Fortitude and Father James Gillis by Matthew Bellisario O.P 2011, 2020
|Saint Cecilia's Parish in Boston today where Fr. Gillis said his first Mass.|
“A bold warrior, he did not hesitate to unsheathe his sword for unpopular causes when convinced of their truth or righteousness. Scorning cant and the mere weight of popular opinion, he struck out manfully for what he believed was right.” John A. O’Brien
|Fr. James Gillis|
I hope you will be entertained as well as educated by this essay, which I think offers us a snapshot of the virtue of fortitude in action. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines fortitude as “… the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause.” We have few heroic Catholic figures in America who are well known to us American Catholics today. Bishop Fulton Sheen is certainly one of the few. We most often learn about Catholics from other countries, or about Saints of the past who lived in Europe. Yet, there is very little attention given to our own Catholic heritage here in our own country. So, it is my pleasure to bring you a bit of American Catholic history, much of which most of us younger folks may not be very familiar with. Catholicism in America has been through some tough times, and the man I am about to introduce you to went through a crucial and significant time as a Catholic priest in America. In fact, he was often thought of as the protector or guardian of America during the early and mid-20th century. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. After reading much of his work, as well as two biographies about him, I have grown a great admiration for him. I want to introduce you to Father James M. Gillis C.S.P.
Fortitude and Discovering Father James Gillis
Every so often you come across a book that was meant just for you. I frequently visited three Goodwill bookstores where I used to live. I have been blessed to find some great used Catholic books in them from time to time. One book I ran across in the religious section was curiously titled ‘This Our Day’, by Father James M. Gillis. I had never heard of the priest before, so I thumbed through the thick blue bound book skimming over the many articles that the work was comprised. The first article in the book was written in 1922 and the last in 1933. My interest was piqued. The contents of the book looked inviting covering a series of topics related to Catholicism, and the problems American Catholics faced in this era. For a few bucks, how could I pass up this opportunity to add another book to my library? After I got the book home, I did a bit of online research about Father Gillis. The Paulist Father, James M. Gillis (1876-1957) was to my surprise, almost as popular a public figure for Catholics in America as the great Rev. Fulton Sheen. He was known for his radio broadcasts on the Catholic Hour. I quickly perused the internet and ordered the second volume in the series as well as his two biographies and a few of his other published books. We have all experienced how one book leads to another, right? It is from these sources that I have composed this article, relying most heavily on Father James F. Finley’s biographical work, yet I have also used Father Richard Gribble’s biographical work to add more detail.
Fr. Gillis’ was most well-known by Americans for his many magazine articles and radio programs. From 1928 to 1955 he consistently wrote a weekly column for syndicated Catholic newspapers in America. He was appointed the editor for ‘The Catholic World’ Paulist magazine. His voice was well known across the American airwaves, and he, along with the well-known Fulton Sheen, for a time, hosted the radio program, ‘The Catholic Hour’. He was also well known for his great preaching ability and he spanned the US and many foreign countries giving countless, missions, lectures and talks. For example, when he preached at Saint Paul the Apostle in New York in 1923 it is reported that the church was packed wall to wall to when he began his series, ‘False Prophets.’ Wall to wall meant that 4000 plus showed up to hear what he had to say. They stood in the aisles to hear his fiery public oration. One attendee on a Tuesday evening said when he arrived at the Cathedral, “This time there wasn’t a chair to be had and I had to stand for the full piece the man Gillis delivered.” He addressed the illusions of figures such as Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and others. Due to the popularity of these public lectures, they would eventually be turned into a book of the same name. What I find appealing in reading Father Gillis’ writings is that he never minced words and many American Catholics at the time loved him for it. Sadly, his direct demeanor and willingness to stand up for the truth of Jesus Christ, no matter what the consequences were, are largely lost today among the Catholic clergy. I hope Father Gillis can be a model not only for clergy today, but all Catholics. Some may have disliked Father Gillis for his direct manner of writing and preaching, but one thing was certain, you always knew where he stood concerning what he wrote or spoke about. His yes was his, yes, and his no was his no. His conviction for the truth was very clear in the way he lived his life.
