Jesuit Father James McCann is an academic-turned-administrator whom Pope Benedict XVI has just selected to head the Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies in Rome.
After a career teaching Eastern European politics and history, Father McCann became director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe in 2003.
The Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies, founded in 1917 by Pope Benedict XV, teaches both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic theology and canon law and includes bishops of both Churches among its alumni. The mission of the Jesuit-run institute is to study, explain and make better known the life and tradition of these Churches.
Father McCann is a native of Chicago who entered the Society of Jesus in 1967 and was ordained a priest in 1979. He holds a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies from Yale and a doctorate in politics with a specialization in Russia and Eastern Europe from Princeton.
He spoke with Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe.
Is there anything in your childhood that signaled that you were headed towards Eastern European political and now Eastern Church studies?
No, I’m from an Irish family. My mother was born in Ireland. What happened was: In high school, I stumbled into a Russian language class — I don’t think it was my first choice — and this was taught by a Jesuit who had been trained to work in Russia but was never able to do that. And it turned out that I liked Russian very much. Later, that same Jesuit ran a trip to Eastern Europe on a shoestring. While we were in Kiev — there’s one in every group — I had a ruptured appendix and nearly died.
Just a week after I left the hospital I entered the Jesuit novitiate with the wound still draining.
Do you come from a family of strong faith?
Yes, a strong Catholic family in Chicago. Small because my father died when I was very young. I think it would have been a big family. We were heading in that direction.
Was it always the Jesuits for you?
Yes. I went to a Jesuit high school. I liked very much the schooling there, very much in the direction of academics. I actually went back later on and taught languages.
What interested you about Russia beyond the language?
It started with language and the literature, but I was also fascinated by the history of the place and later the politics of the old Soviet Union. It just opened a whole new world.
So you moved from language to political studies. How did that work?
I think it was more history. I went to Princeton because of the emphasis on Russian studies there. I did my dissertation on the politics of writing history. I ended up in Poland for three summers of language study right in the middle of Solidarity and all that excitement and martial law. I remember sitting on a park bench between classes, and these three police or soldiers came up with submachine guns and asked for identification, and I asked myself, How did I get into this field? Why wasn’t I in Hawaiian Studies or something?
Did you teach at Jesuit institutions after Princeton?
Yes, at Loyola in Chicago and Xavier in Cincinnati. I was teaching during the whole fall of the Communist system and during the conflict in Yugoslavia. I used to have the students learn the various factions. It was certainly good for American students who tend to see the world in black and white terms to see the region with claims and counterclaims and everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong at the same time. European students, maybe because they come from an older culture, have a better feel for that.
Whom does the Office for Aid to Eastern Churches help?
It’s very explicitly for Catholic churches. At the very beginning, it was simply a question of survival and getting off the ground. A lot of it was construction. In many places, not so much in Poland, their churches were torn down or taken away. One in the middle of St. Petersburg was used as a warehouse. One was a skating rink. One was a movie theater. Many of these churches were devastated, and it took a lot of money to rebuild. One sign of the maturity of those churches is that they’ve taken up collections for Katrina victims and this year for Haiti.
Does encouraging these churches step on toes in Orthodox countries?
They are trying to work on better relations with those churches, and there is some progress going on, not everywhere in the region, but even in Russia, there is a more positive tone to the relationship. They’re trying to find areas of common interest, and one area would be encouragement of family life, which is very critical in many of these countries. In Russia there is an enormous demographic issue. People are not having very many children. Abortion is still used as a contraceptive. Family life is very problematic. This is an area where the Catholic and Orthodox Churches can work together instead of disputing theological issues.
Does the institute also bring together Orthodox and Catholic?
Yes, though the Pontifical Institute is explicitly academic. It would be theology, to understand the history of spirituality, the common patristic heritage, that sort of thing.
They are at the planning stage for a common theological formation for students of both traditions.
That sounds very delicate.
It could be a minefield as well. But I think that’s great. The general atmosphere is moving in a positive direction. There’s a very good school the Catholic Church has started in Kosovo. … I think that one way to building a lasting peace is to be present through educational institutions.
Did John Paul II help heal the rift?
I would certainly think that was the beginning. Now the thing is that he was a Slav. There again you have historical issues. Many Orthodox found it unacceptable that he would never visit Russia. … It was his wish to visit Russia but it just never seemed to be possible. … But there were very positive developments going on in his pontificate and in the current one. There is even talk now of a meeting of the Russian patriarch and the Pope. That would be something. The pontificate of John Paul would seem to have prepared the way for that.
What’s the most interesting or exciting part of this assignment?
I think that I can bring my background as a teacher and someone interested in peace studies and reconciliation to bear on the challenge of moving along this process of reconciliation of the Churches — but also the possibility in a globalized society of making known the Eastern traditions to the larger world. There’s a tremendous depth and richness for the Church that is not always that well known. And I’m also looking forward to working with a student body and professors from so many different countries.
Steve Weatherbe writes
from Victoria, British Columbia.