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Happy 80th Birthday, Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.!

The founder and editor of Ignatius Press entered the Society of Jesus in 1961, was ordained a priest in 1972, founded Ignatius Press in 1978—and continues to go strong at the age of 80.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., with Pope Benedict XVI in an undated photograph. Fr. Fessio celebrated his 80th birthday on January 10, 2021.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press—as well as co-founder and publisher of Catholic World Report—celebrated his 80th birthday on January 10th. The following biographical sketch and video tribute were created by the Ignatius Press staff.

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Joseph Fessio, S.J., was born on January 10, 1941, in Alameda, California, an island town in the San Francisco Bay. His father—Joseph Fessio, Sr., of north Italian blood—had moved to the Bay Area from Salt Lake City with a baseball scholarship at Stanford University, eventually playing professional ball in the Pacific Coast League before settling down to marry Florence Miller and support his family as a salesman. Florence, Joe’s mother, came from Los Angeles, but she traced her roots back to French-Catholic Acadians in Quebec who, fleeing British violence, moved south along the Mississippi River, following the trail blazed by Jesuit Jacques Marquette.

Joe grew up playing ball and fixing cars in the village of Menlo Park, California, not far from Stanford. After graduating from the Jesuit-run Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, he moved to nearby Santa Clara University, another Jesuit bastion. There, he studied civil engineering and played baseball, in addition to other adventures, including a small sports betting business and a cross-country bicycle trip. When, junior year, his girlfriend broke up with him suddenly to enter the religious life, Joe—once on the debate team in high school—spent weeks researching vocations, building his irrefutable case that she should stay and marry him instead. In the process, though, he accidentally discovered his own vocation to the Society of Jesus, which he entered just a few months later in 1961, at age twenty.

After two years of novitiate in Los Gatos, California, Joe got his formation in philosophy and theology at Mount St. Michael’s and Gonzaga University, then taught for a time at Santa Clara, launching a summer program for at-risk high-school students, Project 50. In 1968, he was sent for graduate work at the Jesuit School of Theology at Fourvière in Lyon, France, where he grew close to the theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J. He was ordained in 1972, and two years later, under the direction of Father Joseph Ratzinger, he received a doctorate in theology from the University of Regensburg, Germany, with a dissertation on the ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Returning to the United States, Father Fessio became a professor at the University of San Francisco, radically inspired by the faithful theologians he had encountered in Europe.

A year into his new teaching assignment, he made a pilgrimage by bus to Guadalupe, Mexico, and there made a decision to found and design USF’s Saint Ignatius Institute, a Catholic Great Books program that he would go on to direct and guide for thirteen years. In 1978, he also founded the publishing house Ignatius Press, with the hope of introducing the English-speaking world to European writers like von Balthasar, de Lubac, and Adrienne von Speyr, all with a basic mission “to support the teachings of the Church”. Since then, the Press has produced hundreds of book and film titles, sold globally, and struck up partnerships with fellow Catholic publishers like Magnificat, Bethlehem Books, and the Augustine Institute. After forty-two years, Father Fessio remains the full-time editor in chief of Ignatius Press.

As a publisher, he has helped fund and edit a number of periodicals, including Catholic World Report, the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and the Adoremus Bulletin, which is dedicated to the renewal of Catholic liturgy. Father Fessio’s advocacy of liturgical reform—running in tandem with Cardinal Ratzinger’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy—is well known, thanks not only to his role in co-creating the Adoremus Society, but also to his Masses and prayers at Ave Maria University, where he was chancellor, then provost, between 2003 and 2007. In order to foster authentic vocations in the Church, Father Fessio joined with Cardinal Marc Ouellet and others in forming the Casa Balthasar, a house of discernment in Rome open since 1991.

Father Fessio’s direct and unflinching style throughout his life as a Jesuit has earned him both reproof for “arch-conservatism” and praise for integrity. He has spoken about Catholic doctrine in media networks such as PBS and NPR. If, on the one hand, critic Father Andrew Greeley once described him, with a shudder, as “the most powerful man in the American Church”, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called him “a true Jesuit . . . a man of the decisive decision”. He has received honors and awards from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Institute on Religious Life, St. Patrick’s Seminary of San Francisco, Christendom College, and the American Maritain Association, among others.