The Early Years
Father James Martin Gillis was born of Irish descent in Boston on November 12th of the year 1876. Gillis was one of four surviving children and his father was keen on bringing them up in the Catholic faith. Gillis also often referred to the piety of his mother whom he always had a great affection for. Gillis’ father often quizzed his children on the Catholic faith and he insisted that they never neglect their daily prayers. James Gillis was always known for his keen intellect, even as a young student at Boston Latin. Eventually, he advanced to a college education at St. Charles where he also excelled in leading his freshman class in overall grade average. He was known to have an excellent sense of humor, a great love for satire and yet, he was also known for his disgust for mediocrity as well as his serious posture for the love of truth. After one year at St. Charles, Gillis entered seminary in Brighton at St. John’s in September of 1896. While laboring at St. Johns, he reports in his personal diary that a certain priest named Father Walter Elliiott, a civil war veteran and now a Paulist caught his attention with a lecture. The lecture seems to have motivated him, Gillis wrote,
“We had a talk today by Father Elliott, the celebrated Paulist. It was fine! He spoke for about an hour on the general topic of the Paulist work... He explained how this immense country, most bountifully blessed in many ways by God, is peopled with millions who actually long for the truth and will listen to it... It seems to him, then, that all of these favorable circumstances have been so placed by God, and for a purpose, the great purpose of the conversion of a mighty nation. In such a case our duty, he says, is obvious. Priests must be thorough apostles; they must be deeply penetrated with the conviction that the work is laid out for them and they must pursue that work with energy and devoted zeal… It is to be feared that there are far too few priests such as he describes... The impression left on me by his address was wonderful, for some time after I could hardly speak, being filled with admiration for the man and for his work.”
What a motivating lecture that must have been for him. This priest Walter Elliott and his lecture would be recounted many times by Father Gillis to countless laypeople, religious, and priests over the course of his life, and in fact, he told the story when he was 80 years of age as if he just walked out of the auditorium where he had heard the lecture.
Young Jim Gillis closed out his first year at the seminary with one of the highest grade averages in his class. Over the next couple of years, he discerned his priestly vocation, making lengthy novenas, begging God to show him where his vocation was to be. He went back and forth debating whether he should join the Paulists or serve his own diocese. He eventually received a call from his own bishop to receive tonsure. Following the advice of his spiritual director, he received tonsure at the hands of his bishop. But, as he spent more time investigating the Paulists, as well as hearing them preach, the more interested he became in them. Inspired by what he had seen and heard; Gillis later visited the Paulists for a retreat to continue his discernment. The Paulist vocation director bluntly asked Gillis what objections he had to join the Paulists. After Gillis answered, the vocation director told him that his reasons were trivial and that he thought he was called to be a Paulist. After that moment his direction for the priesthood was sealed and he found himself in 1898 in Washington at the St. Thomas House beginning his training with the Paulists. In the seminary, he again encountered Father Walter Elliott during a seven-day retreat, comprising of four lengthy lectures a day! Gillis writes, “Thank God for this retreat. I think I shall never forget it. I hope I may look back to it as the beginning of a new epoch wherein I shall have devoted myself to pursue faithfully my ideal of the priestly, religious, missionary life.” Likewise, Gillis listened to the spiritual advice given by Elliott, “The fear of the Justice of God, the terror of hell, must never be banished from the spiritual life.” Gillis took this to heart, and his spiritual life was built upon this reflection. Gillis then entered Catholic University as a student. The university was at that time only eleven years old and struggling for survival. The Paulists were the first community to settle at Brookland, supporting the university by enrolling their students there for classes.
