Jesuit Father John W. O’Malley, a renowned historian of the 20th-century church and a longtime professor, died at the Jesuit community in Baltimore on September 11, 2022. He was 95.
A prolific author whose books won numerous awards and have been translated into multiple languages, Fr. O’Malley’s teaching style helped make history interesting and understandable and appealed to a wide array of clergy, theologians, and undergraduate and graduate students as well as scholars of different faiths and even those who professed no faith.
A funeral Mass is planned for Sept. 17 at Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C. Burial will follow in Georgetown Cemetery.
Fr. O’Malley’s deep knowledge led to uncounted invitations to speak on his expertise and insight into church history at various symposia, lectures and academic events. He continued to participate in programs into his 90s.
Fr. O’Malley’s influence was felt by students throughout his long academic career. Recalling the impact of Fr. O’Malley on his life, Fr. James Martin, SJ, writing online for America magazine soon after his death, described the historian as someone who enthusiastically shared his friendship and was eager to share his knowledge.
“He was loved by his brother Jesuits, his students and friends as a person: a holy and generous Jesuit priest. Unfailingly kind, helpful, generous, mild, curious, modest (even for his humorous occasions of faux-pride) and always interested in you,” wrote Fr. Martin, editor at large of America magazine.
Fr. O’Malley was born June 11, 1927, in Tiltonsville, Ohio, and entered the Society of Jesus at 18, feeling called to the priesthood. His interest in the Jesuits grew because of the order’s work as educators and missionaries.
He entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1946 after studying Latin for a semester at John Carroll University in Cleveland. His education continued at West Baden College in Indiana where he studied philosophy for three years.
Listen to the AMDG podcast with Fr. O’Malley, in which he discusses life in the Jesuit novitiate:
His first teaching assignment was at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, where he taught history. In 1956, he returned to West Baden to study theology and was ordained a priest in 1959.
The history of the Jesuits was Fr. O’Malley’s calling throughout his formation and education. He began studying the German Counter Reformation and the role played in it by the Jesuits. He began his tertianship — a Jesuit training period after ordination — in Austria, learning German and focusing on German history.
During a sightseeing trip to Italy his focus changed. After the visit, where he explored Italian culture and food, he began doctoral studies in Italian history at Harvard University. He then returned to Italy for a two-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome to work on his dissertation.
While working on his doctorate, Fr. O’Malley pronounced his final vows in the Society of Jesus in 1963 in Boston.
When he completed his studies, he was assigned to teach history at the University of Detroit, now the University of Detroit Mercy. He later was assigned to the school’s Religious Studies Department, which he chaired from 1976 to 1979.
On this AMDG podcast episode, Fr. O’Malley offered a quick historical tour through Jesuit history, reflecting on how we ended up with Ignatian spirituality:
Fr. O’Malley left Detroit for the Weston School of Theology (later the Weston Jesuit School of Theology) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serving at one time as acting dean and later as acting president. Fr. O’Malley loved his time at Weston. He had superb colleagues on the faculty and good students, both Jesuit and non-Jesuit. The Jesuit student body began to become ever more international. Toward the end of his time there, Fr. O’Malley was the only American in the small Jesuit community of nine members, which he enjoyed immensely.
While at Weston, he was elected by his Jesuit province as a member of two General Congregations, the ultimate governing body in the Society of Jesus: GC32 (1974-75) and GC33 (1983). These experiences reawakened his interest in Jesuit history and led to his book, “The First Jesuits,” published in 1993. It won two prizes and is now in 12 languages.
After 27 years at Weston, he joined the theology faculty at Georgetown University as a professor of church history in 2006. While there, he published four books on ecumenical councils, including “What Happened at Vatican II.” He remained at Georgetown until June 2020.
Fr. O’Malley held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies and other academic organizations. In 2013, he was named the winner of the John Gilmary Shea Prize for best book for his work: “Trent: What Happened at the Council,” which has been published in five languages.
He also received lifetime achievement awards from the Society for Italian Historical Study, the Renaissance Society of America and the American Catholic Historical Association. In 2016, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences awarded Fr. O’Malley its prestigious Centennial Medal.