Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, Serving on the Margins with JRS/USA

As director of mission for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, Fr. Leo O'Donovan, SJ, is responsible for a range of duties, including helping spread JRS/USA’s message nationally and globally, and assisting with fundraising and strategic planning. JRS/USA serves as the as the major refugee outreach arm of U.S. Jesuits and their institutional ministries, mobilizing their response to refugee situations in the U.S. and abroad. Fr. Leo has had a distinguished career as a Jesuit, and he has counted President Bill Clinton and the late Steve Jobs among friends. 

He served as president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., from 1989 to 2001, leading several innovative new academic initiatives such as the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Center for Social Justice. The New York City native currently serves as Georgetown’s President Emeritus and, at 81, continues to be active as a Jesuit priest and theologian, publishing articles on theology as well as on his great non-liturgical love, art criticism. 

QUESTION: What brought you to Jesuit Refugee Service/USA?

Fr. Leo: I’ve known the work of JRS for a good many years, and the crisis of refugees in the world, as everyone knows, is at its most acute in over a generation. So whether I can be helpful or not is one question, but that I wanted to help was pretty immediate. 

Q: Could you describe your role a little bit here at JRS?

FL: Well, I’ll tell you better in a while. My title is Director of Mission, and I hope to help out with communications, also with planning and fundraising, traveling as the organization needs to promote its work. I’m not replacing anybody. I think of myself in fact as kind of a DH, designated hitter. If there’s some work that needs to be done and I can do it maybe passably well, I’ll be glad to do that. 

Q: You’ve served a lot of roles in your decades as a priest. Have you had much contact with refugees before? 

FL: The first significant contact I had was very brief. For a while I was the formation director for my province. I was teaching in Cambridge, Mass. – teaching theology at our school of theology – and my provincial asked me to take a three-year leave of absence from teaching to work with the young men. And since I had sent a number of them to Site Two – a very famous refugee camp at the time in Thailand – on a trip to Thailand, I went to visit Site Two, which astonished me. The men in the camp had been fighting or had been hurt by landmines and were missing one or another limb. I remember that visit vividly because so many of them had suffered so much … And then, the way I first got to know about JRS was that (JRS International Assistant Director Fr.) Ken Gavin was a student at Weston (Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts) while I was teaching there, and he later as you know became the head of JRS/USA, and I learned from him about the organization, with great admiration. It was from him that I learned the mission of accompany, serve, advocate. 

Q: JRS this year is embarking on an ambitious fundraising and awareness campaign called the Global Education Initiative, which is designed to double the number of people JRS educates globally over the next five years. Can you tell us a little more about this project?

FL: Well one of the things that urged me to come aboard and try to be helpful in this new position is that it’s a very ambitious project, to double the number of refugee children who are being educated – children and slightly older refugees as well. That’s a very bold effort, and I had to admire it greatly and think that if I could be helpful I’d like to do that. 

It’s an international global education initiative, as the name says. It threads through most, if not all, of the areas of the world where JRS operates, in 10 regions. And the organization has had education as a cornerstone since the beginning. But this is a renewed emphasis on education as something liberating for refugees, something that will empower them to lead fuller lives – not only when they do find a new home, but in their current life. It belongs to human dignity to have the chance to be educated. And we also have recreational programs, which are necessary for ordinary human health and dignity; they go hand-in-hand with more formal education. What we think of as recreation is often indispensable for the flowering of a personality. 

The Jesuits from the very beginning married formal instruction and artistic activity … So the more I learned (about the Global Education Initiative) the more I thought, well, I have to do this. It’s a five-year project, but it has a special connection with the Pope’s Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis opened on Dec. 8. And so the campaign to enable the Global Education Initiative is being called Mercy in Motion. So we’re putting mercy to work and putting it into motion; we’re going to have mercy teach. 

Q: You served as president of one of this country’s great universities – Georgetown – for 12 years. What are you most proud of during your tenure at Georgetown?

FL: Survival (laughs). Oh, I loved it. I was a graduate of Georgetown, I was on the board at Georgetown for 12 years. And I think I’m proudest that I left it as an even stronger academic institution. I know very well that what you do as president is support wonderful people as best you can, because the faculty does the teaching, and the staff supports the faculty … I also made it a point to get to know the ground crew and the public safety department. I figured if I was nice to the public safety people they’d be a little bit nicer to the students. I was very proud that we, from the time that I arrived, we tripled the endowment, I increased the research commitment of the university … by a lot, especially in the medical center. I believe I strengthened the board of directors greatly. Having been on the board for 12 years it was a very strong board under my predecessor who was a good friend, Fr. Tim Healy. I thought I saw ways to make it even stronger. 

One example of that was when I realized that we just had to sell the hospital since we were no longer competitive had such a small market share. We were the best hospital in Washington but we still had a small market share, which meant we had much less leverage with insurers. So, after much counsel and a good deal of regret at first, I decided that we really had to do this … Well, the point being that, when I had to do that, I had board members who knew how the medical center functioned, and who could negotiate the deal as business people in a way that I never could have.  

Q: You’ve been educated at some of the top universities in the world. You were a Fulbright scholar in France. Why did you decide to become a priest instead of heading to Wall Street or some other place to seek your fame and fortune? 

FL: Or teaching at Georgetown and doing something useful (laughs). Well it’s a boring story. I went to Georgetown as an undergraduate to be a doctor because I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Looking back I see a certain congruence in my interests. And I was set on that path and decided in the middle of my junior year that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I went to tell the head of the pre-med program that I was going to drop out of pre-med, at least for then, and major in English and philosophy. And he said to me, “Leo, you’ll either come back to pre-med or you’ll be a priest.” And I thought, what’s the matter with him? 

