The Gift of Empathy: RIP, J. Donald Monan, S.J.

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A great man died Saturday morning.  And I hardly knew him.

Rev. J. Donald Monan of the Society of Jesus passed away peacefully in a Jesuit health care facility west of Boston. Fr. Monan was president of Boston College from 1972 to 1996, steering the university from a struggling commuter school to a world-renowned Catholic, Jesuit institution. But he was more than a skilled administrator. He was a kind and gentle scholar of Aristotle. And he was dedicated — even after his health made him move out to Weston, Mass., Fr. Monan came in to campus on weekdays in his role as chancellor to BC. Each day he would wear a clerical shirt and black suit, which would hang off his thinning frame in his latter years.  I’d see Fr. Monan, serene as a fawn in open field, sitting in the entry of St. Mary’s Hall as he waited for his fortunate guest du jour. Waiting, no doubt, for one of thousands of people he touched in his long time in Boston.

* * *

I was preaching at an evening Mass on campus later Saturday afternoon. When it came time for the prayers of the faithful, we prayed for recently deceased parishioners.  At the end of the list, I added, “…and for Fr. Donald Monan, SJ, who passed away this morning.”

A collective gasp sucked the air from the Church of Saint Ignatius.  It was clear that I was the bearer of sad news for many of the parishioners.  BC had lost a cherished leader, and this was the first people had heard of it.  

* * *

In an age of ready access to information, news and content streams right to our desks and living rooms, often in isolation. Our iPhone and laptop screens help us laugh at viral video clips, and coo at pictures of our grandchildren taking their first steps.  

But these screens shine on the good and the bad alike. The New York Times or Fox News pushes alerts to our smart phones, delivering news items that are tragic or frivolous — whatever to keep people plugged in. We read and register these notifications alone. Sometimes the news breaks us; more often than not, though, the stories wash over us as we move on to the next-shiniest story. So how do we process these bits of sad news, big and small?

After I delivered the news of Fr. Monan’s death at the Mass, the gathered parishioners’ mood seemed to change. There was a discernible solemnity, made clear when people came forward to receive communion. I noticed a weight in many of their faces — the weight of loss, yes. But also of empathy. The weight of learning of your brother’s cancer. Of your sister’s divorce. Of your father-in-law’s new Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the anguish it carves in your spouse’s features. Of people suddenly mourning the death of a beloved leader, who had been a reliable fixture for over forty years.

* * *

The digital age can awaken us to grief and tragedy around the world. And yet the internet cannot help us totally process life’s griefs, because the internet works to keep us in distracted isolation. We may come together to mourn at funerals and prayers services, surely; but the initial shock of others’ sad news, by and large, comes through the protective distance of a glowing screen. In isolation, we are free to engage, or disengage, with another’s grief.  But physical proximity — the kind you get when you rub shoulders in a pew, a march, or a demonstration — fosters solidarity to share one other’s joys and griefs. We can “like” or “sadface” a Facebook post about someone’s dying mother; but calling him up or visiting in person entails a commitment. A commitment to empathy, to sharing that weight of loss.

Funny isn’t it? When life is tough or uncertain, we tend to remember who showed up to walk with us — more so than our own uncertain feelings. The last time I remember being in collective shock was watching 9/11 unfold as a sophomore in college. My friend Zach and I were glued to the television, surrounded by guys from our dormitory. While few events have risen to that level of horror, many solidarity-worthy tragedies (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, loss of innocent life, etc.) settle like silt. They never rise to the level of physically proximate, communal support. Yes, there are candle flame profile-pics, or monuments lighted in a mourning nation’s colors. There are marches and vigils organized online and enacted in person. But the fact that we first turn our face to a screen for support – a screen that cannot look back — is precisely the point.  We outsource empathy to the internet, as a way of managing — avoiding? — the uncertainties and griefs that are best shouldered together.  

Together.

An interesting thing happened after Mass that Saturday. A woman in her forties came up to tell me her memories of Fr. Monan from her college days. She remembered how her dad told Fr. Monan to “keep an eye out for her!” Fr. Monan responded by surprise-visiting her apartment as a senior, to the delight of all her roommates. And she told the story, with wistful tears, of Fr. Monan pitching in to help a family move their son’s boxes into his first dorm room. Story after story of his kindness, humility, and generosity. In the balance of life, I could see the weight of her grief slowly shifting to the consolation of memories. And as she told stories between laughter and tears, I saw again that we are not meant to endure grief alone.

* * *

As I write now, I think of memories of wispy but alert Fr. Monan, sitting in that long hallway of St. Mary’s at Boston College. I had introduced myself to him several times in the past two years, but I figured he might not have the bandwidth for a new acquaintance in his 90s. “I don’t want to bother him…” I’d say to myself, and I would pass his kind face with a polite smile and a wave.  He would summon a smile and wave back, watching me as I’d carry on quickly with my day.  

I wonder what went through Fr. Monan’s mind as he sat watching a crop of students who were barely two years old on September 11, 2001. Or the scores of younger Jesuits my age, who never saw the Challenger explosion, or watched in awe at the moon landing. Who hadn’t seen Walter Cronkite remove his glasses to announce that President Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, some 38 minutes ago. I wonder what he might think of us all in the prime of life, walking across campus staring into screens, with a long life ahead of us. Lives of joy, but also of griefs. Lives of successes ahead, but also the weight of loss and inevitable diminishment. A life full of daily opportunities to share the joys and sorrows of another person, face to face. To surprise someone at their apartment with a smile, or help lighten the load of an unsuspecting family on move-in day.

* * *

I trust that Fr. Monan now sees God face to face. On his final journey home, I hope that he heard the plaintive gasp of a parish that learned, together, of his return to God. And I hope that we can all learn a bit from him — about the power of presence, kindness, and empathy.  We may be able to connect in an instant to news across the world.  But it’s not worth it, if we miss connecting with the gentle souls waiting for us just across the hall.  

Rest in peace, Fr. Monan.

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