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A man for strengthening others

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski.

(Patrick Bruchs/us.fotolia.com)

When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.


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About George Weigel 297 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for the pure pleasure of the delightful descriptions in the above-referenced article. To think that almost 30 more years of this nonsense has ripened into the world we are experiencing today is INDEED a very frightful thought. Everytin’s full of hate in Kansas City….

    • Agreed. Haven’t we enough of the “Santo Subito” madness and the plaster saints without any real public cult that it has produced for purely ideological purposes? If Fr. Mankowski was such a lion of orthodoxy, did he ever celebrate the traditional Latin Mass? One such Mass would outweigh every book, article, and paper he ever wrote.

  2. Stories about heroic men and women are always welcome. He sounds Chestertonian. I wish I could have dined with Fr. Mankowski. Thank you for these reflections, Mr. Weigel.

  3. Well, hubris in thinking and witnessing Heaven does not know what its doing is….leave what happens in Heaven to heaven, thank you….having known a wonderful priest is not a license to give direction to the Holy Trinity in His Heaven…about you say, ‘I am sure the Lord and His heavenly director had music even more sublime than I or any of us could imagine to welcome Father’….(if he went directly to Heaven, wish is our hope for him and for all)….

  4. The big question that comes to my mind is why I had never heard of Father Mankowski until after his death. Then all of a sudden, everyone started writing tributes. He certainly looks like the sort of person I ought to have had the opportunity to read frequently; hopefully those periods of silencing are not the cause.

  5. Based partly upon TonyAbbott’s and George Weigel’s very brief essays on Fr Paul Mankowski SJ (and my opinion of Abbott and Weigel integrity and intellecutal probity and perspicacity) I regret that I’m only now learning of this truly loyal, intellectual giant member of the SJs. As is the way of this world, those of Father’s calibre and holiness are persecuted and silenced. May justice triumph historically for him here while he receives his just reward, he having fought the good fight and finished the race.

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