Catholic University and Controversy
While Gillis was at Catholic University a huge controversy surrounded the Paulists. I think it is important at this point to note the importance of “Americanism” a controversy that enthralled the Paulist community in 1899. Father Isaak Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, was quite outspoken about the compatibility of the American democracy with Catholicism. It was a heated debate in the Church at the time. Hecker had an idealistic view of converting America to Catholicism yet remaining within the democratic system as it was founded in the United States. This caused controversy for those who had understood the destruction the French Revolution had upon the Catholic French monarchy, as well as the recent loss of the Papal States in 1870. Debates ensued among the American bishops. The news quickly hit Rome, and Hecker was labeled as an “Americanist.” Hecker, however, has since been exonerated from any “Americanist” heresy, and it is well known that he was uncompromisingly Catholic. So much so, that his entire order was founded upon the principle of converting a Protestant nation to a Catholic one. This radical missionary environment was rich soil for the soon to be Father Gills.
Hecker’s resolve for orthodoxy and missionary work resulted in him instituting preaching requirements for the Paulist missions. Such requirements would be welcome today in many Catholic orders. Certain subjects had to be preached on including, salvation, mortal sin, death, and eternal damnation. It is also interesting to note that the issue concerning democracy vs monarchy is still a hot topic for debate among Catholics. I will not engage in that discussion here. Nonetheless, Gillis lived through this controversy, and it affected how he viewed America. To him it was mission territory in need of conversion, yet, he was all for the survival and prosperity of the nation as well. This, however, never excluded his demand for justice and right action in the nation. In fact, Gillis often criticized those in America and the world who denied God, in trade for a national self-interest. He was prophetic in predicting the economic crash in 1929 and constantly denounced prosperity over morality and God. Jingoism, (extreme patriotism), nor moral degradation was not an option in the mind of Gillis, whether it be in America or anywhere else.
|Church of St. Paul the Apostle where Gillis was Ordained|
Ordination and Study
In 1900 James Gillis received the first of the major orders, the sub-deaconship, and was officially admitted into the Paulists. One year later he was ordained to the priesthood at St. Paul’s Church in New York City. Miraculously his sick mother along with his father made it to the ordination ceremony where he gave his first blessing to them. In 1901 Father James M. Gillis, C.S.P. went back home for Christmas and celebrated his first Mass at St. Cecilia's parish. He then returned to Washington where his superiors informed him that he would be continuing his education to earn a theology degree as well as teach at the Paulist college. There he became well known for his great public speaking ability. One of his best friends attested to this fact, as well as many others throughout his life. Back at St. Charles, Father Gillis had met a man who he remained friends with his entire life. He would also go on to become a priest, his name was Father Joseph Gibbons C.S.P. Fr. Gibbons was ordained in 1902, and he invited Fr. Gillis to preach at his first Mass. Father Gibbons recalls, “Jim came out for the sermon and I sat amazed to watch him- erect, self-possessed, completely in control as he walked to the pulpit... I think everyone thought he was ordained for years the way he stood in the pulpit and surveyed the crowd... Never a word, never a gesture out of place. He was all preacher, even then in 1902, only seven months out of the seminary... almost perfect, I’d say.” This reputation was to follow him his entire life.
In 1904 he received his Licentiate of Sacred Theology at Catholic University and then was transferred to Chicago to assist at the parish of Old St. Mary’s. He would remain there until 1907. There he experienced the life of a priest in the harshest of cities. He recalled going to sick calls in the red-light district to give last rights to men and women dying of consumption. Those few years he labored to serve all who came to him in need of the Catholic faith. He spent hours teaching possible converts, debating those who looked for arguments against conversion. While in Chicago he also started going out on missions with an older Paulist priest who Gillis had previously known, Father Elias Younan, Syrian by nationality, a Jesuit turned Paulist. This would be his mission band test, which would last until 1906. Father Gillis’ gifts developed further on the mission band and his preaching matured. In 1906 he was given a full schedule on the mission circuit, which would be one of his favorite engagements.
