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Frank Gavin, Priest and Doctor

from The New American Church Monthly, volume 43, 1938, pp 201-205.

Frank Gavin, Priest and Doctor

IN presenting two sets of reminiscences of Frank Gavin the editors of the AMERICAN CHURCH MONTHLY wish to express their sense of the great loss which the whole American Church has suffered, and indeed the whole Church of Christ, by his death. With this sense of loss, however, is joined the realization that the influence which Fr. Gavin had on the many with whom he came in contact will long continue as an important factor in our church life. The prayers and Masses which have been offered for the repose of his soul have been offered by many friends in gratitude as well as in supplication.

I. Nashotah

Father Gavin came to Nashotah in 1920, I think, sent by the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and bringing with him several members of the Society; the plan was to conduct the preparatory department of Nashotah House under the governance of St. Thomas Aquinas' House of S.S.J.E. The name of the department was changed to "Department of Philosophy," and that not in vain: the course given was immediately raised to unprecedented levels. Elaborations of chronological reckoning took the place of the staid old history dates, and instead of the old-time class papers there were essays in Latin, on philosophical subjects. We thought it was impossible,—we who had had some experience with the preparatory department; but the men rose to it with a will and a thrill, and outdid themselves. Fr. Gavin joyously went on expecting them to do wonders, and they joyously did them. His generous wishing of all good qualities "onto" all that he dealt with, his efficacious optimism, quite transfigured the "preps" of that year.

Of course we all were dazzled by a man who knew everything, who was absolutely sure-fire at making everything he discussed radiantly interesting, and who preferred boyish slang as a medium of communication, especially for the most ancient and dignified thoughts. The barbarisms were outward symbols of the humanism: he was so thoroughly interested in people that he simply had to reach their minds, and the shock and the laugh made the connection promptly. He couldn't play the ordinary games with them much,—I think they got him on a sled once,—but that was about all. He could play gorgeously with the funny ideas that our life presents.

And he could play music. Life at St. Thomas Aquinas' House was very hard, in the old Turkey Roost, a little old rambling rural frame cottage, and the Fathers were very busy with their teaching; but on greater saints' days they would come to my room for an orgy of chamber-music, Fr. Gavin at the piano brilliantly carrying the rest of us on to surprises in beauty. That has kept on at intervals ever since, though with less of surprise and more of glad recognition.

Those first Nashotah days saw great strides forward in mutual understanding with the Eastern Orthodox; for we received at the Seminary several candidates for the Priesthood in the Greek Church. And then we began to hear that our pronunciation of N. T. Greek was merely "Erasmian" and had to be changed. For a little while the modern Greek was the official Nashotah pronunciation, and some of us have never gotten over it. And then came the Hale Lectures on Greek Orthodox Theology. During the first year, the Turkey Roost burned down, and the continuance of St. Thomas Aquinas' House became impracticable. This ended the Department of Philosophy, and ended also the spring-time of Fr. Gavin's teaching ministry. It had been a bleak, raw spring.

After a year or so, we were able to get Dr. Gavin back to Nashotah as Professor of New Testament (and a few other subjects). But again it was not long before he left us, and we began hearing of him from all over the Church.

People were always going to him for counsel and help, even in those early days. He got a great many perplexed people on their feet and on their way rejoicing. He made the most of our potentialities. He always overrated us, and it makes us ashamed to think how often he has recommended us for something, and we couldn't possibly have lived up to the recommendation. But that he could have seen so much good in us,—well, perhaps we are actually a little better on that account.

II. "General"

"It was Father Gavin who first showed me a Catholicism which was more than sectarian." These words, used in conversation the other day by one of our Seminary contemporaries, seem to sum up the impression made on many of us who studied under Fr. Gavin at the General Seminary in the later 1920's. Some of us came from the rather narrow Anglo-Catholicism of our parishes; others were reacting from Protestantism into a religion which we realized to be God's full message of grace for human life, but which was still to us a new and rather strange territory. And to find among our teachers one who was not only a brilliant scholar, but a man so naturally at home in Catholicism that he moved forward eagerly to approach the whole of life in a Catholic spirit gave us a glimpse of the true "wholeness" of the faith. It was said by somebody at the time that never in his lectures, sermons, or addresses did Dr. Gavin commit the sin of being uninteresting. It wasn't that he "jazzed up" Church History for us; it was that his own vitality made it easy for him to reveal the vital nature of a subject which deals with the most important activities that men have ever engaged in. It would be foolish for anyone else to imitate the famous Gavin slang. Anybody else would have been unnatural if he referred to those impressive figures in the Great Schism, Nicholas Stethatus and Michael Caerularius, as "chesty Nick" and "purple Mike." But after all they were real people. And that is what the names mean, isn't it? We will never forget the days when the personages who moved before us in the history classroom seemed, if anything, more alive than the people going down the walk outside,—even when a loud "pop" sometimes informed us that the Gavin or the Hodgson children were in action. Those of us who took part in the Church and State seminar are glad to see that some of Dr. Gavin's last work on that important subject is being published as one more of his important contributions to scholarship. The current importance of that topic is obvious to anybody now. But back in 1929 and '30 there was some degree of prophecy in the insistence that this subject would shortly be a leading contemporary issue. In those remote pre-Hitler days it still seemed to most of us merely an interesting topic in mediaeval history.

