The Life and Death of Jesuit Raymond Gawronski

Widely praised for his role in forming priests and providing insights into Ignatian spirituality, Father Gawronski’s final Christian witness took place through his embrace of his cross of terminal cancer.

Seminarian Michael Sullivan with Father Raymond Gawronski at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, in Los Gatos, on April 2. Sullivan said that, even though in great pain and not having eaten much for weeks, the Jesuit still shared his beautiful Polish smile, his great joy and his John Paul II walking stick, which he used to take on walks. 
Seminarian Michael Sullivan with Father Raymond Gawronski at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, in Los Gatos, on April 2. Sullivan said that, even though in great pain and not having eaten much for weeks, the Jesuit still shared his beautiful Polish smile, his great joy and his John Paul II walking stick, which he used to take on walks.  (photo: Kyle Faller, a seminarian of the Archdiocese of San Francisco)

MENLO PARK, Calif. — When Jesuit Father Raymond Gawronski was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, the shocking news prompted his grieving students to hold a farewell gathering for the popular professor and spiritual director at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.

“Father, in this short time that we have tonight, we wish to share how you have forever changed our lives by your witness to hope, that is, to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ,” seminarian Michael Sullivan, 23, told the priest, speaking for his class at the March 29 gathering, held two weeks before his death on April 14.

The event drew throngs of young priests who had studied with Father Gawronski during his previous post at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, as well as other universities, and those who benefited from the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises he led over the years.

“Look at the dozens of people who have traveled from Denver, Los Angeles and other parts of the United States to be right here with you in thanksgiving for all that you have taught them,” Sullivan told the priest during the farewell ceremony.

The author of Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West and A Closer Walk With Christ: A Personal Ignatian Retreat, Father Gawronski also appeared on an EWTN series on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This body of work, say friends and colleagues, arose in response to an early spiritual encounter with the Lord that inspired an urgent desire to make Christ real to students and readers alike.

During an interview with the Register, Sullivan celebrated Father Gawronski’s power to inspire young men to give their lives over to Christ, just as Pope St. John Paul II had inspired the priestly vocation of the Polish-American Jesuit, among many others.

“Father was a living example of John Paul II,” said Sullivan, who recalled the Jesuit’s gifts as a scholar, who spoke seven languages, and as a mentor, who joined the seminarians on hikes in the mountains and led discussions about The Godfather on seminary film nights.

“The cross was everything to him. In the short time he had, following his diagnosis, he was always very joyful. ‘This is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will bring us to a new place,’ he would say,” recalled Sullivan.


Father Fessio’s Friend

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, the founder of Ignatius Press, based nearby in San Francisco, echoed that observation in an interview with the Register.

After learning that his friend had been diagnosed with cancer and did not have long to live, Father Fessio wrote to say he was praying for him.

A reply from Father Gawronski arrived shortly afterward: “He told me, ‘C’est beau mourir n’est — ce pas?’ (It is beautiful to die, isn’t it?) It is a quotation from Adrienne von Speyr,” the Catholic mystic, noted Father Fessio.

“His quote from von Speyr really sums him up for me. He had a very critical mind, and there was an edge to him, but when he got the word he had cancer, he took it with obedience.”

Father Gawronski’s striking qualities as a priest helped to explain the powerful impact he had on the life of St. Patrick’s Seminary, though he only served in his post as spiritual director and theology professor for two years.

“There was a disproportion between the time he was at St. Patrick’s and his impact,” observed Father Gladstone Stevens, the seminary rector. “The seminarians responded immediately to his authenticity and care for them.

“This is a man who really believed in the Resurrection. He believed in and lived by Christ’s promises.

“He realized life was a gift, and he had the peace that whatever time God game him he used to the best of his ability and for the glory of God and service to his people.”


His Mother’s Lessons

Father Gawronski’s Polish-born mother was a Nazi concentration-camp survivor, and the lessons from that time would make an indelible impression on her son, who learned to reverence the truth and to maintain high ideals in his priestly and academic life.

