The National Catholic Review
Ladislas Orsy
Tribute to Robert F. Drinan

The door of his office is now locked. He used to keep it open all day for passersby to drop in. The worldwide “Map of Human Freedom” is still on it, but otherwise stillness surrounds it. We, his neighbors down the hallway on the fourth floor of Georgetown University Law Center, expect him to burst out from behind the piles of books and papers. But nothing moves. The day when he was taken to the hospital, when he could barely stand, he fought bravely for his right to teach his class, but he lost out on that. A week later, after a deep breath, he rested.

 

Ever since, at this “seat of legal learning” close to Congress and courts, simple messages are hitting our computer screens. They are not coming from high places; they are unsolicited. His colleagues are sending them. They do not want to lose the memories of gentle exchanges and comforting conversations with “our Bob.” Those senders, mind you, are lawyers and critical scholars practiced in discerning the real from the fake.

One “daughter of a Catholic and a Jew raised in a secular faith” writes: “In recent months Father Drinan felt ever more fragile when I hugged him, so I knew this time would come…he was ready to meet his Maker…but I am not ready to say good-bye to the corporeal form of a being who inspired me and so many others every day.”

Our Robert’s interest in people, however, went well beyond academia and reached right into the heart of his friends’ families. “It is natural,” a new father tells us, “that he would be central to the most important event for our family—the recent birth of our son; his calls, his prayers and his cheer were a constant part of our transition.” And a mother reports, “He blessed and welcomed my Jewish children when they were born, and he blessed and helped us to say good-bye to my son when he died.”

The man so skilled in politics possessed an innocence that captured the attention of children. “He had an amazing and natural talent for talking with my children, taking them seriously,” a parent testifies. Children, of course, grow up, and they may even cause problems, so another adds, “He counseled me with my daughter (teenagers can be difficult).”

When a tragedy hit a family he was there. A grandfather-professor remembers, “When my son died at the age of 40…leaving his wife, Mary, with two young children…although he never met Mary in person, he spent hours on the phone with her…and consoled her (as he had done with me).” A colleague adds, “When my cancer developed, he was even more present.”

But that is not all. “He would write thousands of letters each year to encourage and support a diverse group of people,” reads a message from the office of the transcribers of his dictations. He helped others to get credit. A nationally respected scholar confesses, “The first time my Mom felt I was a person of substance was when Bob said hello to me at a meeting in Miami.” I wish I could quote all the messages.

This sums up the common sentiment: “‘How are we doing?’ is how Father Drinan would invariably greet me…the ever present ‘we’ stressed our shared community. He made it clear that we were all an important part of his life.” And another quote for good measure: “He treated my wife as the Catholic that she was, and respected me for the Jew that I am.”

What is behind all these praises? Who was this Robert Drinan down the hallway? He was a good man with a boundless capacity to give. Aristotle stated, and Aquinas concurred, that goodness cannot contain itself: it is expansive by nature like a wellspring with unlimited supply. Father Drinan may not have thought much about the theory, he just did it. He was giving in abundance from his own internal resources. When down the corridor he met a befuddled youth, or an adult burdened with pain, or any human being in distress, the world’s problems rested, the academic discourse stood still, and he focused on the person in need.

As a young Jesuit, Father Drinan spent a year in Florence, Italy. He probably read in Dante’s Divine Comedy about “the love that moves the sun and all the stars.” And he set out on an adventure to mend this broken world. He did it by loving and giving. (The two are the same, because love is effusive.) And give he did, patiently and impatiently, perfectly and imperfectly, gently and abruptly, but with no limit to all and sundry.

Someone put a note on his door:

You will be missed by many.
And many will continue your work.…
Rest in peace, good friend.

Ladislas Orsy, S.J., is professor of jurisprudence and canon law at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

Comments

William deHaas | 8/23/2007 - 5:17pm
Fr. Orsy mentions the "Map of Human Freedom" hanging in Fr. Drinan's office. Can you explain what this map is; what is indicates; what it shows? Thanks.
John P. Newman | 2/24/2007 - 1:03am
Thirty seven years ago as my last year at Georgetown was ending, a number of us seniors declined to wear caps and gowns at commencement. We collected the rental costs and sent the money to the "Peace Commencement Fund" to help anti Vietnam War congressional candidates in the Fall 1970 election.

Our money was sent to a Jesuit priest from Boston who was challenging an entrenched imcumbent.

Two years ago I finally met my candidate as my daughter began her Georgetown studies, and a too brief friendship began. When I told Fr. Drinan this story from 1970, a look of friendship and gratitude appeared on his face.

Has any American Jesuit lived a fuller and more accomplished life than this giant of a man, priest and public servant?