Anyway, I went to France, and despite the many many other courses in life that appear to one in France, I, little by little, came to think that I wanted to be a minister in my Church, which wasn’t a very Catholic way of putting it for a young Catholic. But those are the words that came to me, and it was obviously the decision of my life, and one that I’m happier with every year more.

Q: You consider yourself a systematic theologian. What is systematic theology?

FL: When I was teaching first at Woodstock College in New York I remember going to a party at Teachers College (Columbia University) and one of the faculty members there asked me, “What kind of theology do you teach?” And I said I taught systematic theology. And she said, “cybernetic theology, how fascinating.” And I said, “well, no, I wish it were that interesting.” 

Theology is generally taught from different perspectives. The most basic is the study of scripture. And then there is the study of the early Church, which is called the study of early Christian writers, or the Church fathers. There’s history (theology), there’s moral theology – how Christians live – there’s dogmatic theology, which is an emphasis on what the Church formally teaches. And in the last century-and-a-half that has been broadened out into systematic theology, which is an effort to put the traditional teaching of the Church in today’s language. 

So how do I say as a teacher, how do I communicate to young people how to speak of the Gospel, Christ as redeemer, the spirit as empowering us, the Church as a community of faith, our hope in eternal life? How do I speak of those things in a language not of the 17th (Century), and certainly not of the Fourth Century, but in a language that is intelligible to people today.

Q: Another passion of yours is art. You’ve written extensively on art criticism. What is it about art that resonates with you?

FL: I grew up in Manhattan. My mother knew the Metropolitan Museum of Art by heart. My dad would take me to the Museum of Natural History. She would take me to the Met and the Frick, which she also knew by heart. I think I was a sophomore in high school when I discovered the Museum of Modern Art. I then came to Georgetown and discovered the Phillips. I loved the Phillips. My benchmark for whether I would date a girl again was I would take her to the Phillips, and if she liked it I would ask her out again; if she didn’t, I wouldn’t. And I discovered the National Gallery of course. 

I just loved looking, and discovered that I had a good eye. I could remember what I had seen, I could remember colors. And when I went to live in Europe I went to a lot of museums … I wrote my first piece of art criticism during my first year at Georgetown … I write only about what I like. And people say, well what do you like? And I’m very indiscriminate. I like the 17th Century, the Dutch and Spanish especially. I like Cycladic art. I like abstract art a great deal. The little article I finished last night is on Ellsworth Kelly, the great American abstract artist who died right after Christmas. And what I don’t like I don’t write about.

Q: Speaking of art, you’ve served on the board of the Walt Disney Company. What is your favorite Disney movie?

FL: Well, I’m supposed to say Star Wars (laughs) because (Disney Chairman) Bob Iger is a personal friend. The one I most want to see – though I missed it and I think might well be among my favorites – is Inside Out, the (2015) Pixar movie which I’m told is superb, but I haven’t seen it yet. I was still on the board when the company bought Pixar, which was a great experience – a very significant time in the boardroom – $6 billion. And through that piece of business I got to know (Apple co-founder and former Disney board member) Steve Jobs pretty well at the end of his life. We hit it off … 

I should mention – you mentioned that I was lucky enough to go to a lot of good schools, but in my view the best school I ever went to, with the best education program – both in design and in implementation – was my little grammar school, Corpus Christi School (in Manhattan) in (Fr.) George Barry Ford’s parish. He was so progressive ... And he brought to the school a group of Dominican nuns whom he asked to teach after the educational philosophy of John Dewey, an atheist not known for guiding Catholic schools. 

But these women conceived a program that was so forward looking. The motto was “cooperation rather than competition.” I never saw a grade on a paper, I never got a report card. In eighth grade for graduation, instead of having two bright young kids talk, our whole class did a discussion for our parents on Harry Truman’s civil rights report. And when we were second graders, Sr. Bernadelle had us paint a mural of the nativity as if it took place in Japan; Mary was Japanese, Joseph was Japanese, the baby was Japanese, the landscape was Japanese. 

While I was at Georgetown I used to write every Christmas a piece for the Washington Post’s op-ed page. And I was thinking one year what do I write about this year? Then I thought maybe I’ll write about Sr. Bernadelle’s nativity in Japan. And for the first time I asked myself when was that? And I realized to my amazement that this simple Dominican nun had us portray the birth of Jesus in Japan in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor, which was I think as creative an act of ethical immigration as I’ve ever heard of. Nothing was ever better than that school. And so I run a benefit every spring for the little children who are now there.

Q: What’s a little known fact about Fr. Leo O’Donovan that maybe even your good friends don’t know?

FL: Unless a friend had known me since I was a child they wouldn’t know what my family called me. I’m Leo J. O’Donovan — Jeremiah, which was my dad’s name and my grandfather’s name. My parents decided they didn’t want me called Little Leo or Sonny or something like that. So they called me Jere from my middle name, and spelled it from that – J-e-r- e. I grew up thinking that was neat, kind of different. And old old old friends still call me that, but very few.

Q: Last question. You’re 81 years old. You’ve had a remarkable life. How long do you think you’ll remain working until you fully retire?

FL: Have you talked to my doctor? (laughs) I would love to stay as healthy as I am – not for the sake of being healthy but in order to help refugees. I say every morning when I pray; The day is the Lord’s. And now I’ve begun to say; The day is the Lord’s – and the refugees. 

Q: Father Leo, thank you so much for your time. We every much appreciate it.

FL: You’re welcome. 

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