Missionary Zeal and Preaching
It is said that Father Gillis put his heart and soul into his missionary work, and his sermons were zealous coming from the fire that was ignited years ago when he had first heard Father Elliott preach. Although things seemed to be going well, he was to learn, like we all do, that not everything comes in a nice pretty box with a red bow on top. Father Gillis began to experience disapproval from his superior and was even charged with being disobedient towards him. Gillis had no idea as to his superior’s notions until his superior exploded in a rage one day after Father Gillis, on his own authority, postponed a mission so that another Paulist priest could join him. Gillis also wrote that his superior was dismayed by his sermons. After being severely chastised he wrote, “I am weary... chagrined, disappointed- and pained beyond expression... I must pound away tho’...And may God give me some spiritual courage and patience and tolerance- in all of which I have been woefully lacking...” Gillis pressed on with the same zeal and fire that he was known for, taking the reprimand, and moving on. It must also be noted that most Catholics loved his candid and straight-talking nature, though he was to ruffle a few feathers during his lengthy service in the priesthood. During one of his first sermons in Chicago, it is noted that he offended some actors and actresses in the congregation after criticizing the immorality of modern-day programs, plays and the like. One of the actors even got up and left, offended by his stark plain preaching on morality. Perhaps incidents like this are what landed him in trouble at times. In reading his journal, he reflects on the style and means he used in delivering his sermons, and at times pondered toning down his delivery technique. Over the years he tried to refine his preaching style, but most Catholics always agreed that he always packed his preaching arsenal with a high-powered charge. That was just his nature, style and demeanor.
Difficulties did not end for Father Gillis, and soon his mother’s health took a turn for the worst and his father and family struggled to pay for their home. He felt obligated to help them financially, to which he had nothing to offer. Gillis under great duress considered leaving the Paulists to help his family. It seems that Father Gillis felt guilty that he was not able to help them in such dire times. Keeping himself in prayer, he was soon to be appointed by his superiors to the Master of Students in Washington D.C. Although Father Gillis stuck with his vocation, it is said that he always felt deep sorrow for not being able to help his family more than he did. Gillis at the time was not so excited about going to teach, but he obediently accepted his new duties and again excelled in them. Priests who went through his classes spoke of the excellent job he did in teaching them theology and history. Father Gillis took seriously Pope Pius X’s Syllabus of Errors, and it is said that modernism never entered the seminary classroom under Gillis’ watch. Gillis once wrote, “Compromise is always a mistake. Compromise works for a time. It is good politics. It is bad statesmanship, and it is bad- very bad religion.” In the meantime, while taking on the duties at Washington, he also tried as best as he could to continue mission trips in the area. Many times, however, his dedication to his teaching duties often forced him to decline offers to preach. In 1909 his mother passed away and he was again distraught by the fate of his family. Due to the overload of preaching missions that the Paulists had on the books, and Father Gillis taking upon himself more missions, this eventually led him to a health breakdown. Gillis ended up taking a six-week leave of absence. After recovering he resumed his teaching duties at Washington, and later he was sent to Lake Placid for summer rest. During that time, he asked to be relieved of his duties at Washington, and he was soon then assigned full time to the New York Mission Band, which instilled a fire in him.
Although excited to be back on the band, Gillis shares some of his mission experiences in his journal. It seems that he traveled to many isolated areas of the south where there were few Catholics. Many anti-Catholics tried to thwart his missions in the south. He was told to leave by a group of Protestants in the town of Bentonville, Arkansas, where he ended up preaching between two red hot stoves in an old wood courthouse with a few men next to him spitting tobacco on the stoves. Gillis in his witty character remarked, “The sizzling of tobacco juice was perhaps the best imitation of the hissing they may wanted to give me.” Not disheartened after being declined to speak at the opera house, he went to the local newspaper who surprisingly took to the underdog. By divine providence, he was then able to book the opera house and had a well-attended crowd. On Jan 31st, 1915, Gillis and his new counterpart Father Conway held a mission at Saint Paul’s in New York, where about 800 non-Catholics attended. It is attested that there were 90 instant converts to the true faith as a result of this mission. The two priests put together a mission tour which ended in January 1917 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. After this two-year mission band, Father Gillis took ill and was forced to take a leave of absence for the next two years, during which he traveled from coast to coast preaching in 10 states. Yes, you read that right. A sick priest on a leave of absence preached unrelentingly for two solid years across the country. This was his “leave of absence.” Father Gillis was always known to be about God’s work. There was little time in his 50 plus years as a priest that he remained inactive. He ended his mission work in 1920 where he was then forced to take leave to South America so that he could truly get some rest.
