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Rev. Joseph McSorley, C.S.P.

IN 1891-AFTER HAVING ACQUIRED A PASSABLE knowledge of Latin, history, literature, scholastic philosophy and an A.B. degree from St. John's University, Brooklyn--I was admitted to St. Thomas College, the novitiate of the Paulist Fathers, on the campus of the Catholic University, Washington, D.C. From a cultural point of view, we novices were happily situated-close to Divinity Hall, within walking distance of the Congressional Library, the Halls of Congress, and the house where Lincoln died.

Our vacation home was Lake George in New York, mention of which recalls beautiful sunset clouds, fierce mountain-storms, days spent in sailing, hiking, mountainclimbing, and weeks of camping from Sunday to Sunday on an island--which St. Isaac Jogues must have passed on his way to martyrdom-where we would sometimes come upon a rattlesnake and kill it, if we were quick enough. "Camp Rattlesnake," my first story, appeared in the pages of The Young Catholic, whose editor, Father William Hughes, helped me in countless ways.

My youthful horizon expanded widely during the years spent at St. Thomas College. I was in contact with students from Fordham, Manhattan, Villanova, Harvard, Amherst, Boston Latin School, Trinity College (Dublin), the Union and the General Theological Seminaries of New York. One novice was a Jewish convert who coached me in Hebrew as a return for my coaching him in Latin. In addition, I saw a good deal of our venerable Superior General, Father Hewit, a learned man who had filled a temporary vacancy on the University staff. Wheeling him in his invalid chair around the campus, I could ask questions about the community rule he had helped to formulate.

The many fine books in the novitiate library included Abandonment by J. P. de Caussade, S.J. This worktranslated into English at the urging of Father Heckerhad circulated widely and helped many readers; and a few years later I promoted the translation of the same author's Progress in Prayer (Herder, 1904), and wrote a lengthy preface for it.

Much later, having talked to a Readers' Club about the Paulist Fathers at the request of a Jesuit friend, I realized that I should write about them, for I had known two of the founders and nearly all the members. So I wrote Father Hecker and His Friends (Herder, 1952): a tale of ten men (eight of them converts from Protestantism), who set out to explain the Catholic Church to the world. The leader had been a baker's boy on New York's lower east side. The nine others were Hewit, a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden; Deshon, United States Army officer who had been instructor at West Point; Baker, former rector of a fashionable Episcopal church in Baltimore; Searle, Harvard man and noted astronomer, formerly instructor in the United States Naval Academy during the Civil War; Tillotson, who had been a member of Newman's Oratory; Rosecrans, son of a Civil War General; Robinson, Confederate veteran from Virginia; Elliott, once a student at Notre Dame and later sergeant in the Union Army; and Walworth, Phi Beta Kappa of Union College and son of a chancellor of New York State.

After completing my seminary course, I began graduate work at the Catholic University under Dr. Bouquillon, Dr. Shahan, and Dr. Pace. Listening to these distinguished teachers, I absorbed much of what I thought might be simplified for the multitude, and from time to time I published articles, some of which found their way into my first book, The Sacrament of Duty (Columbus Press, 1909), while others went into a later collection, Be of Good Heart (Kenedy, 1924).

During these years of graduate work, I made use of almost every available opportunity to write for various periodicals-using sometimes my own name and sometimes a pen-name--publishing book reviews, essays, translations, stories, verse at times, and once even trying my pen at a sonnet. At least it was all good exercise.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the University afforded almost too close a view of "the great crisis of American Catholic history." Ireland, which until that time had been sending more immigrants to this country than any other nation, had now fallen behind Germany-a matter of great importance to Catholics, because the policy of Americanization, favored by Catholics of Irish race, was denounced by Germans; and over this issue the hierarchy itself was divided. Gradually the situation grew more critical. Two members of the University faculty were dismissed-Monsignor Schroeder, a German, and Professor Péries, a Frenchman. In McMahon Hall we listened sadly as the Rector, Bishop Keane, with characteristic dignity, read a letter from Rome announcing his removal, and added that of course he would bow in obedience.

Ordained, after receiving my degree in 1897, I was assigned to St. Paul's parish, New York. A tour of duty in parish work is almost indispensable to the adequate equipment of a priest. In no other way is it possible for him to be made ready to give the faithful what they want. I shall always be grateful that my "extra-curricular education" came in between the years of study and the years of teaching.

In September 1899, Father Elliott was appointed Master of Novices; and I was transferred to Washington to assist him and to teach Dogmatic Theology to our students. I relinquished my work in the parish reluctantly; but I knew that to teach is to learn, and I knew also that I would profit by being near the man who, to many others, as to me, stood out as the greatest we had ever known.

In addition to teaching and giving retreats, I continued my writing and prepared two translations, Hansjacob's Grace (Herder, 1913) and Keppler's More Joy (id., 1914).

