for the hours you counseled and mentored and listened.

Beloved, for sharing your discerning ear to the many who came to you to help them make decisions.

Beloved, for being such a faithful and present brother to your fellow Jesuits.

Beloved, for being so faithful to your friends.

Beloved, for all the hours you poured in the patient work of scholarship, teaching, and university service.

Beloved, for your cooking, for your art, for creating situations of fun and enjoyment for so many you love.

Beloved, for all those special moments of connection you had with individuals that no one else saw.

Beloved, for taking me as your model and, over a whole lifetime of prayer, giving yourself to me, humbly serving those I have placed in your care.

Beloved, for all the wonderful fruit you bore in merciful darkness that you yourself never saw as I did.

Beloved, for following me.

Beloved, for being a good priest.

Beloved, for who you are.

Come now, then, you who have served me so well. Now sit at my table and rest. Eat and drink. Be a little useless and let me just enjoy you, Jerry, my Beloved.

“For you are precious in my eyes, and honored. And I love you.”

Mick McCarthy, S.J., is the executive director of Santa Clara University’s Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education and he holds the Edmund Campion, S.J., Professor endowed chair. He is also an associate professor with a joint appointment in the religious studies and classics departments as well as the director of the Catholic Studies Program.

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