In Memoriam

Sep 8, 2020

Fr. Paul V. Mankowski, S.J. 1953–2020

In the steel mill and in the boxing ring, in his commitments and in the grain of his years, Fr. Paul Mankowski had skin in the game. In his review of Philip Eade’s biography of Evelyn Waugh, in which he thoroughly reviews the letters and works of Evelyn Waugh himself, he writes of Waugh’s conversion:

The faith Waugh embraced could be called “impersonal,” if by that term we mean not hostile to the person but sternly indifferent to the cravings and pleas of the ego. C. S. Lewis wrote that the Real is that which says to us, “Your preferences have not been considered.” So too for Waugh, it was the fact that the Church had not consulted him, or any other creature, in the formulation of her doctrines that made her claim plausible.[1]

Fr. Paul inaugurated our time together with two directives: pray morning and evening prayer and go to confession. “It’s good to have Iron Age prayers in your mouth every day,” he said, “and regular confession will show you how to live with charity.” He told me that the fruit of such practices come in habits of decades, the warp and woof of a life. He would listen to me, crossing his arms, stare with furrowed brow into the space above us, and wince a little as he spoke hesitatingly, building steam to a wry exhortation. He asked about my Hebrew Bible dissertation and I gave him a polite overview. He didn’t mention he’d taken a Harvard PhD in the discipline. It was months before I realized he was Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew Paul Mankowski. This work is well known in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a mere few blocks away from his Hyde Park Jesuit House. “And here all along I had imagined that you were committing that runaway best-seller to memory,” he wrote when I confessed this revelation, “Sigh.”

This book is a standard because it is so useful. With Stephen Kaufman’s Akkadian Influences on Aramaic in one hand and Mankowski in the other, you’d be well on your way to understanding East Semitic influence on West Semitic languages. Fr. Paul’s book, which builds on Kaufman’s, describes a linguistic method and puts that method to practice in a thorough inventory. It is a careful and useful reference work, a service to the field.

Fr. Paul used his University of Chicago, Oxford, Weston, and Harvard training and his linguistic gifts to serve the Catholic Church. For fifteen years he taught students in Rome, training them in biblical languages and reading their theses as a professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He did various and sundry other good work at the Vatican, much of it uncredited, including revising the English translation of the French Catechism of the Catholic Church on the basis of the Latin editio typica. In other posts, he taught Latin to high school students in Chicago and spent a year pastoring Sacred Heart Church English Language Parish in Amman, Jordan. At the last he was Scholar in Residence at Lumen Christi Institute and was deeply involved in Calvert House at the University of Chicago, where he regularly offered Mass and turned up on lists proffered to lucky people looking for spiritual directors.

His learning bore fruit in the steely wit and satiric intellect familiar to anyone who spent ten minutes with him, which he also used in service of the Church. He refused to see the Church as a political contender in a prize hog competition or a status club serving itself up for dinner to social services. The Church could be what the Church is: the body of Christ committed to truth for the salvation of souls. He expected the Church to be nothing less, and he fought for it. He risked his reputation and the practicalities of his life for this hope, and turned his truculent prose against the clerical clubbishness that spoiled it.

In 1995, he was already writing scathing indictments of the Church’s handling of sexually abusive priests. He argued that the Church exists to save souls and sending priests to therapy and reassignment abandons that purpose. He suggested that offending priests perform public penance and fully cooperate with governing authorities, accepting jail time, and that the Church provide not only therapy for victims and their families, but a special allotment of public prayers, teaching, and additional masses offered for the parish of the offending priest due to his abandonment of his pastoral duty and the attendant real loss of spiritual benefits for the community under his care. He used the impersonal truth of the Church’s purpose to address the Church’s malaise.

