CANADA-UNITED STATESDeath of former Assistant General
Father John KING, former Assistant General, died at the Oblate community in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, on 2 May 2015, at the age of 86. Until about a year ago, he had lived as a hermit and served as chaplain to a community of contemplative nuns. Each day, the religious women gathered with Fr. King to pray and celebrate the Eucharist. The rest of their day was spent in solitude with the Lord.
The first thirty years of Fr. King’s life as an Oblate priest were filled with activity and accomplishments. He was professor of theology at the Oblate scholasticate in Washington, D.C. He was a consultant to some bishops during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. From 1963 until 1966, he was superior of the Studium in Rome. When the Assistant General Fr. Thomas REDDY was named provincial of the former Eastern Province of the United States, the Superior General, Fr. Léo Deschâtelets, and his Council named Fr. King to replace Fr. Reddy. From 1968 until 1972, he served as Assistant General in Rome and then, from 1972 until 1974, as General Councilor for the United States Region. Upon completion of his service in Rome, he went to the Oblate mission in Puerto Rico and, a few years later, he worked among Hispanic Catholics in Lowell, Massachusetts.
While he lived this very active life, he felt a call deep within himself to seek the Lord in a more profound way. He asked his Oblate superiors for permission to explore a more contemplative life-style. What began as an experiment became a way of life.
In an edition of the Oblate review, Oblatio, Fr. Harry WINTER, wrote an article about Oblates at Vatican II: an Initial Survey (Oblatio I [Nov. 2012, 3]:335-53). In a section about Fr. King, he wrote: “… when the then five provinces of the USA held the ‘First American Regional Conference on Mission and Unity,’ in Natick, MA, from Oct. 14-18, 1974, King had a major role in organizing and leading the conference. The report contains King’s role in the evaluation session on the final day. ‘For Fr. John King, Regional Councillor, it was a joyful experience, but not without pain and ambiguity; as one participant had remarked earlier, ambiguity is increasingly recognized as part of the life of the poor and, therefore, of Oblate life also. Looking over his seven years as Councillor, Jack observed that the Spirit is certainly at work in the Congregation, adding that he now found more support and less façade in the Oblates of today.’ The fourth and last resolution voted by the Conference was ‘That Fr. John King be thanked and commended for the leadership he has given to the American Region over the past seven years.”
On May 7, 2015, Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, presented Honorary Doctorates to Liberation Theology Founder, Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P., and to former Oblate Superior General, Bishop Guillermo STECKLING. Below are excerpts from the speech which the school’s president, Fr. Ron ROLHEISER, delivered to the audience prior to the presentation of the honorary doctorate to Bishop Steckling.
I had the privilege of serving on our General Council in Rome for six years with Guillermo as our Superior-General. I also had the privilege of living in the same house and community with him during those six years. I want to highlight some things about his leadership, both in its substance and its style. First, substance:
When Guillermo was elected as our Superior-General he replaced Marcello ZAGO, who wasn’t easy to replace. Marcello was bigger than life and in a good way. He was charismatic leader who worked 24 hours a day and had a major new idea every hour. He did a lot of visioning and did some writing for John Paul II, and, as our Superior General, took the Congregation to many strategic parts of the world. But those successes had a downside. By the time Fr. Zago completed his time as Superior-General, all that expansion had stretched our resources dangerously thin. So when Guillermo became our Superior-General he inherited a congregation that was very much alive and very strategically-placed, but one that had also over-reached and needed to consolidate some things. As well, he also replaced a legend, a charismatic figure as big as life. No easy tasks!
And he did both tasks exceptionally well. He provided a quiet, strong leadership that helped to consolidate us and also take us to some new places. Interestingly: During his leadership the Oblates opened several new missions, and they were opened because they were in the poorest parts of the world. The needs of the poor trumped our need to consolidate.
Guillermo’s years of leadership were characterized by 3 things: By solidifying our provinces, delegations, and communities, he helped make us a stronger congregation; by solidifying our communities internally in terms of prayer and hospitality to each other, he helped make us a more prayerful and hospitable congregation; and in new outreach to the poorest of the poor, he helped make us a congregation more in touch with the poor.
That was the substance of leadership. What was its style? Leadership style is also substance, as Pope Francis is showing us. Sometimes how we do things has as much impact as what we do!
How did Guillermo do things as our Superior General? His leadership was very much characterized by three things: he listened – always listened and spoke last; He was gentle and patient – handled everyone with understanding and gentleness, he never broke the bruised reed; and he was always calm and steady – “this is to be expected, this comes with the territory, this too will pass;” a model of servant-leadership – he did away with the “head table.”
And why, more particularly, are we are honoring him with an honorary doctorate?
To put it in one
line: Oblate School of Theology is honoring him for his role in leadership in
the Oblate Congregation, but especially for his dedication and service to the
poor, to whom he has given his life, both in rural barrios and in Roman
As a young man, Guillermo had a vision of himself as a missionary – but his vision of this was of himself working with the poor, on the ground, in the barrios, wearing khakis and a sweatshirt, taking on the “smell of the sheep”. And for the first years of his missionary life, that’s what he did, he lived and worked with the poor; but, as the old saying goes, life is what happens to us while we are planning our lives. He got called to Rome by the Oblate community and he spent the next 18 years of his life there, serving the poor, but in a place far away from the smell of the sheep, in Roman offices.
But, as I shared, he did serve the poor there: always ensuring that we were seeing things through the prism of the poor.
Finally, after 18 years, he was released and happily returned to work with the poor in Paraguay but that was soon interrupted by a call from Pope Francis to become a Bishop in a diocese that was experiencing a lot of struggle. And again he left the barrios of the poor, this time for an episcopal office. But, again, ultimately, he did this for the poor.
St. Paul said: “I can live with lots and I can live with little, but always it is for the same reason, to serve Christ.” Guillermo has also, in his life, his words, and his commitments, has recast those words to say: “I can live in the barrios and I can live in an ecclesial office, but always it is for the same reason, to serve the poor.”
- And so, Bishop Guillermo … for your selfless leadership in the church and in the Oblate Congregation,
- For providing a model of servant-leadership,
- For providing a model of how someone can serve the poor, no matter where circumstance takes them,
- For providing a model of what the word OBLATE means which we, here at Oblate School of Theology, can show to our students and can use to challenge ourselves,
- And, most of all, for your selfless serving of the poor for nearly 50 years,
Oblate School of Theology is proud to bestow on you the highest honor we can give, an Honorary Doctorate of Pastoral Leadership.