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Obituary of Rev. John F. Kavanaugh: Renowned preacher, author and SLU philosophy professor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2012 - The Rev. John Kavanaugh, a renowned homilist, scholar and author who, as a young priest, sought the counsel of Mother Teresa to help choose his life’s path, died Monday at Saint Louis University Hospital.  He was 71.

He had been diagnosed with a blood disease. 

His Mass will be celebrated at 7:30 p.m. today at St. Francis Xavier College Church.

In 1975, Father Kavanaugh went to India to begin a yearlong tertianship, a spiritual retreat before pronouncing final vows. He spent a month in Calcutta with Mother Teresa helping to tend the sick at the House of the Dying.

He washed and fed the men and women who had been found dying in the streets. He wondered if he should return to America and become a university professor or live abroad and continue this life of humble service to the poor. 

He asked Mother Teresa to pray that his life’s purpose would be made clear. She declined.

"I was surprised when she said she wouldn't pray for clarity," he recalled in later years. "She said what I needed was trust.”

A great preacher

As his life was transformed, so he set about transforming the lives of others through his teaching and preaching.

Over the years, Father Kavanaugh celebrated daily Mass for students at St. Francis Xavier College Church and for priests at Jesuit Hall. On most Sundays, he preached at College Church and sometimes he’d simply drop in unannounced to preach at the Catholic Student Center at Washington University.

He gained a reputation for being a mighty preacher, whose sermons were laden with parables that showed how the presence of God has an effect on the lives of the faithful. In 1998, he received the Great Preacher Award from the Aquinas Institute of Theology.

He believed that his job as a preacher was to share words that energize, challenge and console.

“I think it's important to put your effort into it and to try to engage what you think people are living through,” he said in a 2008 interview with Universitas, SLU’s alumni magazine.  “And if you have a number of close friends or people you advise, you know what they're living through, so it's easy to make connections.”

But Father Kavanaugh modestly credited the length more than the substance of his sermons for their favorable effect. He liked to keep them within seven to 10 minutes.

“I would say Catholics prefer a short, good homily,” he said, “and they'd probably prefer a short mediocre one to a good, long one.”

Philosophy of life

Father Francis Kavanaugh, who grew up in St. Louis, received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from Saint Louis University. He earned a doctorate in social philosophy from Washington University in 1974, the same year he joined the SLU Department of Philosophy. He rejoined the SLU faculty when he returned from India in 1975 and taught there his entire career.

He spent time teaching in Zimbabwe in 1987, a place, he said, that taught him to stop rushing through life. 

Father Kavanaugh was an early proponent of giving women a voice in the church and he founded SLU’s Ethics Across the Curriculum program, which helps faculty incorporate ethical considerations into their courses.

“John represented the very best of Saint Louis University,” said Father Lawrence Biondi, SLU president. “He influenced generations of SLU students, encouraging them to ask the great questions and inspiring them to seek meaningful answers rooted in our Jesuit tradition.”

“If you're in love with the topic and if you really care about the people you're dealing with, it makes (teaching) very easy,” Father Kavanaugh said.

His classes at SLU delved into human rights, animal rights and medical ethics. He focused on “things that are going on in our culture, in terms of what's real, what's important, what lasts, what's worth loving, what's true.”

He explored the topic in his most well-known book, "Following Christ in a Consumer Society," published in 1981. It was later translated into several languages and revised and reissued in 1991 and 2006.

His other books include "Faces of Poverty," "Faces of Christ" and "Who Count as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing." He said the latter deals with the tendency to treat people as things. In it he called capital punishment "literally turning a living human person into a dead object.”

For him, even terrorism was no justification for the death penalty.

“If we execute Timothy McVeigh,” he wrote in a 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch commentary about the Oklahoma City bomber, “if we enact the deadly liturgy he has convened, we will have become just a little more like him.”

Last words

Father Kavanaugh was formerly a member of Markoe House and St. Matthew Parish. He had served as the assistant for social apostolates for his order, the Jesuits of the Missouri Province. 

The Rev. J. Daniel Daly, executive assistant of the Missouri Province, wrote of Father Kavanaugh’s passing: “He inspired and challenged his brother Jesuits to lives of simplicity and solidarity with the poor, both in his words and the example of his life.”

Father Kavanagh was an award-winning writer who contributed to the St. Louis Review, the local archdiocesan newspaper, and America, the national Jesuit magazine.

In a 2002 America column titled "Last Words," Father Kavanagh wrote: “Love, ultimately, is the foundation of every choice, even our bad ones.”

Father Kavanaugh, however, had no regrets.

He once admitted to wondering what it would have been like to have a wife and children, perhaps grandchildren.

“There were times when I thought maybe this is going to be a lonely life,” he said, “but it turned out that being a Jesuit makes you more intimate with people as friends than you'd ever imagine.” 

In another candid moment he revealed the depth of his love for handball.

“If I had my choice, if I were going to die and it's not at Mass, I wouldn't mind it being on a handball court in Forest Park. I love those guys down there.”

Father Kavanaugh was preceded in death by his parents, Jack and Julia Kavanaugh and his sister, Margaret Kathleen Steinman.His survivors include his brother, Thomas Kavanaugh of St. Louis.

Visitation will be from 5-7:30 p.m., immediately followed by the funeral Mass, on Fri., Nov. 9, at St. Francis Xavier (College) Church, on Grand at Lindell in St. Louis. Interment will be on Sat., Nov. 10 in Calvary Cemetery.

Memorials may be made to the Jesuits of the Missouri Province, 4511 West Pine Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63108.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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