On God, Beau Biden and a Hilltop Dining Hall


Going for food day in and day out at O’Donovan Hall, or Leo’s, students might never have stopped to think of its namesake: former University President Fr. Leo O’Donovan, S.J. With current University President John J. DeGioia having completed his 14th year as president, current students are far removed from O’Donovan’s tenure from 1989 to 2001. At 81, O’Donovan is still living a busy and impactful life. He currently lives in New York City and has filled his time with a variety of projects: lecturing, teaching courses, writing art reviews, serving on a variety of boards and doing pastoral work, to name a few. The Hoya sat down with O’Donovan in July to discuss his namesake, his retirement and his experiences at Georgetown.

This interview will be presented in three parts. Parts two and three will appear in the News section of The Hoya on Tuesday and Friday.

I would say most students on campus would probably know your name because of the dining hall.

I love the fact that the students call it “Leo’s.” When I heard that that’s what students were calling it I thought, “Well, wonderful.” They probably think that, whoever he was, “Leo died in the last century,” but I love the fact that it’s called just plain “Leo’s.”

What has retirement been like?

I have more freedom with my calendar now, and so I do more pastoral work, which I’ve always loved — explicit work as a priest … especially a lot of weddings, many for Georgetown grads, but others that are for the children of friends that I grew up with, and most of them are in this country. … I have done weddings in France and Italy and Ireland and Austria, the Bahamas, and from the weddings come baptisms and connected with the families are deaths.

I had the great honor — it was a very painful day — but the great honor of celebrating Beau Biden’s funeral Mass and preaching at that Mass in early June. And I give retreats and do spiritual direction, so when people ask me, “What’s retirement like?” I say, “Whose?” Because I don’t really feel very retired.

What are you most proud of in your term as president of the university?

I was very proud that we did significantly increase the endowment. I was proud — I think I concluded by saying we increased, we tripled the endowment, which is good. Not great. It was good. We had the big campaign. We increased research very significantly. We’ve added some new centers, new programs. We saved the medical school by selling the hospital, and I know the medical faculty was grateful to me for that. I’m also grateful that we did it without any argument with the Cardinal [James Hickey].

What do you think makes Georgetown special? What does it still need to improve upon? What do you think its role is in shaping public discourse, especially being a religious institution in the seat of the U.S. government?

What I said in my inauguration speech — which I never delivered because of Hurricane Hugo, though it was published — is still true, I think. Georgetown has not had to reinvent itself. It has been called to keep growing according to a pattern that was established in the city of Washington, which has kept growing, and it is growing true to its foundation, in a world that has increasingly complex and challenging issues. But the basic shape of the university, the basic character is very strong and is there to be nuanced and strengthened and adumbrated, and added to but not revised.

A big change happened when we returned to being residential; a big change happened when we became the only Catholic Institution in … COFHE — The Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

I haven’t worried about this for several years. But the best for me, the best organization of schools was the Consortium on Financing Higher Education. The term of president was for one year. They asked me to do it for two years, and I changed some things. It was all the Ivies, Northwestern, Chicago and then the very best private colleges and we swapped information remarkably widely in order to offer better educations. Even though we were competing with each other. … So we have strong tradition that doesn’t have to reinvent itself, but is open to wonderful new developments. And that makes the job of a president that much easier and more challenging because you could be tempted to be complacent to stay where you are, but that would not be true to the wonderful things that have happened.

Georgetown was a pioneer when it opened the LGBTQ Center in 2008. What are your thoughts on the way Georgetown has been able to handle and provide resources for the LGBTQ community that, years and years ago, people viewed religion as being completely hostile toward?

Well, I think Georgetown is far from being alone among Catholic colleges and universities in being subject to criticism that it is not authentically Catholic. In almost all the particulars that I’m aware of, of that criticism, the supposition is of a rigorous, overly self-assured, top-down understanding of the Church. And if the Church is really God’s people struggling through time with the guidance of its appointed pastors to make this world more human and just in the hopes of entering into God’s eternal life, then we should be a more forgiving and less denunciatory society.

I don’t have much patience for watchdogs keeping track of every instance of something that is purportedly non-Catholic. If a similar list of all the things that were done to support Catholicism were kept, I might pay more attention to the list of failures, but that’s not the way one successfully lives with other people. You encourage other people. You don’t say, “You’ve messed up there again.” That’s not, that’s not the goal, and there are, as we well know, numerous organizations that keep lists and marshal evidence that is often extremely partial.

You mentioned having the privilege of presiding over the funeral mass for Vice President Joe Biden’s son. I just wanted to ask you what that meant to you, to be able to do that.

