Behind the Collar
The Untold Stories of Georgetown's Jesuits
Published: Thursday, February 16, 2012
Updated: Friday, February 17, 2012 12:02
They celebrate masses, serve in the administration and teach some of Georgetown's most popular classes. The almost 60 members of Georgetown's Jesuit community play a wide variety of roles on campus, and their paths to the priesthood have been just as diverse. For some it was an easy decision, but for others it took years to realize their calling.
PREMED TO PRIEST
Fr. Leo O'Donovan, S.J. (CAS ' 56), who served as president of the university from 1989 to 2001, first came to Georgetown as a student. He originally planned to attend medical school and become a psychiatrist, but after two years at the university, O'Donovan switched to a double major in English and philosophy. After graduation, he earned a Fulbright scholarship and began his studies in France at the University of Lyon. It was in France that O'Donovan decided he wanted to join the Society of Jesus.
"I became gradually aware that what I felt really called to do in life was to be a minister in the Church," O'Donovan explained. "So I applied [to the Society] from France and it was naturally a key decision in my life and one I've never regretted."
O'Donovan's choice was influenced in large part by the many religious men and women he had encountered in his education, beginning with the nuns at his elementary school, Corpus Christi, on Manhattan's West Side.
"The sisters in that school were simply extraordinary," O'Donovan said.
He recalls a teacher who, in the days immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had his class draw nativity scenes of the Holy Family as Japanese people.
"I don't think I've ever heard anything more ethically imaginative," he said.
O'Donovan was ordained as a Jesuit priest 10 years after graduating from Georgetown, having also received postgraduate degrees from Fordham University, Woodstock College and the University of Münster in Germany.
He went on to teach theology at multiple universities throughout the country until he became president of Georgetown in 1989, the year of the university's bicentennial celebration.
"It was wonderful to come home," he said. "It was a great time to be asked to lead the university."
Georgetown had undergone extensive changes in the 33 years O'Donovan was away. Perhaps most significant was the university's decision to admit women to the College of Arts and Sciences in 1969.
"I thought this was great news and would make for better education for everybody, and it has. I won't say that women are better students, but I'm tempted to," O'Donovan said.
One of the most controversial moments during his 10 years serving as head of the university involved his support of the pro-choice group GU Choice, a group that he refused to shut down until he was directed to do so by the Vatican in 1992. The group was the predecessor to H*yas for Choice, which is not officially recognized by the university as a student group.
"I saw it as an educational question," he said. "It wasn't that I sought to promote it, but talking about one's ideas seems to be part of the educational process. The Catholic Church is a church of reason as well as faith."
Upon his retirement, O'Donovan returned to New York. He is now teaching theology again, primarily at Union Theological Seminary, but has given lectures in both the United States and Germany. He's written art criticism, served on a committee evaluating spiritual life at Yale University and is the official chaplain of the New York Athletic Club. He's also increased his pastoral work, officiating numerous weddings, performing baptisms and leading numerous Ignatian retreats.
Corpus Christi School became a major priority for O'Donovan. After he retired from his position on the Walt Disney Corporation's Board of Directors, on wihch he served from 1996 to 2007, the board offered to make a contribution to a charity of his choice, and O'Donovan had them build a science lab for the small school. He has also created an advisory board to help guide the school as it continues to grow.
LOVE LOST, FAITH WON
Fr. Charlie Gonzales, S.J. (CAS '56), former rector of the Georgetown Jesuit community and a current professor in the theology department, started his Georgetown career in a way eerily similar to O'Donovan. He too was premed when he entered, and the two men lived on the same floor in Healy Hall as freshmen, allowing them to become good friends.