Reverend James Martin Gillis, C.S.P.
THERE ARE FEW INCIDENTS IN
THE CAREER OF Father Gillis which he did not evaluate with a
typical Pauline mentality. There was a day when he heard the
words of Father Elliott in St. John's Seminary, Brighton. He
saw in the Catholic missioner the most direct fulfillment of
Christ's behest, and he thought of Father Elliott as the greatest
man he had ever known.
At Boston Latin School and
at St. Charles College in Maryland, he made a brilliant classical
course and went away with a degree cum summa laude. Then he followed
Father Elliott back to the Paulists. After his studies in Washington
he came to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York on
December 21, 1901 and was ordained a priest.
The Licentiate in Sacred Theology
which he received from the Catholic University in 1903 made him
a better equipped missionary. His later years of administration
and teaching at the Paulist College in Washington he saw with
the single eye of a missionary to missioners. Once he began to
work in the American mission field, all his pent-up energies
came forth in an apostolate which can be calculated statistically
only with the work of the great missionaries in Catholic history:
325 weeks of preaching, 203 missions, of which 132 were for Catholics,
61 for non-Catholics and ten for mixed congregations. He gave
countless days of recollection for special groups, as well as
retreats, spiritual exercises, occasional lectures and sermons.
You might see him high in the pulpit of some great cathedral
one day, and, not long after, standing at the altar rail of some
impoverished colored church in Alabama, or in a hall that served
for a church in Arkansas. He gave as many as three Lenten courses
in one season. Nearly always he met with vibrant good will, but
he loved to boast of the time the Paulists were shot at in some
With headquarters at the Paulist
House in New York from 1910, he succeeded Monsignor John J. Burke,
then fully occupied as secretary of the NCWC in Washington, to
become editor of The Catholic World in 1922. His missionary
activity continued, he was here, he was there, he was in constant
demand for rallies, lectures, and sermons; and yet, at the editorial
office a prodigious amount of writing issued from his desk. Month
after month he produced editorials for the magazine which has
so notably advanced the work of the Paulists, and it is safe
to say that from 1922 to 1948, when he relinquished the editorship
to Father John B. Sheerin, there was not one fill-in editorial,
not one pot-boiler. His incisive logic gave his style a power
that was unique; his ability to develop a thought closely and
with abundant instances made his meaning indubitably clear.
Meanwhile, from 1928 until
1955 without interruption, he wrote a weekly column for the syndicated
Catholic newspapers. Who can estimate the enormous amount of
reading and thinking represented by nearly a million words in
those columns alone! It made no difference where he was, what
he had to do, however wretched his health, the Catholic news-service
had his Sursum Corda. Nor did his many engagements or
the constant pressure of meeting editorial deadlines keep him
from speaking regularly on WLWL, the Paulist radio station, from
1925 until it was discontinued in 1937; and from 1930 until 1941
he carried a series of talks each year on the Catholic Hour.
Despite this back-breaking
schedule, he was writing books, starting with False Prophets
(Macmillan, 1925, new edition 1934). In that work he examined
the worthless substitutes for religion put forward by Haeckel,
Nietzsche, H. G. Wells, Anatole France, G. B. Shaw, Freud, Conan
Doyle, and Mark Twain. There followed The Catholic Church
and the Home (id., 1928), The Ten Commandments (Paulist
Press, 1931), Christianity and Civilization (id., 1932),
The Paulists (Macmillan, 1932), This Our Day (Vol.
I, Paulist Press, 1933, Vol. II, 1949), If Not Christianity,
What? (Our Sunday Visitor, 1935), So Near Is God (Scribner,
1953), On Almost Everything (Dodd, 1955), This Mysterious
Human Nature (Scribner, 1957), and My Last Boob, edited
by Fr. Joseph McSorley, C.S.P. (Kenedy, 1958); as well as nine
Many, many hours of his life
were spent in reading. He wrote few articles in which there were
not quotations from the most disparate sources. He was never
behind in the latest news items or historical opinions. He never
separated current political events from political trends of the
past, no matter how far in the past. He was aware of the latest
scientific theories and experiments, the tendencies in art and
literature, the developing fads in psychology and religion, the
geography and ethnology of the remote corners of the earth, the
disputations of philosophers and theologians, the pronouncements
of Councils and the Sovereign Pontiffs, and he could call forth,
almost at will, any section of the Sacred Scriptures. He took
in to give out, and his storehouse was never depleted. And this
served, of course, his preaching and lecturing as well as his
His lifetime friend, Father
McSorley, has given this picture of him:
"I have known Father Gillis
longer and more intimately than any of his brethren; I have played
ball with him, climbed mountains; sailed through storms; read
poetry by evening in a little boat on a mountain lake. I have
been his colleague on a faculty; I have argued with him-sometimes
with more heat than either of us like to recall. He himself,
has declared that I know him better than any man alive. I must
bear witness to what I know. Even though I may displease him.
"And here is my testimony.
"On the natural level:
To use a word that few persons would associate with Father Gillis,
let me call him an 'old-fashioned' American, meaning that he
is an embodiment of our country's best traditions.
"Consistently a courageous
champion of justice and truth, he answers every challenge to
these ideals with No surrender! You might penalize him for this;
but you could not possibly intimidate him.
"He is one of those rare
men who can 'walk with kings, nor lose the common touch.' I cannot
imagine him fawning upon the powerful; or despising the poor;
or oppressing the weak; or betraying a comrade.
"He has always been-I
almost said he has notoriously been-independent, original, bold;
but again, I cannot imagine him ever disobedient.
"And he has one characteristic
which those who are not personally acquainted with him would
hardly realize. This conspicuously gifted scholar, this spirited
controversialist possesses a gracious, kindly, extravagantly
human heart. That is why I venture to say that among his deepest
feelings today is that of affectionate gratitude to the members
of his family, to whom he owes debts that can never be repaid."
In 1934, the College of Mount
St. Vincent conferred an honorary Litt.D. upon Father Gillis
as did both Fordham University and St. Francis College, Brooklyn,
the following year. And in 1951, when he celebrated the Golden
Jubilee of his ordination, Father Suarez, Master-General of the
Dominicans, presented him with an honorary degree in Sacred Theology
in the name of the Angelicum in Rome, the first time in history
that such an honor was conferred on an American. In his appeal
for the completion of the Paulists' Father Gillis Catholic Center
in Boston, Cardinal Cushing referred to Father Gillis as one
of the greatest priests the Archdiocese of Boston ever gave to
It was in Boston that he was
born on November 12, 1876, and in New York City that he died
on March 14, 1957.
This is based chiefly on an article on Father Gillis by Rev.
John C. Selner, S.S., in The American Ecclesiastical Review
of July 1957, and is used with their kind permission.
published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig,
Sixth Series, 1960.