Fr. Paul also expected a Jesuit priest to be a Jesuit priest and gave himself no quarter. He took pursuing holiness through grace not as an inspiring ideal but as a practical goal. The morning after he was at last allowed to take his final vows (he had a long history of irking his superiors), he walked all his ordination cash gifts to a pregnancy clinic. When I asked him about keeping the personal disciplines required by the Exercises in a retreat in daily life, he told me that whenever someone took him out to a fine meal, he would enjoy what was offered him and mail a check for the cost of the meal to the Missionaries of Charity the next morning. He would send me book reviews he’d written one week and give me the reviewed book the next. “You have an extra copy?” I asked at first. “Yes,” he said. Eventually I understood that he kept no books—he was a scholar without a library. These stories are illustrative but unremarkable: his habits were ordered to his vows. This is not to say that Fr. Paul would garland himself as gold-leafed as my hagiography paints him. “The other day I did some self-barbering with 1961-vintage electric clippers, with predictable results,” he wrote in a pandemic-era email. “ I look like a dandelion in seed with half the fluff blown off.”

After most of our meetings he’d email me something or other that occurred to him — “here’s the dumb story I synopsed,” or “attached is that satire by Knox,” or “here is some white-hot teaching on the Christian exercise of sex in marriage from Anscombe.” He sent his review of Robert Alter’s Bible translation, which I’d unsuccessfully tried to influence. In it, he writes “Dorothy Parker famously named her parakeet Onan, ‘because he was always spilling his seed.’ It’s disputable how many of today’s Manhattanites would get the joke, and it’s entirely certain they wouldn’t retrieve it from the New English Translation’s rendering of Genesis: ‘So whenever [Onan] had sexual relations with his brother’s wife, he withdrew prematurely so as not to give his brother a descendant’ (38:9).” He went on to thank Alter for rescuing “vast tracts of English biblical narrative, not from obscurity, but from specious and arbitrary lucidity.”[2]

As I look through my small windowpane into Fr. Paul’s life I see only in part, one fir branch with colored lights, a gold-wrapped, red-ribboned package or two, but not his entire Christmas morning. (He would cringe at this image, as he believed with Waugh and Flannery O’Connor that there is “nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism,”[3] but he’s not here to wince.) He was my spiritual director, and more than his wit and intellect, more than his personal holiness, his gifts to me were his kindness and charity. He listened and understood. He never diluted, never expected less, never qualified duty. But he told me to believe in God’s forgiveness and the Church’s release. He said to stop meditating overmuch on my own sin. He read and responded to everything I sent him, he hosted Heather and me whenever we returned to Chicago, and he advocated for me in concrete ways. I don’t think I was a special case for him; I think he did the same for dozens of people every week. He was the special case. He was the gift.

Of O’Connor, he wrote:

Flannery O’Connor presented herself as a hillbilly Thomist to a public that, for the most part, derided hillbillies and detested Thomists. She knew that she had to work to earn a hearing, and that she would be facing cultural headwinds all of her life. It was a challenge she took up with relish. Reviled, scorned, snubbed and patronized by louts with a fifth of her intellectual horsepower, yet never answering a curse with a curse — she always returned to her own work to polish, to make it clearer, to sharpen the edge of the blade, to make it accomplish the Lord's work even if it failed to accomplish her own. She is a saint for our times.[4]

To the many who loved him, this will echo with a new resonance ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Farewell and thank you, Fr. Paul.

Charles Hughes Huff

St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry

Rochester, NY

Footnotes:

[1] Paul V. Mankowski, “Waugh on the Merits,” First Things, October 2017.

[2] Ibid., “Word for Word,” First Things, August 2019.

[3] Flannery O'Connor, Letter to Betty Hester, July 20, 1955.

[4] Paul V. Mankowski, “A Saint for Our Times,” unpublished speech given at the Catholic Studies Centre at Saint Louis University, September 16, 2019.

Dr. Charles Hughes Huff is Assistant Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Hughes Huff earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East at the University of Chicago in 2019. He studies how ancient authors portray social practices in narratives and use technical and metaphorical language to make ritual authoritative. He is also interested in how scholars rely on modern ethical stances to evaluate ancient Middle Eastern social practices, particularly punishments. Hughes Huff is an experienced teacher, and he cares deeply about pedagogy. He has taught courses in Bible, the reception of Bible in popular culture, ethics and moral theology, social justice, and philosophy. Outside the classroom, he enjoys wine and cycling, but not at the same time.