Jesuit Father John O’Malley, church historian, teacher, author, dies at 95

BALTIMORE — Jesuit Father John W. O’Malley, whose insights and expertise on church history and the Second Vatican Council appealed to an audience of undergraduates and educated theologians, has died in the Jesuit community in Baltimore on September 11. He was 95 years old.

A prolific author whose books have won numerous awards and been translated into several languages, O’Malley’s teaching style helped make history interesting and understandable and appealed to a wide range of clergy, theologians and undergraduate and graduate students as well as scholars of different faiths and even those who professed no faith.

A funeral mass is scheduled for September 17 at Holy Trinity Parish in Washington. Interment will follow at Georgetown Cemetery.

O’Malley’s extensive knowledge has led to countless invitations to speak about his expertise and insight into Church history at various symposia, conferences, and academic events. He continued to participate in programs until he was 90 years old.

O’Malley’s influence was felt by students throughout his long academic career.

Recalling O’Malley’s impact on his life, Jesuit Father James Martin, writing online for America magazine shortly after his death described the historian as someone who shared his friendship enthusiastically and eager to share his knowledge.

“He was loved by his Jesuit brothers, students and friends as a person: a holy and generous Jesuit priest. Always kind, helpful, generous, gentle, curious, modest (even for its humorous occasions of fake pride) and always interested in you,” wrote Martin, editor-in-chief of America magazine.

O’Malley was born on June 11, 1927, in Tiltonsville, Ohio, a village on the Ohio River near Wheeling, West Virginia. He entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 18, feeling called to the priesthood. However, his interest in the Jesuits did not arise from a desire to become a parish priest, but from the work of the order as educators and missionaries.

He was accepted into the Chicago Province of the order, entering the novitiate in 1946 after studying Latin for a semester at John Carroll University in Cleveland. His education continued at West Baden College in Indiana where he studied philosophy for three years.

His first teaching assignment was at St. Ignatius High School in Chicago, where he taught history. In 1956 he returned to West Baden to study theology and was ordained a priest on June 14, 1959.

Jesuit history was O’Malley’s calling throughout his training and education. He began to study the German Counter-Reformation and the role the Jesuits played in it. He began his tertianship – a period of Jesuit training after ordination – in Austria, learning German and focusing on German history.

During a tourist trip to Italy, his focus changed. After the visit, where he explored Italian culture and cuisine, he began doctoral studies in Italian history at Harvard University. He then returned to Italy for a two-year fellowship at the American Academy in Rome to work on his thesis.

While working on his doctorate, O’Malley took his final vows as a Jesuit in 1963 in Boston.

Upon graduation, he was assigned to teach history at the University of Detroit, now the University of Detroit-Mercy. He was then assigned to the school’s religious studies department, which he chaired from 1976 to 1979.

O’Malley left Detroit for the Weston School of Theology (later the Weston Jesuit School of Theology) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, serving at one time as acting dean and later as acting president. After 27 years, he joined the theology school at Georgetown University in Washington as a professor of church history. He remained in Georgetown until June 2020.

As an author, O’Malley has explored the history of the Jesuits as well as the role of the Catholic Church throughout history. Two of his most famous works are The first Jesuitspublished in 1993, and What happened at Vatican IIhis 2008 book which has been translated into 12 languages.

In 2013 he was named the winner of the John Gilmary Shea Best Book Award for his work: Trent: what happened at the Councilwhich was published in five languages.

The accomplished Jesuit has been a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other academic organizations.

He has also received lifetime achievement awards from the Society for Italian Historical Study, the Renaissance Society of America, and the American Catholic Historical Association. In 2016, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences awarded O’Malley its prestigious Centennial Medal.

After leaving Georgetown, O’Malley moved to the Jesuit community of St. Claude de la Colombière in Baltimore, where he died.

Lola R. McClure