Retreat, Study and the Radio Waves
Father Gillis had a strong belief that a priest should always be in study. Always an avid reader, on the voyage to South America he read 34 books and used the time to meditate on the future of his priestly vocation. All the God-given talents and traits of Gillis came together and was cemented by all the experience he had gained up to this point. The next 26 years would be shaped further by this Caribbean voyage, and his voice was soon to be heard by the masses. Not long after his trip, Father Gillis would soon be a household name for American Catholics, and furthermore, he would be well known on the other side of the Atlantic as well. After his Caribbean retreat, everything would change for the great priest. As Father Gillis’ first biographer, Father James F. Finley C.S.P. wrote, “the world is in for a sound spanking.”
In September of 1922 Father James Gills was made the editor of the Paulist magazine, ‘The Catholic World,’ a position he would hold for 26 years. His articles would be read by millions of Catholics which covered numerous topics. Father Gillis became even more popular after September 24th, 1925 when the Paulist Fathers launched America’s 12th large high powered radio station, WLWL, with the voice of Patrick Cardinal Hayes. Father James Gillis followed on the air less than a month later. The radio show was broadcasted from the Paulist rectory. Satan, of course, wanted this radio show shut down, and in October of 1926, the radio band was taken from them and given to another company by the Department of Commerce. The Paulists would have to apply for another radio spot, which they then would have to share with another company, and in 1927 they resumed. The discrimination however continued, and the number on the dial changed sometimes two or three times a year, only to finally end up at 1100. Gillis, never one to mince words, delivered a scathing rebuke on the air,
“The Paulists have been fretted and harassed and tormented with delays and reversals of judgement apparently to wear down our patience until we should cry ”quits.” But through it all we have labored at vast expense and with considerable self sacrifice to provide an educational and cultural program for persons of intelligence and good taste, for those recoil with disgust from the bunkum, the hokum, the vulgarity, the asininity, the crudity, the imbecility of the usual commercial programs...” 
The battle continued to rage through the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Paulists eventually lost the ongoing battle, and in 1937 their station was bought out from under them and the Paulist broadcasting venture came to an end. Father Gillis gave a somber final broadcast for Paulist radio on June 16th, 1937.
During the time that the Paulist network was battling for its existence, The National Broadcasting Company had allowed Cardinal Hayes to set up the ‘Catholic Hour’ radio show, to which Father Gillis had also been a part of since 1930. In 1930 he gave a series of radio talks on the moral law which was very well received. By 1939 Gillis was as popular as Fulton Sheen was on the radio, and they even shared Sunday evening as a “one two punch.” Gillis was known for his November and December radio series, and many Catholics knew Christmas was around the corner when they heard his voice come over the airwaves in November. For many years Gillis enjoyed a fruitful mission on the radio waves. Times changed when the “Catholic Hour Controversy” ensued in 1940. It was a huge event for Gillis, and it seems that he never really got over it.
Father Gillis wrote a critical editorial in the ‘Catholic World ‘magazine concerning the third re-election of FDR. The title of the article was ‘The Third Term a Bugaboo?” Although Gillis had earlier in his career written positive things about FDR, this was not to be one of them. The article may have come and gone without much notice had it not been for someone reprinting the article and then mailing it out to “thousands and thousands of people.” As a result, ‘The Catholic Hour’ also received the handbills, and a huge controversy ensued over Gillis’ periodical. If you were an FDR fan you were enraged if you were against his re-election you were emboldened. Just to give you a further idea as to Father Gillis’ writing style, here is an excerpt from his piece on FDR, which caused the huge controversy.