In 1907, having been assigned to care for the Italians in the Paulist New York parish, I was sent to Italy to learn the language better. I became a guest of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Rome and was introduced by them into the seminary at Sorrento. Knowing that other priests might not have things made so easy for them, after my return to the United States I prepared a book, Italian Confessions and How to Hear Them (Paulist Press, 1916).

Lacking the strong voice required for mission preaching, I turned to the conducting of retreats for lay groups, for religious, for priests, for novices, for seminarians. This led to the writing of two books.

The first of these dealt with the nature of prayer. I could still remember my own confusion at the novitiate on the subject and how quickly most of it vanished when I began to see that prayer is essentially an inner relationship between the individual soul and God; that one who is trying to adjust his will to the Divine Will is praying; and that, when a soul is exerting its free will to give everything it possesses, or will possess, back to God from Whom it came, this is true prayer, this is adoring. When that idea dominates, we soon discover that various approaches, recommended by different writers on prayer, serve the same simple end. Convinced that an outline of the principles involved would help to clear up much confusion on the subject of prayer, I wrote a small book and offered it to Longmans who published it, reprinting it eight times, Primer of Prayer (1934).

A second book was intended chiefly as an aid to retreat masters. Experience had led me to adopt the following method. I would go to the rear of the chapel and there read aloud a prayer on the topic chosen, and pause for several minutes. Then I would again read slowly a few aspirations or resolutions, continuing after a pause of five minutes. Listeners were thus helped to concentrate attention for a brief period on the point chosen, undisturbed by any human voice. (Which of us has not at times said to himself: "If that speaker would only stop talking long enough to let me listen to the Divine whisper, I could think and worship and resolve much better. Do I have to leave the chapel to be alone with God?")

With all this in mind, I decided to prepare another book that might be of help. Think and Pray (Longmans, New York, 1936; London, 1956). Fellow priest have told me they have found the book very useful in conducting retreats and holy hours; and some of the faithful have said it is helpful for private devotion.

Quite possibly the planning of another book of mine was due to the fact that I had been a novice under the gifted English convert, Father Gilbert Simmons, who wrote The Saviour's Life in the Words of the Four Gospels. The idea came to me that I should write a series of brief meditations, one for each day of the year, based on Our Lord's actual words. Indeed, what could be more worthy of study than words that literally "proceeded from the mouth of God," and were recorded by the Evangelists? On each page three paragraphs would (1) briefly explain the text, (2) point out its implications and (3) suggest a response. Eventually the past page was written and the book published, Meditations for Everyman (two volumes, Herder, 1949).


About 1930, Herder suggested that I should bring up to date Wedewer's Short History of the Catholic Church, which I had edited twenty years earlier. But in those twenty years I had read much history; and also I had been a close observer of several political, social, and religious convulsions. I decided that there was need now of a comprehensive summary of Church History which would at least mention all the chief events, both ecclesiastical and secular, since Gospel days and their reaction upon one another-a book which would face all the facts, whether creditable or discreditable to the Church. When I suggested that the Wedewer text should be replaced by an entirely new volume, he agreed and gave me carte blanche.


After nearly ten years of unexpectedly strenuous work, I completed the Outline History of the Church by Cennturies (Herder, 1943). My burden had been greatly lessened by the fact that several good friends, who were seminary professors of history, assigned picked groups of their students to look for possible misprints and inaccuracies. Another seminary professor friend, who had already given a public lecture on the book, warned me: "Add at least a few illustrations, or else .... I" Weary as I was, I knew he was right, and I set to work securing more than seventy illustrations--which added greatly to the value of the Outline, the tenth edition of which appeared in 1957.

Common sense-a judgment shared by a multitude of well-informed persons-sometimes bears so close a resemblance to the Church's teaching that it seems to be fruit springing from revelation. By way of example many an honest thinker, after reading the Gospel, instinctively believes in Our Lord's divinity. He also, as soon as he begins to think about the question, endorses the right of the Church founded by Our Lord to define the meaning of His doctrine; and he will realize that it is absurd to believe that Christ founded more than one Church; or to maintain that the one Church has more than one Head. In all probability he will not think of reproving a Christian child for taking towards the Blessed Virgin the same attitude that her Son took.

When we put these things together, we begin to look on common sense as a sort of extra-curricular apologetics, which exercises to some extent, the kind of influence that we associate with such works as Cardinal's Newman's Grammar of Assent and Father Hecker's Questions of the Soul. So I selected certain Catholic ideals and teachings which illustrate this and drew attention to them in my last book, Common Sense (Bruce, 1957).


EDITOR'S NOTE: Father McSoriey was born in Brooklyn in 1874. He was Superior General of the Paulists, 1924-29, and First Consultor, 1946-52. His alma mater, St. John's University, conferred an honorary Litt.D. upon him in 1938.

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


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