Reflections on the Life of James P.M. Walsh, S.J.

Holy Trinity Catholic Church
Washington, DC
July 8, 2015H

There is a temptation to speak about Jim for his extraordinary contributions to our Georgetown community.  He was a fixture here for 40 years, offering legendary courses on Bib Lit and the Catholic Imagination to undergraduates who had probably never met anyone quite like Jim.

One could speak about his contributions as a Biblical scholar, deepening our understanding of the language and narrative of Scripture, in his teaching and scholarship, in his service on the team that produced a new translation of the New American Bible.

Joe described what he meant to his family—to his brother Phillip, his sister Phyllis, and all of the extended family.

Mark described so beautifully the impact his presence meant for the Chimes. No one knows better than all of you, here in full, what Jim enabled the Chimes to be when he became a part of you.

Otto will share what Jim meant to him, and to the community of men, his companions—the Jesuits of Georgetown.

For nearly 30 years, Jim was the conscience of Speech and Expression.  When, in 1989, Georgetown took the unprecedented step of permitting speech on campus, unconstrained by either the point-of-view being expressed or the speaker expressing a view, Jim wrote the preamble to our policy, capturing the spirit of our commitment.  He served on the Committee monitoring this commitment for a quarter-century.

For the past 15 years, he was our Santa Claus.  We hold a special Christmas celebration for the children of staff and faculty.  As Santa, Jim listened to several hundred children go through their lists, every year.  He wasn’t your typical Claus.  I remember once hearing him in response to a young child who was pulling on his beard asking: “Are you real?”  Jim, channeling some existentialism, responding: “What is real?”

As “James of Arabia,” he taught us the Jesuit style of inculturation, through his teaching on our campus in Doha.

I could speak about all of his contributions.  Instead, I would like to speak about Jim as my friend.  We knew each other for nearly 40 years.  When I think about Jim, it is not his contribution to what Georgetown has become through his vocation that I think about.  It is his gift of relationship.  His friendship.

Friendship has a very special meaning in the Ignatian tradition.  Father Howard Gray, in a Sacred Lecture this spring in Dahlgren Chapel captured the distinctive characteristics of this style of friendship—Ignatian friendship: 

At some of my most challenging moments, Jim was a “gift” to me—a gift of “love and companionship.”  Jim could always find a way to be of support: a short note; an article he had clipped from the New York Review of Books; something from the papers of Father Bill Sampson.  

He was attentive to what was going on.  He sought ways, he found ways, to be a gift.  Jim taught me the Presupposition of St. Ignatius: the idea that we should always seek the best in one another, and in so doing we just might find the best in ourselves.

Every year, the first email I received on my birthday was from Jim.  When I had some difficult remarks to finish, Jim shared with me an idea.  On more than a few difficult moments, Jim could be critical of what I was doing, and then be even more helpful in supporting me as I tried to work through it.  Nothing was more validating than having Jim tell me I got it right.

In our tradition, our friendship will not end with his passing.  Ultimately, it is enveloped in the mystery that is God—a mystery that Jim helped all of us to understand just a little more than we might have…had we not known him. 

Jim helped us to see God, to recognize the gifts of grace—those “gifts from above.”  What bound our relationship together is the understanding that God is a friend.  God knows us; God loves us; God accepts us.  And God is waiting for us.  And we can say the same about Jim. 

Jim recently finished a book on imagination that he labored over these past few years.  It is another gift to us.  Jim wrote about the role of the imagination in the Spirituality of St. Ignatius: “The imagination at work in this way can be the means through which a new self and a new world and a new experience of God are shaped and created” (105).

Perhaps Jim’s greatest gift, grounded in the spirituality that animated his life, was to imagine each of us as our best selves, and, in friendship, to enable us to experience the consolation of what we could be.

Gray, Howard. “The Challenges and Graces of Friendship: An Ignatian Perspective.” Dahlgren Chapel, Georgetown University. 21 April 2015. Lecture.

Walsh, James P.M. Seeing Things: How Your Imagination Shapes You and Your World. N.d. TS.