Father John Jay Hughes’ Life Reflected the Joy of the Good News
COMMENTARY: While John Krasinski’s video series filled a gap left by the Church, Father Jay, who died June 3, lived an unrelentingly joyful and thankful life.
At the end of March, toward the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns, actor and filmmaker John Krasinski established an uplifting and entertaining eight-part YouTube series entitled Some Good News. The show was “dedicated entirely to good news,” focusing on various heroes in the health care field, inspiring generosity from individuals and businesses, buoyant appearances by actors, singers and other celebrities, and other touching features. Framed as a news program from a home studio, it tried to bring some joy out of pandemic’s various difficulties, like canceled graduation ceremonies, proms and weddings. Approximately 72 million people tuned in.
The son of a Polish dad and Irish mom from Newton, Massachusetts, Krasinksi’s Catholic roots were hard to miss in the program’s title. In the midst of the incessant bad news of COVID-19, there was a need for “some Good News,” and Krasinski enthusiastically, passionately, contagiously and touchingly delivered. The response showed how deeply it resonated: A vast international movement erupted following his paradigm, as others, especially young people, reported on the good news that was happening all around them, too.
The series filled a vacuum. It sought to remedy the obsessive preoccupation with bad news — exacerbated by the pandemic — that is normally prioritized by the secular media. But it also filled a gap left by the Church, which, though commissioned to preach the Good News in season and out of season, in pulpits, on street corners and from rooftops, lacked similar creativity and, with some exceptions, largely retreated when people were hungering for hope.
The Church exists to preach the Good News. And in circumstances like the coronavirus, with so much suffering, death and instability, and, more recently, social unrest, injustice and violence, its message is all the more urgent and needed.
Someone who never forgot this lesson and who sought joyfully to proclaim the Good News at all times for 66 years was Father John Jay Hughes, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, author of 12 books, Church historian and good friend, who died of heart failure on June 3 at the age of 92.
He was a seventh generation direct descendant of U.S. Founding Father and first Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, whose name he received in baptism. “Jay” grew up in somewhat elite Manhattan circles and graduated from Harvard at 20. His father and grandfather were leading Episcopal priests and he followed them to ordination, happily serving for six years in Episcopal parishes. Traveling through Belgium, he met some young Catholic theologians in Louvain who corrected his false notions on papal infallibility, which led him on an arduous journey toward being received into the Catholic Church on Easter 1960. He called it the “most difficult decision I have ever made, but also the best.”
Entering the Church brought with it some enormous loss. His priest father was unyielding with regard to those who “perverted to Rome” and told Jay that were he to become a Catholic, he would no longer be welcome in the family home. His father kept his promise. Jay never saw him again.
His coming into full communion also required the sacrifice of the priesthood he loved, at least for a time, as he hoped that he would eventually find a Catholic bishop who would ordain him. He entrusted his priestly vocation to Our Lady and asked her to restore it to him when God willed. Eventually, eight years later — with permission from the Vatican after he made the case that the Episcopal bishop who ordained him had valid apostolic succession — he was conditionally ordained a Catholic priest by the Bishop of Münster, Germany, where he was studying for a doctorate in theology and where one of his professors was a young Father Joseph Ratzinger.
He returned to the United States to teach at St. Louis University’s Divinity School. He suffered from what he described as a “clerical system [that] didn’t know what to do with me,” living in St. Louis but subject to a bishop in Germany. Eventually he was incardinated into the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where he served in the chancery, as pastor of two parishes, and for many years as theological consultant to the archbishop.
I first got to know Father Jay in 2002, when after reading a homily I had written, he sent me an encouraging email and kindly corrected a mistaken date. Two years later, when I helped to start an annual Seminar for Priests during Easter Week, I sent an invitation to him, who surprised me by readily accepting and traveling from St. Louis. He was the senior priest by more than 15 years, but in some ways was the most childlike.
I asked him to preach one of the Masses, on the Gospel scene of Emmaus, and he made the hearts of all his younger brothers burn as he spoke of his love for Christ in the “breaking of Bread” and the gratitude he had for the gift of the priesthood.
Those are two themes that made him such a powerful and joy-filled proclaimer of the Good News.
On his 13th birthday, Jay wrote down a long list of all the things for which he was thankful. He would continue the practice for many years on his birthday. That practice made thanksgiving central in his life and prayer, and he would always begin his morning half-hour meditation with five minutes of thanksgiving to God.
“Thankful people are happy people,” he loved to say, and, “If you are looking right now at a happy man and a happy priest — and I can assure you that you are — it is because I have trained myself to say every day, more times than I could ever tell you: ‘Lord, you’re so good to me. And I’m so grateful.’”
His thanksgiving abounded for the gift of the priesthood, a love that only grew during his eight years of exile from the altar awaiting Catholic ordination.
“Priesthood has brought me joy beyond telling,” he said. “It has also brought me pain, sorrow and grief. If you were to ask me, however, whether I have ever regretted obeying the Lord’s call to serve him and his holy people as a priest, I would answer without hesitation: never, not one single day. I would change just one thing: I would try to be more faithful. If I were to die tonight, I would die filled with happiness, joy — and thanksgiving beyond telling!” He never lost the sense of awe at celebrating Mass each day.
He began his long preparation for death at 6 years old, when his mother died suddenly. He didn’t know how to process his grief. After a few months he received a grace.
“It came home to me one day, with blinding certainty,” he said, “that I would see my beloved mother again, when the Lord called me home to himself” and left him with a very real sense of the unseen, spiritual world of God, the angels, saints and beloved dead.
He was a great preacher. Among his books were a three-volume set of Sunday homilies entitled, Proclaiming the Good News. Each week he would send out his Sunday homilies to 3,000 people, including brother priests and bishops.
In 2013, when his health began to decline and he needed to move into a priest’s retirement home, he told me he was struggling with having no chance any more to share the Good News each day like he did for decades in parishes. I urged him to start a blog and to post daily Mass homilies, promising him there would be an audience. He took me up on the suggestion.
The blog (jaystl.blogspot.com) is still up. Before Father Jay died, he posted who knows how many upcoming homilies. As of June 24, they’re still appearing every day, as he posthumously continues, as a continuous valedictory of faith, to proclaim some good news and more.
My last contact with him was about a week before he died. I tried unsuccessfully by phone to check up on him and sent him an email. He replied that he was COVID-free, but that his heart was sick and he was in declining health. “Commendo me,” he finished the email. My follow-up phone calls all went to voicemail.
He was commending himself to God the Father, in imitation of Jesus’ last priestly act on earth. Please join him with me in that prayer, entrusting his grateful, happy priestly soul to the Father who created him, the Son who redeemed him, and the Spirit who sanctified him, thanking God for blessing us through him for so many years.