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Eugene Kennedy, Teacher and Friend



William Van Ornum - published on 06/11/15

His writings would "make a saint smile"

Eulogies and obituaries about Eugene Kennedy are appearing apace and they stress his work as a priest and writer and then, according to many, as a "leading dissident" of the post-Vatican II Church.

Those reporting on his life focus too often on what is described as an adversarial role with many contemporary prelates, particularly on the mishandling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis and the centralization of power among bishops and cardinals within the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

But the life he lived and his love for the Church is incredibly greater than what has been reported.

Eugene Kennedy was my teacher, dissertation advisor, and mentor at Loyola University of Chicago between 1975 and 1980 and in all the years since I have been honored and humbled to have been his friend. I hope these few remembrances may add a touch of great fondness as well as more than a few relatively unknown but crucial details.

Dr. Kennedy taught counseling psychology in Loyola’s doctoral program. The book he wrote — On Becoming A Counselor— was our textbook and remains in print after over 250,000 copies printed and 40 years in print. In class we presented videotaped sessions of our beginning and often bumbling attempts to understand the sufferings of others. Somehow Dr. Kennedy taught us to notice the suffering beneath all the words and offer true understanding in what we said. Shakespeare could write that "the quality of mercy is never strained, it falls to Earth like gentle rain" but only Eugene Kennedy could grasp a human being’s struggles so intuitively and offer so freely and fully such affirming encouragement.

He gladly took under his wing those in need of a good word— I know this from direct experience— but woe to anyone like Eddie Haskell or the proud and righteous. He suffered no fools. When one of my previously Ivy League classmates interrupted him in his office one day to offer some "helpful feedback" on how the course was going Dr. Kennedy looked up, smiled, and said "Thank you Charlie but I will not apologize for the way I teach my course." Gene had integrity.

Gene’s writings could make a saint smile. Under a July sun in Rome in 1997, shortly after Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin died, I presented a weary and beleaguered Pope John Paul II with several books, including Kennedy’s This Man Bernardin. The blue eyes came to life and the Saint himself sparkled with joy as he said, "Ah, Zho-septh, Zho-seph." What better stamp of orthodoxy can there ever be for something one has written?

Gene was an investigative reporter sharper than any serpent he ever had to interview. While working on a long-term biography of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley by necessity he had to interview at least one or two of Chicago’s smarmiest. These types know how to say different things at different times but they greatly underestimated the young priest who knew the laws of the Land of Lincoln as well as the capabilities of Radio Shack within a pocket of the black priestly suit.

Gene’s heart was at Maryknoll— his priesthood began there and remains there forever, just like Melkezidek. Decades ago he knew what Pope Francis would be facing in The Southern Hemisphere and what Joseph Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness. He prayed as part of that great Rosary experienced by living and martyred Maryknollers everywhere.

Unlike many who build an identity "criticizing" their country in order to make it a better place (so they say), Gene loved America. He even contributed to the Republican Party. Who better to eulogize a friend who had served his country for decades in the Central Intelligence Agency? Gene knew his Bible and spoke of Joshua’s men and how they helped prepare safe passage for the Chosen People to the Promised Land. Who knew the life of a CIA agent could be part of God’s ministry? Gene knew this.

Gene knew and lived scripture. When he wrote that "the people are the Church" it wasn’t meant to be a 20th-century bromide but rather an exact description of what scripture scholars of all denominations verify. The followers of Christ were a community of Saints, not those with time on heir hands parsing the unguarded thoughts of their neighbors.

If the kindly C.S. Lewis had a pet peeve or two it was the abysmal quality of many of the writings placed into public view by Christians. Not one to toot his own horn, Gene could rely on unexpected affirmations by Norman Mailer and even Saul Bellow, who was quoted in the The New Yorker writing about Gene’s creations of literary beauty.

Gene was a kid at heart and he loved a parade and quietly expressed this part of his life to readers under the guise of a wonderful little book, St. Patrick’s Day with Mayor Daley and Other Things Too Good to Miss.

If there ever could be a true model for our Catholic Church it might be the Chicago Cubs. Gene was a fan and when he commented on our Church’s leadership foibles it was with no more rancor or bitterness than a true Cub fan lamenting the miserable years of the College of Coaches.

If you read everything Gene ever wrote carefully you’ll recognize the genres as those growing out of St. Paul to the Corinthians, Galatians, or those oft-forgotten Old Testament scriptures hidden and too-oft forgotten in the pages between the Old Testament Historical and Wisdom Books. Sometimes I think Gene was a fundamentalist at heart.

Gene, we wait in joyful hope for that day when the Seventh Trumpet announces the coming of our friend and teacher to whom you dedicated your entire life. Lord, how we’ll all be in that number— when the saints go marching in!

William Van Ornum is a writer and psychologist who teaches at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY

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