“What interests and puzzles me is that the President should say and do a hundred things, which he is not called upon by his office to do, judging, condemning, challenging, threatening other nations, all but daring them to war, yet blandly declare before God and man, “I work and pray for peace.” It is a psychological riddle. I confess I don’t understand the man. A “dangerous,” “reckless,” “audacious,” “inconsistent,” “unpredictable” is no man to be three times President of the United States.”
After this type of statement, you either loved him or hated him. As his presidency carried on, Gillis remained more critical towards the president, and the growing centralized government he was perpetuating. He condemned over-reaching government and wrote, “Bureaucracy, if we permit it to live, will extend its tentacles, grasp all business large and small and strangle them, meanwhile darkening the waters (the governmental octopus, being a freak, is also a cuttlefish) so that no one can see what is going on.” If only Father Gillis could see the United States now!
Father Gillis continued to preach and write on many controversial topics, and he was sometimes asked in formal letters to rewrite some of the topics of his radio talks, which although he sometimes balked at, often complied with. It appears that Gillis kept his radio topics focused mostly on the Catholic religion and avoided any blatant political statements regarding party affiliation. However, like a good Catholic theologian, he knew very well that politics could never be separated from religion in the moral sense. On the air, in 1941 he called it a psychological blunder to even to try and do so. The radio show, however, equated his written articles, sometimes focused more heavily on political philosophy, particularity the one criticizing FDR and his policies, with his radio presence on their program. In 1942 after serving 12 years on the Catholic Hour, Father Gillis was not invited back on the show. Not knowing the reason, he wrote a letter asking what the status of his invitation was. He was offered no reason as to why he was not being invited back. Finally, in a further written exchange he was given the reason as to his dismissal, which was being too political. Father Gillis responded by defending his position, pointing out that he never violated the rules of the radio program. He also never sought to push any political party per se on air or in writing. He merely applied Catholic principles to the moral dilemmas that the country found itself in. If these included addressing things going on in the political realm, then so be it. Father Gillis was all for speaking the truth, no matter who it offended, presidents or bishops included. Even if you did not agree with his position, you had to admire his tenacity and conviction.
Gillis would be well known for his anti-war stance in general and thought that it should always be of last resort. Although he was at first opposed to America’s intervention in the Second World War, after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, he never once questioned America’s involvement. In fact, after the bombing he wrote, “We have tried hard to keep out. We have failed, not because any lack of sincerity, or of honest vigor of argument, but because of that wicked and stupid action of the Japs in the Pacific. Now that we are in, we must fight with honor and chivalry.” Gillis was now sidelined from the ‘Catholic Hour’ for no good reason other than giving his strong opinions in the realm of political and moral philosophy. The radio station’s reasons for dismissal appear to be quite unfounded and this obviously angered Gillis. He readily prepared a sharp response, containing the written correspondence between the radio station and himself, along with a complete defense of his position. Gillis was not one to shy away from a debate, and he was not going down without a fight, or so he thought. The Paulist order got wind of his forthcoming response and asked him to refrain. Like a well-grounded Catholic priest, he obeyed and sought advice from his spiritual director, who also told him not to print his response. He then sought the advice of his good friend Monsignor Gibbons, who read the article and told him that he was completely justified and correct about what he had written. After saying that, he then told Father Gillis, “You shouldn’t print it.” Gillis responded, “That is what my spiritual director told me.” So, Father Gillis humbly took it on the chin, never printed his defense, and never again spoke on ‘The Catholic Hour.” Father Gillis did continue for a while on two other radio stations for a few years after, but never to the popularity that he had on the ‘Catholic Hour.’