How easy it was to imbibe some of our teacher's enthusiasms! But, on second thought, is there any subject Fr. Gavin touched which wasn't one of his enthusiasms? Perhaps the common principle behind it all was the natural outreach of Catholicism into many different areas of life. The lessons of Christian devotion which we can learn from the Eastern Church were first brought to the attention of many by Fr. Gavin's continued keen interest in the affairs of Eastern Christendom,—a matter so familiar to the whole Church as scarcely to need to be referred to. We heard reminiscences of that stay at Athens which contributed so largely to the important book on Greek Orthodox thought. We were later to hear of visits to Rumania, and lectures delivered suddenly in that language; and, of course, a constant friendship with the Russian Church, in particular the group connected with the Paris Seminary. It was inevitable that Fr. Gavin was impressed into the service of the Oecumenical Movement (so-called) from the days of the Bishop of Gloucester's commission on Grace down to the Oxford and Edinburgh conferences last summer. Some tendencies in that movement are largely concerned to urge a pan-Protestant union in the face of present crisis; which leads others to react and feel that Catholics must get out of it. But a much sounder policy was that of Fr. Gavin and others who believed that the place of Catholics is definitely in such a movement without surrender of principles. We have no objection to Protestants drawing more closely together; in fact, we welcome such developments. But in conferences which are at least trying to look at the whole of Christendom, Catholics of various kinds (Orthodox and Old Catholics are involved as well as our breed) ought not to let their position be forgotten simply because they aren't there. In Christian humility we ought to admit that all of the divisions of Christians have something to learn from each other.

We learned from Fr. Gavin that since Catholicism is a social religion, it must have something to say with reference to the social problems which occupy so large a part of men's attention today. The Catholic must not be content to renounce interest in political or social questions, nor can he merely accept traditional or conventional views. I deliberately mention here neither persons nor parties, since undoubtedly there were differences on such points among those who were proud to be numbered among Fr. Gavin's friends and glad to think of themselves as his disciples. And central in our minds Fr. Gavin left the thought of the Church as societas perfecta, the divine society with its own life, which cannot support any social program unconditionally without ceasing to be itself. But if Catholicism goes to the roots of human nature and faces the facts (even the "morbid details" as Fr. Gavin sometimes called statistics), then the Catholic's approach to any problem must be, in the true sense, radical,—certainly it cannot be merely conservative.

It was refreshing for us whose circles of associates are often so narrow to know one whose friendships extended far beyond those with whom we are in ecclesiastical communion. One came to expect that if on meeting a stranger,—any stranger,—one said, "I'm from the General Seminary," the response would be, "Oh, yes; I know Dr. Gavin." His name served as an introduction in German monasteries as well as in English episcopal palaces and at Moravian settlements. And it was valuable to know one whose Jewish contacts and studies had given him not only a considerable acquaintance among Jews, but a genuine appreciation of the nobility of the Jewish tradition. It's impossible to write about Fr. Gavin very long without finding one's mind jumping from the most serious subjects to ridiculous illustrations. I can't think of anybody else who would have brought together, as illustrations of the power of religious movements to break even the laws of grammar, the use of noun for adjective in the phrase "Reform Judaism" and the use of abstract for concrete in the phrase "I am the Immaculate Conception."

Fr. Gavin's musical ability, which enabled him for a while to be acting organist of the Seminary, was displayed in a lighter, though no less brilliant manner in the musical evenings which several of the non-musicians among us were glad to be allowed into occasionally at No. 2 Chelsea Square. Professor Stewart and Fr. Otis, S.S.J.E., were among those who joined on various occasions in these "sonata parties" as they were sometimes called. Perhaps another lighter memory might be admitted, of one Shrove Tuesday party when there was indecision as to whether the refreshments should be pancakes, as traditional for that occasion, or beer and pretzels, as being proper for any occasion. The compromise arrived at was that we had beer in the middle of the evening and then, after another sonata or two, pancakes and coffee.

Perhaps the memory which sticks out more and more in our minds is that Fr. Gavin, whether one was in contact with him as teacher or friend or in whatever capacity, was always conscious of his pastoral vocation. We all remember how not only the personal problems of students, but most of the problems of our Church and a good many of other churches seemed inevitably to flow into his study. Important as the work of professor and of representative of the Church in foreign relations was, one felt that Fr. Gavin was always a little envious of those of us who were engaged in the immediate cure of souls, for the sake of which the whole edifice of Christian scholarship and machinery of ecclesiastical organization exists. Perhaps his effort to meet as many as he possibly could of the demands that were made for his personal attention was a factor in the excessive strain to which he was subjected; yet if he hadn't done as much as possible he wouldn't have been himself. As pastor of many of us, and confessor of not a few, he influenced our lives in a way for which we will forever be grateful.

The scholar, the friend, the diplomat, the pastor,—all these were in Fr. Gavin's life made part of the central vocation of the Christian priest. We knew without being told that the strength which we saw manifested in so many ways came from a life of prayer, from the Sacraments, above all from the Mass. No lesson which we learned from Fr. Gavin was more valuable than that: the priest must be naturally at home at the altar if he is to endure through the heavy burdens which await him in the world. To see Fr. Gavin go to the altar of God, combining the simple faith of a child with the breadth of interest which a man brings to his devotions, was to realize what it means to grasp the reality of divine things.

We are all distressed, of course, that so valuable a life should pass from among us so soon. But it came as somewhat of a shock to realize that so youthful a spirit was, in mere count of years, so old. For youth and vitality are the impression that Frank Gavin always left with us. And if we attain to heaven we expect to see him exchanging jokes with the younger angels, and gazing on the face of him whom on earth he served.

Rest eternal grant unto him, O Lord: and may light perpetual shine upon him.

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