Jesuit Father Joseph R. Palmisano died in Weston, Massachusetts, on December 25, 2015. He was 41. He was born on Dec. 12, 1974, in New Haven, Connecticut, the first child of Joe and Dolores Palmisano. A younger brother, John Paul, followed four years later. The family later moved to suburban Monroe, Connecticut. Fr. Palmisano attended Fairfield Prep, graduating in 1993, and from there went to Boston College, where he majored in theology. While at BC he studied for a semester at the Gregorian University in Rome. Already considering a vocation, he found a special significance in the words of Jesus over the main altar in the Church of St. Ignatius, “I will be propitious to you in Rome.”
Upon graduation in 1997 he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Boston, but decided after two weeks that this wasn’t the right time for him to do this. He spent the remainder of that year volunteering for the American Red Cross and returned to the novitiate in August 1998. After vows in 2000 he was assigned to first studies at Fordham University, where he received an M.A. in philosophy in 2002. A strong interest in inter-faith dialogue led to his spending the following year at the Irish School of Ecumenics, at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received the M.Phil. degree in 2003. His father is convinced that this interest was rooted in Fr. Palmisano’s experience of the lifelong friendship between his father and the Jewish retail merchant he worked for most of his adult life.
Fr. Palmisano spent two years of regency teaching at Campion College in Jamaica, while living in St. Annie’s Parish in a poor and sometimes violent section of Kingston. He also worked for a time in Annotto Bay on the north coast, where there was a parish and a farming cooperative.
Fr. Palmisano’s positive experience of Dublin and Trinity led him to ask for approval to do his theology studies there and in 2005 he moved to the Jesuit house of studies at Milltown Park, Dublin. During his studies in Dublin he also undertook training in giving the Spiritual Exercises and thereafter often directed retreats there and at Eastern Point in Gloucester. He was ordained a priest in the chapel at Fairfield University in June 2008. By then he had already embarked on a doctoral program in the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity, which he pursued while living in a community in Belfast with Jesuits involved in the ministry of reconciliation. He returned to the States in 2010, for the tertianship program at Campion Center in Weston, Massachusetts, in 2010-2011.
During tertianship indications emerged that a previously detected, non-malignant brain tumor required more aggressive treatment. Nonetheless, Fr. Palmisano was able to return to Dublin in 2011 and take up an appointment at Trinity as the inaugural holder of a research and teaching fellowship named for Michael Hurley, S.J., a pioneer in the development of interfaith dialogue in Ireland, who had founded the School of Ecumenics. In December of that year he officially received the doctoral degree in ecumenical theology from Trinity.
The following year was a significant one. Oxford University Press published the book that grew out of his dissertation, Beyond the Walls, a study of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Edith Stein as models of inter-faith dialogue. He took his final vows as a Jesuit at Campion Center on March 25th. And late in the fall the decision was made that he would permanently return to Boston and the care of doctors familiar with his situation. He expected to take up an appointment teaching theology at Boston College, and he did spend several months in early 2013 living in the community there, but medical developments made a teaching commitment uncertain and instead he joined the retreat team at Gloucester at the beginning of the summer.
In late 2013 Fr. Palmisano moved to Campion Center. Over the following months, he had periods of relatively good health as he underwent experimental treatments with equanimity, humor, and hope. He asked friends to pray to Pedro Arrupe, if a cure might be God’s plan. But over time the effects of the tumor became more severe and he abandoned further treatment. As summer turned to fall this year old friends, both Jesuit and lay, visited in great numbers. His mother and father and younger brother and his Uncle Vinnie, a second father to him, all but moved into the Campion community. On December 12th, some 40 BC classmates and friends celebrated his 41st birthday with an afternoon-long party and a cake worthy of mention in a collection of great desserts.
Years ago, when asked about his Jesuit vocation, Fr. Palmisano said that more and more he saw his life in the words of a prayer written by Karl Rahner: “What meets us in life is not change, is not blind fate, but is a part of the life of your Son. The joy we shall receive as Christ’s joy, success as his success, pain as his pain, sorrow as his sorrow, work as his work, death as sharing in his death.”
A few days after his birthday celebration he weakened significantly and lapsed into a coma. Late in the evening of Christmas Day, with his parents and brother at his bedside, he shared Christ’s death and entered into his glory.