Missionary, Writer, and Teacher
Father Gillis was not nearly done with his mission as a priest, and he continued until 1948 as the editor of ‘The Catholic World’ magazine, dealing with the most controversial topics of his day, as well as maintaining an active preaching schedule. Being the editor of ‘The Catholic World’ really meant that he was the primary author of the editorial as well. He was not afraid to engage in debate and give his opinion based on the moral truths as instilled by his Catholic faith. His articles covered everything from agnosticism, atheism, prohibition, prize fighting, corruption in baseball, literature, contraception, communism, the degradation of the family, the over-centralization of the federal government, etc. He was outspoken against the use of contraception and often referred to it as “racial suicide.” One of his subjects of focus was also on international relations, and between the years of 1925 and 1948, he published 73 articles dealing with relations between America, Russia, Italy, and Germany. Among these articles, he addressed figures such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and FDR. What I find so interesting in reading his articles is that you can get an idea of how Catholics looked upon these times and events, which we are ignorant of today. Gillis wrote of Mussolini in 1926, much to the chagrin of Catholics who supported him,
“The dictator is acting like a madman... His bulldozing and fire eating, his particularly ill-times militarism, his foolish and frantic speeches... make Kaiser Wilhelm, even in his most Gott-und-ich days, seem like a pacifist... If the bulldozing dictator is not quite crazy, he will come out of his frenzy. But if he continues to plunge along, like a ma buffalo, with wild mouthings and threats of violence, he will ruin Italy and perhaps bring on another horrible European war... I hate to assume the role of a prophet, and most of all, a prophet of woe. But, barring the entrance of some entirely unforeseen element into the Italian situation, Mussolini’s regime will end in something akin to disaster.”
Father Gillis’ words rang true as we now know what fate awaited Italy and Mussolini only a short time later. Likewise, Gillis lambasted Stalin and Hitler along with Mussolini.
“Follow me,” says Stalin. “Not him but me,” says Mussolini. “Neither of them but me,” says Hitler. Medicine men! All of them. Mountebanks! As a cure for the ills that afflict the world we might as well carry a horse-chestnut in the pocket, kiss a rabbit’s foot or rub a hunchback’s spine. What we really need is a John the Baptist to run up and down through the nations crying out, “The ax is laid to the root of the tree. Repent or parish...”
|Gillis Predicted Mussolini's Downfall|
When Hitler first came on the seen Gillis compared him to Julian the Apostate. What a treasure it is to read a priest with such conviction! Can you imagine what would have happened to a priest in our age going on radio or television and saying, “Obama, what a medicine man! A man who promotes the slaughter of innocent children is not fit to be a President.” They would be removed by most superiors in an instant. It must be noted that through all the turmoil and controversy that surrounded Father Gillis, the Paulists never disowned him, silenced him or shut him down. Even when the order was threatened to be expelled from Rome by Mussolini, because of the harsh criticism Gillis unleashed upon him, they did not silence him. They let him preach the truth in season and out of season. This is something we rarely see today. If a priest was to make a stir today as Gillis did back then, you would most likely never see or hear from him again.
Another impressive feat of Father Gillis was his unique ability to generate new material for his articles and talks. Rarely one to repeat any of his lectures, he was always compiling new information for new articles or talks. His research was impeccable, and he was always prepared to repel hecklers who may engage him in a debate. Father Finley tells of his impressive file drawer, which contained many of his preaching topics, kept together almost like a diary of sorts. The Paulists were required to keep a preaching log. This was one of the requirements that Father Hecker put in place for his order. Father Finley said there was folder after folder containing typed or handwritten notations of all his talks, lectures, articles and sermons. Finley writes, “The volume of work that this suggests is incalculable. Even allowing for the repetition of a speech or editorial on a couple of occasions, the number of single and different compositions is hardly believable.” Father Gillis had articles syndicated across the entire US. In fact, the columns he wrote in “Sursum Corda” counted 1368 articles treating all different topics of discussion. He did this over the course of 27 years for this publication! This is just for one of his columns, not including those written for his own magazine, ‘The Catholic World.’
