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Richard McSorley, 88; Jesuit Priest Committed to Pacifism

October 22, 2002|From the Washington Post

The Rev. Richard T. McSorley, a Jesuit priest, retired professor of peace studies at Georgetown University and writer of eight books on pacifism and social justice, has died. He was 88.

McSorley died Thursday at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He had coronary artery disease.

An intellectual and an activist committed to pacifism, McSorley lived in the lofty world of ideas and debate as well as the dissident one of public protest against what he saw as rampant U.S. militarism. His opposition to war and war preparation was reflected in a long arrest record for street demonstrations, the founding of the Center for Peace Studies at Georgetown and the denouncing of the Just War theory and of military solutions to conflict. Often at odds, not only with his government, but also with his own religious order -- the Society of Jesus -- his fervor for nonviolence once led to his standing in the center of the Georgetown campus protesting the school's ROTC program with a large sign: "Should we teach life and love or death and hate?"

"Dick McSorley was resolute in his convictions for peace and for racial justice," the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a fellow Jesuit and former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, said Thursday. "Some saw him as a troublemaker, in the good sense, but he was deeply convinced of the necessity for nonviolent solutions to problems."

McSorley's early priestly training gave little hint of his eventual antiwar mission. One of 15 children in an Irish Catholic Philadelphia family -- seven siblings joined religious orders -- he entered a Jesuit seminary in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., at age 18.

"We were created to praise, love and serve God and our neighbors, and in this way to save our souls," he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "My Path to Peace and Justice." "The purpose of life was the same as the purpose of Jesuit life."

In 1939, after studying philosophy, he was sent to the Philippines to teach. In December 1941, a week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he and other Jesuits were captured by Japanese soldiers. He endured sickness and starvation in a camp holding 2,500 prisoners. After he was liberated in 1945, he returned home to be ordained a priest.

At his first parish, St. James in Ridge, Md., he was stunned by the overt segregation, including the separation of whites and blacks at the Communion rail. "As I consulted brother Jesuits," he recalled, "this was the advice I received: If you speak out about segregation, you will never be appointed to any position of honor in the Jesuit order. I knew of no one else in the [order] who spoke out against segregation. I would be alone."

In 1952, and after four years of agitation, he was assigned to teach philosophy at Scranton University. "The respectable position of philosophy professor would silence any rumor that I was being punished for my views," he wrote. Nine years later, and after completing a doctorate at Ottawa University -- he wrote his thesis on "The Roots of Prejudice" -- he went to Georgetown University. From 1961 until 1985, his courses on peace and justice routinely overflowed, with many students attending for no credit.

During these years, he marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South, shared a jail cell with pediatrician Benjamin Spock after an antiwar demonstration, volunteered with Mitch Snyder at Washington's Community for Creative Nonviolence, helped found two Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in Washington, and worked with pacifist priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, designing such academic courses as "The Nonviolent Revolution of Peace." He pressed to have the ROTC removed from campus, and he offered moral support to draft resisters.

In 1969, while in London, McSorley chanced upon a recent Georgetown graduate, Bill Clinton. With the Vietnam War raging, Clinton asked the priest to say a prayer for peace at an interdenominational service at St. Mark's Church. Afterward, antiwar marchers carried small white crosses to protest at the U.S. Embassy.

The incident surfaced during the Clinton presidential campaign in 1992. Republican strategists sought to portray Clinton, the candidate, as a dupe of a notoriously left-wing priest. Rep. Robert Dornan, co-chairman of the Bush campaign in California, took to the House floor to rail against McSorley as "a Marxist priest" who was "pro-fascist" and "still poisoning the minds" of Georgetown students with "garbage." President George H.W. Bush raised the Clinton-McSorley connection to question Clinton's "character and judgment."

During the campaign firestorm, McSorley, back in his office at the Center for Peace Studies, was besieged with requests for media interviews, which he turned down. The priest later told the Washington Post, "If more people prayed for peace, as Bill Clinton did in 1969, the world would be a better place."

Survivors include two brothers and four sisters.

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