Losing a Jesuit Friend
Whenever I would email him, he would always respond rather quickly. Last June 15 of this year, I emailed him asking how he was. In my email, I also talked about the current political conditions in the Philippines and in the U.S. to inveigle him to respond. Politics, after all, was like our cup of tea in many of our email exchanges. But, to my surprise, he did not respond.
I followed up with another short email on July 2. I wrote, “Are you ok? A one liner from you would make my day.”
A few days later, my Facebook’s Messenger was ringing. I was already in bed. It was my Jesuit friend and former spiritual father, Fr. Tom O’Gorman. While I did not expect his call, I was happy and relieved to hear his voice.
He was at first apologetic for not answering my email, which I just ignored. He made a cryptic comment that he was at the Jesuit Health and Wellness Center. He said he was finding it difficult to recover from a fall a week ago and ended with “I wish I were younger.”
It was a short conversation between two friends that lasted for less than five minutes. But I never thought that it would also be the last.
In the early morning of November 22 this year, Tom – that’s how I addressed him – died peacefully at the Jesuit Health and Wellness Center in Loyola Heights, Quezon City. He was 89 years old.
According to a common friend who is also a Jesuit, Tom’s health was in decline since he fell in early July that severely limited his mobility.
A similar fall happened in late 2020. Tom wrote, “As for myself, well, another fall has left me trying slowly to recover my walking ability. I need the help of someone to go from my room to the dining room and chapel. I’m grateful that my brothers do help me. And that keeps me safe enough here in our community so that I don’t have to be transferred to the Wellness Center.”
I would never understand why Tom had to suffer that much in his old age. But if God’s intent was to test his faith, Tom must probably have just smiled at God and in his usual jocular manner must have said, “Come on, I’m sure You can do better than that.”
My friendship with Tom started more than 50 years ago when I was a Jesuit scholastic. As my spiritual father, I found him to be friendly, compassionate, and understanding that I could have in-depth discussion with him about anything at any time.
His influence on me was not due to his saintly character, which I found missing, but more on the value of his friendship. He never took our friendship for granted.
As a human being, he had a warm heart and a sense of humor that made me feel at ease in his presence. I think his persona was a reflection of his prayerful life.
When I was discerning whether to leave the Jesuit Order or not because of my political activism, I went to see Tom one evening in his room for guidance. He must have noticed that I was disturbed, nervous, and a tad anxious about my future. To put myself at ease, he offered me a glass of scotch which surprised me. I took a few sips heartily if only to relax myself. Throughout our conversation, he was never judgmental. He did not make me feel guilty. He never imposed anything or coerced me to stay in the seminary. He just laid the cards on the table, so to speak, and let me pick “that which I desire the most” (“Id quod volo,” as the Jesuits would say). The rest is history.
For many years, I lost contact with Tom. But I never failed to ask my Jesuit friends how he was doing in his work. Somehow I felt connected with him even if I did not see him or hear from him for years.
My relationship with Tom during those years could be described by a quote (author is anonymous) that I once read. It says: “A strong friendship doesn’t need daily conversation, doesn’t always need togetherness, as long as the relationship lives in the heart, true friends will never part.”
It was in 2015, while my wife and I were in Manila, that I finally was able to get Tom’s contact information and had the opportunity to visit him for the first time after more than 50 years. He was assigned at the Arrupe International Residence, Ateneo de Manila Campus, where he was in charge of the religious formation of some religious from different countries.
The excitement of seeing Tom for the first time after many years was beyond belief. It was like a long awaited dream fulfilled. I hugged Tom and introduced him to my wife. Like that night 50 years ago when he offered me a glass of scotch, I immediately felt at home because he was his typical self, cracking jokes and asking about my family.
What soon followed after our first meeting was a constant communication through email where we each bared our souls.
In one of his emails, Tom wrote, “Of course I’m getting older and feeling it more bit by bit. But I can assure you that I’m not yet ready to call it quits. I am in no hurry to meet the Lord in the next life since I know I can meet him every day in this life -- with friends like you and others. So, why rush?”
Tom loved his work. He loved life. Like many Jesuits, I didn’t think he wanted to retire. But sometime in 2019 he had a freak accident. He emailed on August 25, 2019, “Actually for a while – seven weeks, I was confined in our infirmary trying to recover from a bad fall that fractured my shoulder. I’m still being tortured by phys (sic) therapy.”
In the same email, knowing that we intended to visit him December of that year, he facetiously suggested, “Why don’t you bring Donald Trump with you and we can arrange for a meeting with Du30 where I set up a bomb! That will make a good Christmas for all of us.”
He knew where he stood on political issues. He was not afraid to make his position known. He might sound fearlessly candid at times but, I think, it was more a reflection of his frustration and disappointment at do-no-good political leaders.in government.
In all his emails, Tom never forgot to mention that he was praying for my family. And I appreciated that. He once emailed me saying, “Of course, I’ll continue to pray for you and for your brood -- even though there is a bit of jealousy when I speak to God about you! I’m sure He understands especially in this year of mercy!”
In another email, he wrote, “And by the way, I really do pray for you and your family every day! Believe me!”
In his Easter email to me last year that seemed like an ominous farewell, he concluded with a question, “When will we be able to see one another again? Please, when you do come back to the Philippines make sure that we can get together. Our friendship is a gift and gifts should be used and enjoyed -- not just kept on a shelf. I hope we can meet again.”
By now, I am sure Tom knows the answer to his question.