Tennant Wright, S.J., STL ’63 had a favorite bit of advice he gave to students: “Judge me harshly.” That rarely was the case with this devoted teacher and priest who came from unlikely roots.
Longtime Religious Studies Professor Tennant Wright, S.J., STL ’63 lived and breathed what he taught. That included Zen Buddhism, which he felt was a nourishing and empathetic complement to his Catholicism. “Zen is getting in touch with the whole self—the intellect, the body, the emotions, the imagination,” he once told a reporter.
“And when one reaches those, one reaches the Godhead. It is taught in Zen—and Christianity.”
He was born in the City of Angels in 1927, the son of a filmmaker who directed some of John Wayne’s early oaters. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1953 after graduating from what is now Loyola Marymount University. Earning advanced degrees from Gonzaga University and the University of Chicago School of Divinity, he joined the Santa Clara faculty and served the University for 58 years, teaching courses in meditation, mysticism, spiritual autobiography, and Jesuit perspectives on compelling religious subjects. A beloved, funny, and unorthodox teacher, his favorite advice for students was “Judge me harshly!”
In 1969, he traveled to Belize to teach at St. John’s College. He regularly returned to Belize in summers (and some autumns) for decades. His work in the country included ministering at a psychiatric hospital. In the 1970s he studied Zen Buddhism in Japan and Korea. And he also taught in Xiamen, China.
His devotion to social justice led to fervent appeals to presidents, prime ministers, members of Congress, and activists. His powerful interest in literature inspired a longtime correspondence with novelist Graham Greene. Here in the Diocese of San Jose, many knew him through his work as a chaplain with incarcerated youth and their families, and through his service to the Emmaus Community of LGBT Catholics.
Jim Gaffney ’71, J.D. ’75 of Portland, Oregon, remembered “Tenny” as “a humble man with Kennedy-esq features [who] was known around campus for his late night Masses that offered readings instead of sermons but mostly featured the deep quiet of the Mission.” Given his Hollywood connections, Gaffney notes, he could have lived a different life but chose the priesthood. “He had no regrets. We alums are the lucky beneficiaries of his choice.”
Fr. Wright died on June 17 at age 87. He once said, “The older I get, the more ordinary I feel.” But to the many whose lives he touched, he was extraordinary indeed