In 1988, I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in Boston, Mass., a little stunned by the speed with which I had left behind a life, in my case a job in the corporate world. Fortunately, the assistant director of novices, a priest named David I. Donovan (the I used to stand for Irving, until he had it legally changed to Ignatius) was assigned to be my spiritual director. David was 48, having entered the Jesuits after a successful career as a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. And, boy, you could hardly find a more thoroughly Boston-Irish priest. No matter what place you mentioned, David knew someone there: he had worked in this parish, directed a retreat for this community of women religious, had baptized someone in this church. I’m a Bostonian by birth, he loved saying, and by choice.
Of course he boasted a flawless Boston accent. When during the first week of the novitiate, he asked me over the breakfast table to pahss the Hahf and Hahf, I laughed aloud. I thought David must be joking. He wasn’t; and when he realized my confusion, he laughed (or lahffed).
Anyway, I didn’t know the first thing about prayer when I met David. And at the time I was struggling with a lot: family issues, vocational issues, emotional issuesnormal stuff for someone in his 20’s, but turbulent and frightening nonetheless. David calmly took it all in. Everything is part of your vocation, he would say, whenever I tried to avoid a topic during spiritual direction. You can’t put it into a box and set it aside.
He encouraged me to be honest before God, before him and before other people. Once, during an eight-day retreat, I told him something so personal and, at the time, so embarrassing, that I fully expected he would either condemn or reject me. He did neither, but instead answered with words I’ve always remembered. I rejoice in your honesty, he said. Now I often use his words when I direct others.
Until his sudden death last month (at age 65 he collapsed of a heart attack in his Jesuit community), I considered him my spiritual father. (He would have groaned if I had ever told him that: he hated being considered an old, or even an older, man.) David directed me through the novitiate and through the Spiritual Exercises; he kept in touch when I worked in East Africa; he again became my spiritual director during my theology studies; and he rejoicedreally rejoicedin whatever I wrote. (But the next time you mention me, use my last name! he said after finishing one book.) Above all, David Donovan was a superb listener. For this in particular he was valued by an amazing variety of people. At the time of his death, his sister Julie, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame, estimated that David was seeing roughly 60 people for regular direction.
One of the expressions he always used with me was a variation of a line from the psalms. The Lord takes delight in you, Jim! When David said it, you really believed it.
David took delight in many things, too. He loved the good things in life, and his famous champagne taste was the subject of much good-natured teasing from his Jesuit brothers. (Like all of us, David was not perfect: poverty was probably not his strong suit.) But David delighted most in people: members of his large family, former parishioners of all ages, religious men and women from dozens of communities, colleagues from retreat houses from around the world and his Jesuit brothers. Many of us, we agreed at the wake, thought we were David’s best friend.
His funeral at the elegant St. Ignatius Church, on the campus of Boston College, with three bishops in attendance, was standing room only. He would have loved that! said the homilist, a priest friend from David’s time as the spiritual director of the North American College in Rome.
As the coffin of my friend left the church, I turned back and, through tears, saw a space entirely filled with David’s friends. And, more than ever before, I saw the value of being a good priest who does a few simple things very, very well. He prays. He listens. He loves. And most of all, he takes delight in God’s people.