By Diana Owen
Georgetown University was blessed to have Fr. Howard Gray, S.J., as part of its community for two decades. Fr. Gray had been a member of Georgetown’s board of directors from 1997 to 2006, serving as vice chair for four years. In 2007, he was appointed Special Assistant to the President, and joined the Jesuit community on the Hilltop. Last year he held the position of interim Vice President for Mission and Ministry. After departing Georgetown in August, he continued his ministry at the Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Fr. Gray’s contributions to Georgetown are vast. He took on tough administrative assignments, including leading searches in the office of Mission and Ministry. Fr. Gray was a member of the working group that contributed to the establishment of Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center that has become a model for schools across the country. He spoke publicly about his experience with the working group, and of being moved as LGBTQ colleagues shared their stories of the challenges they faced. His message emphasized the love that God has for all people.
Fr. Gray is widely acknowledged as a brilliant scholar and lecturer on Ignatian spiritualty, and we were fortunate that he was willing to share his insights with the Georgetown community on a regular basis. He was a popular contributor to Georgetown’s series of sacred lectures, an early Jesuit tradition of giving inspiring talks in churches. In “The Challenges and Graces of Friendship: An Ignatian Perspective,” Fr. Gray addressed the centrality of friendship to the work of Jesus and Ignatius of Loyola, and how we all might follow their lead. His lecture on “A Life Wound by Mercy” reflected on the Ignatian notion of finding God in all things. He advanced the idea of the church as a field hospital attending to healing in trying times as we are experiencing today. In addition, Fr. Gray was instrumental in organizing sacred lectures featuring other speakers, such as Dr. Darren Davis of Notre Dame whose talk on black Catholics contributed to ongoing dialogues at Georgetown.
In fact, my own first contact with Fr. Gray was when he gave a series of Lenten reflections about the graces of the season. As a lay person who was just beginning her Ignatian faith journey, I was overwhelmed by the sophistication of his arguments which included deep references to theology, poetry, and literature. When I mentioned this to my spiritual director, he suggested that I talk to Fr. Gray. My reticence to approach such an esteemed Jesuit with silly questions was quickly dispelled, as Fr. Gray patiently helped to me understand not only the messages in his reflections, but also broader concepts related to Ignatian spirituality and God’s love.
Fr. James Martin, S.J., has referred to Fr. Gray as “one of the great Jesuit spiritual masters in the last 50 years.” Fr. Gray’s commitment to his spiritual mission was central even when faced with heavy administrative duties. He was dedicated to the spiritual formation of lay people, giving talks at retreats and developing materials, including audio and video series on Ignatian spirituality, prayer, and the bible. His piece for Conversations, “The Retreat Master Is—God!,” is regularly distributed at retreats and seminars. In it, Fr. Gray discusses the Ignatian “way of proceeding” and the development of Jesuit-lay programs that support the mission of Catholic and Jesuit higher education. I was privileged to learn from him as a teacher in the Faber Seminar on Spiritual Direction at Holy Trinity parish, where he prepared lay people to administer the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Fr. Gray will be remembered as much for his everyday thoughtfulness as for his tremendous contributions to Jesuit education and spirituality. Despite his vast accomplishments, Fr. Gray was humble and relatable. He was a cheerful presence on campus who always had a smile and a kind word for those he encountered. No matter how much was on his plate, he would regularly reach out with personal notes. When preparing for a visit of the Conversations board to Georgetown last year, Fr. Gray delighted in discussing the swag that board members might enjoy with the student assistant who would be selecting items from the university bookstore. Fr. Gray managed to transform the elegant, but staid, office of the VP for Mission and Ministry to a place of welcome. In the middle of the massive conference table was a basket filled with treats to which Fr. Gray urged visitors to help themselves. When leaving the office, Fr. Gray would hand his guests another packet of their preferred snack—in my case smoked almonds—“for the road.”
In April, Fr. Gray returned to Georgetown to deliver another sacred lecture in Dahlgren Chapel. In his trademark voice—resonant, yet infused with kindness—Fr. Gray spoke about the “The Centrality of the Good Person in Jesuit Education,” a fitting topic for a man who embodied the goodness about which he spoke. He spent four lively days catching up with friends and colleagues. When Fr. Mark Bosco, Vice President for Mission and Ministry, extended the invitation, Fr. Gray hesitated at first, arguing that it was too soon as he had only been away from Georgetown for a few months. By saying “yes,” Fr. Gray gave one last, beautiful gift to Georgetown.
Diana Owen is a professor at Georgetown University in the Communication, Culture, and Technology graduate program.
The cover photo is courtesy of Georgetown University