Hagiography has fallen out of fashion. Whether it is seen as dishonest or whether there are too few saints worthy of it, I don’t know. But the death of Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J. calls for nothing less, for he was holy in the midst of unholy men.
“Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle?” asks the Psalmist. “Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life, and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart,” comes the response. If we trust the Psalmist, then surely Fr. Paul’s abode is now God’s very tabernacle. Like most men of true virtue, the recognition due him by virtue of his towering intellect, unwavering integrity, and unshakeable faith was always denied him. But every now and then, I would meet someone else who knew him, and we would delight to speak his praises.
I met Fr. Paul through the Lumen Christi Institute where, for the last several years of his life, he was resident scholar. His lectures were always well-attended, and he quickly became a familiar face to Christian undergraduates. Even so, Fr. Paul was not especially well-known. He was moderately reclusive, rarely spoke of his personal life, and almost always left lectures immediately after giving them.
Unsurprisingly, students built up his mystique and whispered rumors about his storied past; they were almost always true. He counted Tony Abbot, former Prime Minister of Australia, among his old friends; he had, in keeping with his vow of poverty, worn the clothes of deceased Jesuits instead of buying his own; he was, during his time as a master’s student at Oxford, a good boxer.
Fr. Paul gave generously of his time to meet with students, and we asked for a lot of it. I first approached him after one of his lectures, asking to discuss the possibility of my conversion to Catholicism. Over time, as it became clear that I would not be converting to Catholicism anytime soon, he became a confidant, spiritual advisor, and friend. When I became engaged, his was the advice I most coveted, and when my wife became pregnant with our first child, he was among the first non-relatives to know.
A friend of mine remarked recently that Fr. Paul was the best confessor he has ever had; while many are legalistic and others are lax, Fr. Paul simultaneously upheld the law in its fullness while walking alongside penitent sinners. He did not crush us with the law, but neither did he leave us enslaved to our sins. He was, in this regard and every other, a model shepherd. And he led by example. As another friend put it to me, Fr. Paul did the spiritual equivalent of knuckle push-ups every day. Day and night, he prayed the hours on long walks, and at the time of his death, he had just returned from a spiritual retreat in which he completed Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. He was spiritually strong, and he inspired those around him to become strong as well.
Students were privileged to see what his enemies and allies alike often missed: the way he mixed deep kindness with sparkling yet razor-sharp wit. When lecturing, he would often say something so surprising, insightful, and utterly devastating that faces would turn red as the room erupted into laughter: “So many people live trivial lives. You can always tell who such people are because, at the funeral, those who survive them say things like, ‘You know, Bob always loved golf.’” In 2015, with Donald Trump surging and talk mounting that then-Vice-President Biden might enter the race for the Democratic nomination, a friend privately asked Fr. Paul what he would do if those were the 2016 candidates. Fr. Paul’s perfectly timed response captured the desperation of our political moment: “That’s,” he said, “when I join ISIS.”
Only in the past couple of years did Fr. Paul begin speaking of himself to me. He rarely spoke of his misfortunes, but from occasional glimpses into his past, combined with fragments from the internet and informal oral histories, a picture emerges—of faithfulness to Christ and His Church at great personal cost, often owing to the opposition of his religious superiors. Fr. Paul was committed to his vows, taking chastity and poverty especially seriously. He once remarked to me that one had to guard oneself carefully; too often, as religious priests age, “the scotch gets nicer and the clothes get softer.” Likewise, he made no friends when, during his time as a professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, he questioned why the Jesuits there not only had cable TV, but access to channels trafficking in obscenity. Having been shaped by his time as a steel-mill worker during the summers in college, he had no time for self-indulgence or for the therapeutic version of religion popularized in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He had made vows before God and men, and his soul depended upon keeping them.
Fr. Paul also held sacrosanct his calling as a scholar. An extraordinarily learned man, and possessed of a subtle mind, Fr. Paul could quote ancient Greek verse from memory, knew over half a dozen living and dead languages, and was exceptionally well-read in both poetry and literature. But he put on no airs. And unlike most scholars, he both saw nuance and was able to penetrate right to the truth, which he spoke at great cost. He regularly found himself duty-bound to fight the latest innovations foisted upon the Church by progressive Protestants and Catholics alike; he was among the most effective critics of gender-neutral Bible translations and gender-neutral pronouns for God. Fr. Paul never wavered, and at a time of extraordinary intellectual conformity, he inspired many of us to do the same.
In spite of deep opposition, Fr. Paul remained committed to the right and the good. He was a vociferous critic of the hierarchy throughout the sex abuse scandal. Early on, while conservatives and liberals were, for their own reasons, defending bishops, Fr. Paul was forcefully exposing decades of rot and decadence. Because of his outspoken defense of the faith, Fr. Paul was forbidden by his Jesuit superiors both from taking his final vows until 2012 and from publishing under his own name for over a decade. In response to his biting review of Fr. James Martin’s Building a Bridge—which Jesuit censors forced him to soften—Chicago’s Archbishop called Fr. Paul’s provincial and insinuated he would revoke his priestly faculties if he did not tone down his criticism. Fr. Paul dryly commented to me, “I seem to have made a career of stepping on land mines.”
In the course of one of our conversations about liturgy, Fr. Paul told me that the point of priestly vestments is to permit the man to disappear into the priest. Fr. Paul lived his life this way: he was, first and foremost, a priest. He knew early in his life that he had a vocation to the priesthood. Unlike most men, he told me, he was called directly by God, against his fierce protestations. Like Jonah, he was dragged to Nineveh, but unlike Jonah, he remained a faithful minister to it. If I ever pursue (Protestant) holy orders, it will be because Fr. Paul modeled faithful priesthood.
Following years of knowing him as a spiritual advisor, I knew we had become friends when, after informing him of my decision to remain Protestant, he assured me he thought no less of me. In fact, he became one of my closest friends. When my wife and I returned to Chicago after a stint in Philadelphia, we moved to the same block as the Jesuit residence—a “stone’s throw way,” he said with delight. Fr. Paul and I began going on regular walks together, and while I was looking forward to years more of them, God decided otherwise.
Our final walk was the week prior to his death, following his return from his spiritual retreat and one he gave for Mother Teresa’s Sisters. I brought my daughter along, and as she sipped at her cup and ate crackers, we discussed St. Augustine. I had been struck recently by Augustine’s claim in the City of God that this life is preparation for the next; full of pain, it is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Fr. Paul said that thinking otherwise left us unprepared to be obedient to Christ in the face of suffering. God calls us to bear a cross, he continued, but we rarely bear the cross we would like: “So often, I think to myself, ‘If only I had his cross. That’s a cross I understand.’ But we rarely understand our own.”
I confess that I had not, until now, felt the truth of St. Augustine’s claim. The loss of a friend like Fr. Paul loosens one’s grip on this life. There is much yet to love in this world, but much less than there was. This life is to be endured; eternity beckons. Fr. Paul’s faithful and abiding love of Christ life proved to me and to many that life can be lived in service of eternity, that saints really do walk the earth. Like those held up as exemplars of the faith in the epistle to the Hebrews, Fr. Paul’s life took a cruciform shape. Like them, he wandered in barren places; like them, he wrought righteousness; like them, he stopped the mouths of lions. His friends know that it was our honor to share the world with him, our privilege to have been numbered among those he knew. The world was not worthy of him; I pray to God that I may be.