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Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, Serving on the Margins with JRS/USA

March 18, 2016 — Father Leo O'Donovan, SJ, theologian, art critic and president emeritus of Georgetown University, counts former President Bill Clinton and the Biden family among his many friends. And at age 81, the New York City native is taking on a new job: director of mission for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA (JRS/USA).

This year, JRS is embarking on a fundraising and awareness campaign called the Global Education Initiative, which aims to double the number of people educated by the organization over the next five years. Who better to call on than the man who tripled Georgetown’s endowment during his 12-year tenure as president?

With an office at JRS/USA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Fr. O’Donovan is responsible for spreading JRS’ message nationally and globally and assisting with fundraising and strategic planning. JRS works to meet the educational, health, social and other needs of refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the U.S. and more than 45 countries around the world.


“That’s a very bold effort, and I had to admire it greatly and think that if I could be helpful I’d like to do that,” says Fr. O’Donovan of the initiative. “I’ve known the work of JRS for a good many years, and the crisis of refugees in the world, as everyone knows, is at its most acute in over a generation. So whether I can be helpful or not is one question, but that I wanted to help was pretty immediate.”

Though JRS has made education a cornerstone of its work since its founding, the initiative is “a renewed emphasis on education as something liberating for refugees, something that will empower them to lead fuller lives — not only when they do find a new home, but in their current life,” Fr. O’Donovan says.

The project has a special connection with the Year of Mercy, which Pope Francis opened on Dec. 8, 2015. JRS has named the fundraising and advocacy campaign to kick off the Global Education Initiative “Mercy in Motion.” 

In addition to his professional and academic pursuits, Fr. O’Donovan maintains an appreciation for art and art criticism and is a frequent contributor to America magazine. During his childhood in Manhattan, his parents instilled in him a love for the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I think I was a sophomore in high school when I discovered the Museum of Modern Art,” he says. “I then came to Georgetown and discovered the Phillips Collection. I loved the Phillips. My benchmark for whether I would date a girl again was I would take her to the Phillips, and if she liked it I would ask her out again; if she didn’t, I wouldn’t.”

Eventually, however, he became a priest, a path he cheekily calls “a boring story.” Though he began his undergraduate career at Georgetown hoping to become a psychiatrist, by junior year he changed his mind, so he told the head of the pre-med program that he was dropping out of pre-med.

“He said to me, ‘Leo, you’ll either come back to pre-med or you’ll be a priest,’” Fr. O’Donovan says. “And I thought, what’s the matter with him? … Looking back, I see a certain congruence in my interests.” He next went to France on a Fulbright scholarship, “and despite the many, many other courses in life that appear to one in France, I, little by little, came to think that I wanted to be a minister in my Church,” he says, “which wasn’t a very Catholic way of putting it for a young Catholic. But those are the words that came to me, and it was obviously the decision of my life, and one that I’m happier with every year more.”

As he nears his 82nd birthday next month, he hopes to remain working as long as possible. “I would love to stay as healthy as I am — not for the sake of being healthy, but in order to help refugees. I say every morning when I pray, ‘The day is the Lord’s.’ And now I’ve begun to say, ‘The day is the Lord’s  and the refugees’.’” [Source: Jesuit Refugee Service/USA]





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