Well, it was a very, it was a very painful moment shared by a lot of people and instinctively — I don’t know how to put this without crying. Beau Biden was, by any measure, an extraordinary young man. He was 46 when he died, but he was nevertheless a young man so clearly at the beginning of what might be hoped for. He became the attorney general of the state; it was widely expected that he would run for governor — unless you really knew him and the immediate family well because the original diagnosis of the brain tumor was very severe. And he was a man of extraordinary generosity, as his brother Hunter (COL ’92), who went to Georgetown (Beau went to Penn), but as Hunter said, his first memory, Hunter’s first memory of life, was waking up in that hospital bed after the accident where his mother and his little baby sister were killed. And his brother Beau was leaning across from the bed next to his holding his hand and looking intently into his eyes and saying repeatedly, “I love you, I love you.” And then Hunter said, “And that was the story of my brother’s life. If you needed something, he took your hand.” And President Obama, in his beautiful and very personal eulogy, said of Beau, “He was the most popular politician in Delaware,” and then he looked down at Joe Biden and said, “Sorry, Joe.”

And at the end of Hunter’s eulogy he said, “So that was my brother, and I’m proud — but what I’m most proud of is that he took my hand first.” I would never have been asked to preside at that funeral mass or give a homily if I hadn’t been at Georgetown all those years. If I hadn’t come to know Joe as senator and more recently as the vice president. If I hadn’t gotten to know his sister, Valerie, who took care of the boys after their mother’s death. (Some of her children went to Georgetown.) There are young members of the family hoping now to go to Georgetown.

It had a lot to do with Georgetown and Washington, and it felt very much like being home, because there were so many people there from Congress, President Clinton was there with Hillary Clinton in the front pew next to the Obamas. Mitch McConnell was there, Lindsey Graham I think was there; members of the Republican side of the House and Senate. I didn’t think of it then, but as I look back, I’m proud that that’s the kind of situation where Georgetown could make a contribution. Being a university in the nation’s capital and being in a position to respond to something really aching and painful beyond words, but something hopeful and faithful even more beyond words.

The night before the funeral I wrote to Hunter and said, “Tomorrow will be very hard, Hunter, but it will be still more full of grace and hope.” And I got off the computer and put that line into the homily, because I hadn’t thought of it before. That was true; it was like dying with Jesus, but hoping you would be one with him forever. And so in the homily, whether people noticed this or not, I actually tried to draw an identification between Beau and Jesus, and in the first paragraph I described the loss that his death entailed by saying that, “We had hoped that he would be the one, we had put our trust in him,” or words to that effect, which are the words that the disciples on their way to Emmaus speak, when they speak to Jesus without recognizing him. So I was consciously trying to speak of our hopes for this young man the way people had hoped in Jesus and then faced his death, and then hoped nevertheless.

That’s part of our university’s tradition. John Carroll, our founder, was an ardent republican in the sense of supporting the new republic. He wrote the prayer that was used at George Washington’s inauguration. We have this immense honor and responsibility of a special connection with the government of our great country, and I was given that trust, the trust of that institution for a time, and from the very beginning I thought, “This is a great trust, and I will do the best I can with it, and then hand it on because it’s only for a time,” which was actually a great relief. It was not something I had to do so there is a freedom in that.

That’s a rather philosophical answer to your question, but it’s the deeper truth. We’ll always be in Washington. No matter how international and global, increasingly international and global. … That’s our heart and the heart of its students because of whom the faculty comes together, for whom the money is raised to support the teaching and the housing of the students and their activities, and because of whom, students and the faculty, all the facilities are built. But it starts with the students around whom a faculty gathers in the hopes that these will be young women and men, as Jesuits say, “for others,” — responsible for a better world. What better thing could you be about?

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for print. This is part one of a three part interview. Parts two and three will appear in the News section of The Hoya next week.

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One Comment

  1. “I don’t have much patience for watchdogs keeping track of every instance of something that is purportedly non-Catholic. If a similar list of all the things that were done to support Catholicism were kept, I might pay more attention to the list of failures, but that’s not the way one successfully lives with other people. You encourage other people. You don’t say, “You’ve messed up there again.” That’s not, that’s not the goal, and there are, as we well know, numerous organizations that keep lists and marshal evidence that is often extremely partial.”

    There is a list kept about all the things done to support Catholicism at Georgetown. It’s trotted out by DeGioia and Pugh every time there is a controversy over whether GU is ignoring or going against its fundamentally Catholic mission.

    What O’Donovan (the man who was once called to Rome and instructed to revoke DeGioia’s decision to fund and officially recognize the pro-abortion group GU Choice) is really saying here is that we should remain silent whenever Georgetown promotes or engages in activities that go against the Roman Catholic moral tradition.

    In other words, encourage the good and ignore the bad. Of course, Georgetown doesn’t follow this practice itself, otherwise there wouldn’t be NSO, the Committee on Speech and Expression, or disciplinary committees.

    Also, it’s important to receive feedback when we’re wrong. It’s how we get better. We don’t always have to agree that the person telling us we made a mistake is correct, but it’s worth considering especially if the person making the critique is knowledgeable about the what’s happened or the issue in question. No one person or institution is perfect, and we all at times need to be told we messed up.

    That’s Life 101. Surprised O’Donovan doesn’t realize that.

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