He was just here. Now he’s gone. We didn’t even have a minute to say goodbye.
He just was here, in Notre Dame Chapel, celebrating Mass for Nancy Pelosi and delivering a powerful homily about the need to work for justice for children in Darfur and around the world. He was his usual passionate, eloquent, direct self. He sent me his homily with his usual lovely note; I didn’t have time to write back to thank him. Somehow, I think he knew this was his last great public statement about the need to work tirelessly for justice in this world, to relieve the misery of children in places most of us have never imagined.
To me, Bob Drinan was more than a famous priest, a former member of Congress who stepped down because Pope John Paul II insisted that priests could also not be politicians. He joined the faculty at Georgetown Law Center where we became friends. He was a folk hero to many, an icon of the human rights movement, a true Liberal not afraid of the “L” word. He was unafraid to speak the truth — about human rights, civil rights, equal rights for women, the utter waste and injustice of war. He never considered whether his position was politically correct — he was morally driven, selfless in speaking out against injustice.
But to me, that great man was a friend, albeit distant, a colleague, but not close, a mentor who may not have even known his impact. I came to know him when I was a young assistant dean working in development and alumni relations at Georgetown University Law Center; he was a well-respected and sought-after member of the faculty. We traveled together to alumni events, compared notes about various issues at the school, and I listened to him debate large matters and mundane in the faculty lounge. He was always flying off to witness the first elections in a new democracy, or to testify about the evil of nuclear weapons, or to give a speech about the need to demand human rights. He leaned into his words, never minced the language, remained utterly clear. I could listen to him speak for hours. His tiny office at the law school was a vortex of passion, intellect and spiritual questing. He was huge in his public stature, but he was so humble that to be in his company was to be immediately accepted, included, considered on equal terms. Those great eyes would bore into his companion, peering into the souls around him, seeking to establish the listener’s points on the moral compass, a compelling magnetism of moral authority.
Later, when I moved on to Trinity, he would send me notes of encouragement, lovely Christmas letters of support. He came over once and spoke to our students; later, when we saw each other he always inquired about Trinity as if he had just been here.
He was just here, celebrating Mass for Speaker Pelosi. I had spoken with him several days before the Mass, going over the details; he was mostly eager to be sure that Nancy received appropriate recognition for her achievement. On January 3, typical of Father Drinan, we had reserved a space on the front circle for him, but he parked in the parking lot with everybody else and carried his vestments flying in the breeze across the front lawn. When we greeted each other he immediately said how pleased he was with all the good reports he was hearing about Trinity. He didn’t need to be the center of attention, but people gravitated toward him anyway. After Mass, he took off before I could say goodbye. But he sent his homily with very kind words in the cover note.
I suspect that Father Drinan will not rest in peace. I suspect he will disturb the peace in eternity in the same way that he reminded the living to remain uncomfortable, dissatisfied, unwilling to accept trite, rote, duplicitous solutions to humanity’s great needs.
So many will miss him; but in the ways his tireless and passionate advocacy for justice and peace inspired our work, he will still live among us.