“His mother lived through the Nazis and the communists” in Poland, noted Father Stevens.

“But she told him, ‘My life is going to be much easier than yours or that of the next generation. We know the difference between right and wrong.’”

Born in Brooklyn on Sept. 9, 1950, Gawronski grew up New York and New Jersey and graduated with a degree in philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., in 1971. He earned a master’s degree in world religions from Syracuse University, where he studied under the religious-studies scholar Huston Smith.

In 1977, Gawronski entered the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. Subsequently, he earned a master’s degree in Asian studies at St. Michael's Institute of Gonzaga University and a master of divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

Ordained a priest in 1986, he completed further studies in Rome, earning a licentiate in theology at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and a doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Father Gawronski had priestly faculties in both the Roman and Byzantine rites; and in addition to being a Jesuit, he was an associate member of Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Redwood Valley, Calif. 

Over the years, he taught theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee and served as a spiritual director and theology professor at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. There, he helped to establish the spirituality year, with its Ignatian characteristics: a month of itinerancy and a 30-day retreat following the Spiritual Exercises.


Pivotal Spiritual Experience

As a scholar, Father Gawronski earned special recognition for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar and his study of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions. More recently, he was engaged in the study of Pope John Paul II’s writings. The choice of topics reflected and amplified a pivotal spiritual experience that inspired his own vocation and defined his personal mission.

“Father Gawronski believed that he had received a mission to help renew the Church in America while he underwent his Tertianship — the final period of formation — in the Society of Jesus,” said Anthony Lilles, who first got to know the Jesuit while both pursued doctoral studies in Rome and shared a common bond as “spiritual children” of St. John Paul II. Later Lilles served with Father Gawronski on the faculty of the Denver seminary and then helped him develop the newly instituted spiritual-formation program at St. Patrick’s.

The life-changing experience, said Lilles, concerned a grace that he received in prayer and that he discussed with his spiritual director and Jesuit superiors.

Until that time, he had been preparing to work in the Jesuit missions in Eastern Europe and possibly Russia. But he came to believe that God had other plans for him.

“This early experience was the beginning of a genuine encounter with Christ, as a real person, in the form of a true heart-to-heart [dialogue] that he would continue through a lifelong pursuit of prayer,” explained Lilles, who reflected on the priest’s personal and intellectual legacy after the April 26 funeral Mass at the Shrine of St. Anne Catholic Church in Arvada, a Denver suburb.

“His project became how to deepen this encounter through a deeper understanding of our contemporary cultures and the practice of contemplative prayer.”

Father Gawronski’s examination of the relationship between prayer and culture and his deep affinity for the work of Hans von Balthasar led to the 1995 publication of Word and Silence, now in its third edition.

Word and Silence explored the uniqueness of Christian prayer, through the lens of the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar. With von Balthasar, he understood that the contemporary approaches to spirituality did not answer the most fundamental and existential questions we have regarding our yearning for relationship, our burden of guilt and our awareness of death,” said Lilles, who currently serves as academic dean of St John’s Seminary in Camarillo, Calif.

Continued Lilles, Father Gawronski’s message was that amid the brutal reality of the human condition, “only the Risen Lord provided a real word of hope.”


Legacy of Christian Hope

Over the years, the Jesuit served as a spiritual adviser to Lilles, inspiring his colleague to make long, silent retreats in the Rocky Mountains filled with prayer and fasting.

Now Lilles finds comfort in the priest’s firm embrace of the cross and the great hope it gave his soul during the 40 days between his cancer diagnosis and his death.

“Christianity has three syllables, according to Father Gawronski, ‘life, death and resurrection.’ To be raised up by Christ requires that we embrace life and suffer death standing in the love of God,” said Lilles.

“It is the hope of the lowly and the humble that offers its ‘fiat’ to God, without having to calculate or manage, but instead accept and surrender with total abandonment to the will of God.”

At the bedside of his dying friend, Father Raymond Gawronski, Lilles found a man of prayer, “a witness to the hope that we have inside.”


Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.