By Paul F. Ford
(for the “My Favorite Priest” section of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February, 1987, 47–49)
James Donald O’Reilly was born on November 11, 1916, two years before the end of the First World War. His mother died in the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Her death began the life-long process of carving out in his heart the priestly sensitivity which produced his definition of a priest:
is one to whom his people come
at those junctions of life
when they come face to face with the unsolvable,
when they meet with the limits of creaturely power,
when they experience darkness
or have intimations of mortality.
At such moments
people have need to draw near to one who,
while able like other men
to swim in the waters of life
and stay afloat in them,
is not averse to drowning graciously in them,
able be overcome.
People need one who has entered deeply into
the paschal mystery of Jesus
rejoicing in life but at ease with death.
This priest, physicist, philosopher, theologian, friend, confessor, and guide was born in Galway City, Ireland, the second child and son of Alice Murrow and Charles O’Reilly, a civil servant. When Alice died, her little sister Constance came to help out with the raising of the three motherless boys. Eight years later, Charles married Henrietta, another of Alice’s sisters, and with her had two daughters and another son. So Jim O’Reilly was raised by two aunts, one of whom was his step-mother, another circumstance which shaped his heart.
He attended grammar school in Ballymote, County Sligo and carried memories of walking to school by having to cross through barbed-wire barricades protecting the court house during the civil war. For high school he boarded at St. Nathy’s, Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, taking an all-honors intermediate certificate in mathematics. Because his school received extra funds when students did so well, he was held back another year, taking a second all-honors certificate in English. He matriculated to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 1935, and received a Bachelor of Science in 1938, and a Bachelor of Theology in 1940.
The shadow of death again crossed his path in the late 30’s with the illness and death from tuberculosis of his brother Harry. Diagnosed with the disease himself in 1940, Jim recovered slowly at home. It was during those years that he contacted the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and made the complex arrangements to cross the Atlantic during the war. His convoy, embarked in Glasgow, was twice attacked by U-boats before he landed safely in New York. A transcontinental train trip brought him to Los Angeles, where he completed his studies for the priesthood and was ordained by Archbishop Cantwell on May 28, 1944. The archbishop immediately sent him to the California Institute of Technology where, five years later, he graduated, second in his class, with a doctorate in solar physics.
Mount St. Mary’s College was the first to benefit from his wisdom when he was appointed, first chaplain and instructor in philosophy and theology (1949), and then (1953) professor of physics and mathematics. Two years later he was stricken with colitis; he had his first coronary in 1967.
I met him in the fall of 1967 when I was enrolled in his class on the Copernican Revolution. The next year he was appointed spiritual director of St. John’s Seminary. Though he became Monsignor in January of 1969, he was “Father O’Reilly” to most of his friends, and “Cosmic Jim” to his seminary students, among whom the memory still lives of his demonstrating the various epicycles and deferents of the Ptolemaic model of the universe by waving his arms and one leg in circles while pivoting on the other leg! And few were left untouched by his classes in dogmatics and ascetical or by his weekly conferences. His last Mass was celebrated and last sermon preached on April 9, 1978; it was the Third Sunday of Easter and the gospel retold the Emmaus Road story. The next morning seminarians found him lying beside the road, hands crossed over his heart; he died on his morning stroll.
His few publications bore the imprimatur of Cardinal Timothy Manning, who in his funeral oration called O’Reilly the “treasure of this archdiocese,...the living embodiment of the Word of the Lord, to which we answer, ‘Thanks be to God.’”
Of these publications, three stand out. The first is Lay and Religious States of Life: Their Distinction and Complementarity perhaps better entitled “The Goodness of Achieving and the Goodness of Letting Go” written at the height of the Immaculate Heart Sisters controversy. O’Reilly went to the heart of the matter by discussing how lay and religious life “are not distinguished by the exercise of different degrees of Christian love for the world and society, but by the expression of different modes of Christian truth about their salvation.” (This very statement is a good example about the utter care with which he wrote and spoke.) And what are the different modes of Christian truth about how the world (persons, society, and cosmos) gets saved? We save the world by carrying it forward (achieving) and by letting it go into the hands of God who saves. This double truth results in the two styles of Christian love: lay and religious.
The second, The Moral Problem of Contraception, has been praised by Germain Grisez, William May, James Schall, S.J., and Owen Bennett, O.F.M. Conv.
The third, Renewal and Reconciliation: Reflections for a Holy Year, was a series of short essays written in the Holy Year 1975 for The Tidings, our archdiocesan paper, essays designed to help lay people see the connections between their temporal activities in the world of business and marriage and government and their transtemporal activities in the Church, especially in word and sacrament and community.
Msgr. O’Reilly left behind the texts of every sermon or speech he gave from 1944–1978 and it is my happy task to edit a complete lectionary cycle of them for publication. Each is a model of brevity, humor, and insight.
Printed in the program of the Mount St. Mary’s Mass celebrating his passage to Life were comments he wrote for the sisters when he left the college for the seminary:
Like good wine, life improves with the years, if you don’t pop your cork! Parents matter more than anyone else. I received a very wide and interesting education, half of it from priests and sisters, half of it from lay teachers and almost all of it at the expense of the Church; that is to say, the working people in the pews on Sunday mornings, the priests who took care of them and bishops who steer the ship.
I learned more at the Mount than ever I taught which leaves me sadly in debt. But with such darling creditors, why should I care!
Doctors and nurses? Wouldn’t be without them.
Undertakers? Great guys, but they let you down in the end.
God? Very much alive.