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Callahan, William

January 19, 2012

WASHINGTON – Father William R. Callahan, a leading activist for peace and social justice, died July 5 at Community Hospice in Washington of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.

The priest, a former Jesuit, also was known as an outspoken critic of church teaching on homosexuality and women’s ordination.

In 1979, he was ordered by the Jesuits’ superior general to stop speaking out in favor of women’s ordination. Ten years later, he was dismissed from the order but remained a priest. At the time, he told Catholic News Service that he was not given a reason for the dismissal.

A memorial service for Father Callahan was to be celebrated July 10 at the Thomas Stone Elementary School in Mount Rainier, Md., near the Quixote Center, a national Catholic justice and peace office which he co-founded in 1976 with Dolly Pomerleau and co-directed until last year.

The priest, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, donated his body to Georgetown University Medical School for study of the disease.

Loretto Sister Maureen Fiedler, a friend and colleague of Father Callahan for 35 years, told CNS in an e-mail July 7 that the priest “lived Gospel values and Ignatian values; he gave without counting the cost.”

“Tens of thousands of people were touched by his generosity, inspired by his passion for justice and delighted with his willingness to laugh in the midst of struggle. He dreamed a lot of seemingly ‘impossible dreams’ and made them come true,” said Sister Fiedler, host and creator of “Interfaith Voices,” a religion news magazine featured on public radio.

Jesuit Father Jim Hug, president of the Center of Concern in Washington, wrote in the group’s July online newsletter that “the Catholic justice community lost an extraordinary friend and companion” with Father Callahan’s death.”

“His spirit will surely continue the work,” he added.

Father Callahan was born in Scituate, Mass. He joined the Jesuits in 1948 at age 17 and was a member of the order’s New England province. Ordained in 1965, he became a nationally known speaker on social justice issues in the 1970s. An advocate for peace and justice in Nicaragua, he was critical of U.S. involvement there.

In 1971, he was one of three Jesuits who founded the Center of Concern, a Washington-based think tank on economic development and social justice issues.

In 1975, he founded Priests for Equality, which advocated full equality of women in the church, including ordination to the priesthood. For 20 years, the group worked on developing a Bible with inclusive language, which was published in 2007.

Over the years, various ministries were developed at the Quixote Center. Some of these groups later became independent. Groups formed under Father Callahan’s direction included:

– New Ways Ministry, a program of pastoral service to homosexuals. (The organization receives no official church recognition or sponsorship.)

– Quest for Peace, which countered congressional appropriations of aid to the Nicaraguan contras with matching amounts of private humanitarian aid to the people of Nicaragua. The group shipped more than $227 million worth of food, medicine and other humanitarian aid.

– Catholics Speak Out, which objected to what participants described as authoritarianism in church government.

In 1979, Father Callahan was ordered by Father Pedro Arrupe, then the superior general of the Jesuits, to stop speaking out in favor of women’s ordination.

That same year, the Archdiocese of Washington withdrew his faculties to preach or hear confessions within the archdiocese.

Before papal trips to the United States in 1979 and 1987, Father Callahan organized protests against the style of church leadership exercised by the pope and perceived sexism within the church.

In 1990, the Vatican denied the priest’s appeal of his dismissal from the Jesuit order.

The priest wrote a book on contemporary spirituality called “Noisy Contemplation – Deep Prayer for Busy People,” which has sold more than 100,000 copies. The book encourages readers to pray even in the midst of noise and activism stressing that prayer does not require the silence of a monastery.

A description of the priest on the Quixote Center website said he was an avid organic gardener and a dedicated runner. Even when his disease was slowing his ability to walk, he ran the Army 10-mile race. He called himself the “Parkinson Turtle” and finished the course.

Father Callahan is survived by three brothers, Larry, John and Bob, and three sisters, Polly Alonso, Helen Demers and Christine DeVelis.

Washington, DC
July 5, 2010
The Rev. William Callahan; fought for women priests

By Douglas Martin, New York Times  |  July 15, 2010

NEW YORK — The Rev. William R. Callahan, a Roman Catholic priest and self-described “impossible dreamer’’ whose vociferous and organized opposition to Vatican policies prompted Jesuit officials to expel him from their order, died July 5 in Washington. He was 78.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said the Quixote Center, an organization that Father Callahan helped found to press for reforms in the church and society. It is independent of the church and based in Brentwood, Md., where he lived.

Like Cervantes’s fictional character who inspired the center’s name, Father Callahan — who was born in Scituate, Mass., and was educated at Boston College — tilted at windmills and never accomplished his major goals, the biggest of which was ordaining women as priests. But his spirited campaigns made him a thorn in the church’s side for a generation.

“Bill tried to be a prophetic voice in the church, a voice crying in the wilderness,’’ said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Father Callahan remained a priest after his expulsion from the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus, in 1991, but the church barred him from acting as one. Known widely as Bill, he still sometimes used the honorifics “reverend’’ and “father.’’

He aggravated church officials during the American tour of Pope John Paul II in 1979 by imploring priests to refuse to help the pope in celebrating Mass. Father Callahan’s hope was that more laywomen would then have to be enlisted to assist at the services.

When the pope insisted that year that barring women from becoming priests was not a human rights issue, Father Callahan replied, “Perhaps this is not a human rights issue because women are not human or they do not have rights.’’

He told The Washington Post in 1989 that he was simply “following the example of Jesus, who was never willing to shut up.’’

In 1971, Father Callahan helped found the Center of Concern, an organization devoted to social justice issues. In 1975 he started Priests for Equality, to work for the ordination of women. He started the Quixote Center in 1976 with Dolly Pomerleau, who became a work partner of his for many years. They married days before he died.

The Quixote Center achieved particular prominence in its support of the leftist government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, a stance directly at odds with that of the Reagan administration. It raised more than $100 million in humanitarian aid for the Nicaraguan government.

Other projects included printing religious books in which language it viewed as sexist, racist, and homophobic was expunged. Father Callahan himself wrote “Noisy Contemplation: Deep Prayer for Busy People,’’ which called God a merry sort who viewed humans as entertainment.

In 1979, Jesuit leaders rebuked Father Callahan for his defiance of dogma, and by 1989 his Nicaraguan activities and liberal initiatives in the church, including a ministry for gay Catholics, had set off calls for his expulsion from the Jesuit order. He unsuccessfully fought the action, which he said was never explained.

Father Callahan remained active at Quixote and continued to preach to informal gatherings of dissident Catholics.

William Reed Callahan was born on Sept. 5, 1931. His mother was a Unitarian and his father a Catholic. His mother died when he was 6 months old, and he was raised by his paternal grandparents as a Catholic, Pomerleau said.

He attended the Jesuit-run Boston College High School and after graduating joined the New England Province of the Society of Jesuits in 1948. He had hoped to be an agronomist, but the Jesuits asked him to study physics because they needed physics professors in their universities.

Father Callahan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston College, and a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1962. While pursuing the degree, he worked for NASA on weather satellites. He then moved to Connecticut to teach physics at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution. He was ordained as a priest in 1965.

In addition to his wife, he leaves three brothers and three sisters.