Throughout his life, Father Fessio has been a lifelong runner and hiker of the Pacific Coast, as well as an amateur builder, designing the Ignatius Press offices in San Francisco and a retreat house in Sonoma County. Today, he is the official chaplain of the West Coast Walk for Life, and on weekends away from the Press he grows grapes and makes wine.

• A video tribute to Fr. Fessio, with messages from Cardinal Sarah, Cardinal Pell, and others:


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21 Comments

  1. A very happy Birthday to the founder and editor of Ignatius Press. Wishing Fr Joe Fessio good health and stamina. God bless.

  2. Happy birthday Fr. Fessio! I would be lost without Ignatius Press, as you have been instrumental both in my spiritual growth, both before and after my conversion.

    May God bless you and keep you with us for many years to come.

  3. Thanks for this biography, and thanks be to God for all the work he has accomplished with his faithful servant, Father Joe Fessio, S.J. It has been my privilege to know him a little bit and to have him publish my book on marital morality. Many thanks, Father Joe.

  4. Happy Birthday Rev. Fessio, I think you are one of the most influential Catholic culture and communication icons of the late 20th century!
    God bless,
    tom

  5. Happy Birthday Fr. Fessio & best wishes to you!
    You don’t know me but one of my children knew you at Ave Maria & they think the world of you.
    God bless you & always keep you close to Him!

  6. I first met Fr. Fessio in either 1977 or 1978 .. in any case it was because he was guiding a community of hippies who lived up in Sonoma County, and two of the young girls who were daughters of the couples in the community came to my parish to be confirmed and take part in the youth group. I (who was not a believer at the time and who had been raised on a hippy commune myself) was head of the youth group, for some reason. (It was the 70’s. Things were like that) One of the girls asked me to be her sponsor, in order to spite her parents, perhaps. So, on the big day I was part of the celebrations and Fessio was there. When I showed up at the St. Ignatius Institute a couple of years later (with a strange grateful yet hostile attitude) I did not at first make the connection. When I finally did, I found it marvellous how this man has been there during my entire faith and vocation journey.

  7. Here is my favorite Father Fessio story. One Sunday morning I was driving to Mass listening to a replay of Catholic Answers– Father was a guest. A called asked the question “Who is the whore of Babylon?” Without missing a beat, Father Fessio answered “Why, you want her phone number?” I just about drove off the road! Happy Birthday Father Fessio.

  8. Thank you, Father Fessio, for your great love and support of Catholic faith and worship. You are an inspiration to many Catholics throughout the world. You are are a loyal son of the Church and a faithful follower of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Happy birthday. Ad multos annos.

  9. A very blessed birthday. I had the privilege of meeting you at Boston CollegeWhen you gave a lecture. Your holy priest please pray for my son father Joe who is a priest of Boston. Father please say a prayer for me too.May God bless you. Barbara

  10. Happy Birthday Blessings Father Fessio. Thank you for rescuing me from the beginning of my Masters’ program at USF back in the fall of 1980 and introducing me to Fr Brian Mullady, O.P. who in turn directed me to Rome and the Angelicum. I remain ever grateful to you. BUON COUMPLEANNO Father.

  11. Happy birthday Father Fessio! You gave initial funding for Father Myron Effing and transitional deacon Daniel Mauer to begin conversion efforts in Vladivostok, Russia shortly after Glasnost (openness) in 1991. And you continued to provide help.

  12. Follow-up comment: I will never forget discovering Peter Kreeft’s book FotF in the late 1980s, and from their stumbling into the catalog of Ignatius Press. A game-changer. Later I visited San Francisco and it’s Church of St. Ignatius. I thought then, and even more now, that a bio of Fessio would make intriguing reading. So many cross-currents. A hope some great writer takes up the task.

  13. Happy Birthday, Father Fessio! I appreciate all you have done for the faith. I have purchased many books over the years from Ignatius Press (my wife would say ‘too many!’). Any plans for further volumes of the Collected Works of Joseph Ratzinger?

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