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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 outlying mission.

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 pamphlets.

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 writing.

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 the Church.

It was in Boston that he was born on November 12, 1876, and in New York City that he died on March 14, 1957.



EDITOR'S NOTE: 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.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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