Georgetown has its fair share of legends and heroes. Some of the legends are true; some of the heroes are real. One of them entered my life before I had ever heard of Georgetown.

In 1974 I was an eighth-grader in Tempe, Ariz. The Watergate hearings were underway, and my family was regularly glued to the TV. I remember one afternoon of that year with particular clarity. I was sitting at the dining room table doing my social studies homework. My mom was in the kitchen making dinner. Both of us could see and hear the TV.

It was a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. They were voting on something related to Watergate. The camera moved from one congressman to another. “Aye,” said many. “No,” said some. Then, the camera settled on a congressman wearing a Roman collar. Sure enough, a Catholic priest. I couldn’t believe it.

“Mom,” I said, “who’s that?” She looked up. “Father Drinan. He’s from Massachusetts. He’s a Jesuit. We love him.”

“We,” it turns out, was not just my mom and I, but our whole clan and clans like ours: Irish Catholic folks whose roots run through the factories and mills of New England. I wasn’t exactly sure what a Jesuit was, but I knew from my mom’s tone of voice that Drinan was one of us, and then some.

He was a Jesuit priest and a Democrat. His example led me to think for the first time of becoming a Jesuit and coming to Washington. I was 13. He was instantly my hero. Thirty years later, he still is.

Father Drinan was minding his own business in 1970, doing his job as the dean of the law school at Boston College, when he was approached by some folks who were concerned that their congressman wasn’t doing enough to oppose the Vietnam War. They wanted Drinan to run against him.

Long story made short: Drinan ran and won. Five times.

Drinan’s career in Congress is a matter of public record. It’s a record that has been assailed by some. “Un-Catholic,” they rail, with the smug certitude of Pharisees in every age.

Never mind that an honest accounting based on a papal scorecard of issues could similarly be used to consign many of Drinan’s modern detractors to the ranks of the “un-Catholic.”

Capital punishment. The war in Iraq. Human rights. The plight of refugees, migrant workers and the uninsured. Stewardship of the environment. Workers’ rights, including the right to unionize and to earn a living wage. The teachings of John Paul II are as clear on these issues as they are on any other. Many of Drinan’s detractors, thumping their chests as they profess their papal allegiance, find it easy to brush aside such inconvenient papal teachings.

But, for me, Father Drinan is a whole lot more than a former Congressman or a voting record.

I first met him in 1986 when I was a Jesuit novice. I was visiting Georgetown for a weekend. I walked into the old Jesuit residence at about 10 o’clock one night, and there he was, drinking a beer and eating a bologna sandwich.

“Hi, I’m Bob Drinan.” We spent the next 15 minutes or so talking about me and my experience as a novice. He was genuinely interested, and I was so flummoxed at being in the presence of the man who had been a hero of mine since grade school, that I couldn’t summon the courage or presence of mind to ask him about himself.

He finished his sandwich and went to bed.

Fifteen years later, I returned to Georgetown as a priest and a dean. Bob Drinan was still here, living in the Jesuit residence, teaching at the Georgetown Law Center, as he still does at age 83.

Slowly, we got to know and like one another. I think my bred-in-the-bone love of the Roman Catholic Church and my dyed-in-the-wool allegiance to Democratic politics has assured him that the torch has indeed been passed to a new generation.

Last summer, on the feast of St. Ignatius, the Georgetown Jesuits gathered in Dahlgren Chapel to celebrate Mass. As we were vesting in the sacristy, I found myself standing next to Drinan. He leaned over to me and quietly asked, “Know what I did 30 years ago today?” There was a bright Irish twinkle in his eye. “No, Bob. What?”

“Thirty years ago today I introduced the first measure in the House calling for Nixon’s impeachment.”

I wanted to stop everything and ask him to tell me the whole story, every detail. I was bursting with curiosity and pride. But we couldn’t stop. We had to celebrate Mass, my brother and I.

Some Georgetown legends are true, and some Georgetown heroes are real.

Editor’s Note: This edition of AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT . was originally printed in THE HOYA on Friday, Jan. 30, 2004. Fr. Robert F. Drinan died Sunday.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Foreign Service – Qatar. He can be reached at AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT . appears every other Friday.

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