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