It would be a mistake however to view Father Gillis as only speaking and writing on the hot button issues of the day. Much of his work, of course, was tied to his missionary zeal to preach the Catholic faith. His efforts were focused on converting Protestants, whom he felt were so far off in dogma that they even denied Christ’s divinity. At one of his missions he preached, “I have said before- I repeat it now, and I stand prepared to prove my statement, that here in America Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Baptist, if not Lutheran clergymen, in spite of the gospel, in spite of the creeds of their churches, in defiance of all the disastrous consequences of this belief, have rejected the cornerstone of Christian doctrine, the Divinity of Jesus Christ our Savior.” Gillis also frequently publicly refuted Protestants of the day, and often referred to popular Protestant preachers like Billy Sunday as “misguided mountebanks.” Many Protestants however respected Gillis’ tenacity and open criticism, and as a result, he gained converts. Later in his life, he wrote four books on the spiritual life, two of them being ‘So Near is God’ and ‘This Mysterious Human Nature.’ Throughout his priesthood, he always recommended solid reading material to Catholics and Protestants alike for the salvation of their souls.
|Father Gillis Greatly Admired Cardinal Henry Edward Manning|
Perseverance in Prayer and Holiness
No summary of Father Gillis would be complete without recognizing his attention to prayer, and his life dedicated to holiness. From the very beginning of his priesthood, he had written about the importance of the holiness of life for a priest. He stuck to this conviction. Many of his peers called him a priest’s priest. He was dedicated to perfection and frequently mulled over his perceived faults, and then asked God for aid to overcome them. His mentor Father Elliott once said, “Gillis is a star, he’s as bright as he can be, and he is so pious he shames me.” Gillis’ identity of the priesthood was closely aligned with the great Henry Cardinal Manning of England. It is said that he often quoted from Manning’s book, ‘The Eternal Priesthood.’ His attention given to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was second to none, and his sister attested to the fact that he celebrated his Masses throughout his life as if each was his first and his last. His reverence for the Mass was well known among his fellow priests as well.
It is also a fact that Father Gillis suffered from various illnesses throughout his life and suffered from them quite often. Few knew that he had a spinal deformity which forced him to wear a support strap much of the time. In the later years of his life, he suffered from acute arthritis and in 1955 he finally gave up writing his syndicated articles all together when he resigned from his column in ‘Sursum Corda.’ He spent the last years of his life assisting seminarians and young priests in the Paulist house, frequently helping them in the formation of their priesthood. He also continued to preach publicly throughout the 50s. In 1951, on the celebration of the fiftieth year of his priesthood, he was given an honorary degree of Sacred Theology from the Angelicum in Rome. The Very Reverend Emanuale Suarez, Master General of the Dominicans gave him the award in the presence of Francis Cardinal Spellman at St. Paul’s in New York.
Fulton Sheen praised Father Gillis as being a hard man to follow in the pulpit. In Gillis’ final years his acute arthritis hospitalized him, and a stroke left him walking on a cane. In 1955 Archbishop Richard Cushing of Boston announced that an information center would be constructed in honor of Father Gillis on Park St. in Boston, which was just blocks from where he grew up. He said, “I know of no better way of perpetuating the unique contributions that Father Gillis has made to the Church of this country than to call the proposed new Center, ‘The Father Gillis Catholic Center’.” Despite his physical setbacks, Father Gillis completed four books of spiritual depth in his final years before he left this world. In 1957 after suffering a severe heart attack, it seemed that once again he may recover and continue possibly publishing yet another book, but this was not to be. On March 14th, 1957 Father James M. Gillis C.S.P would pass into the presence of the Lord after 56 years as a hard-working dedicated priest.
|Fulton Sheen said that Gillis was a hard act to follow!|
An Example of Fortitude
It has been a pleasure for me in reading the biographies, articles, and work of Father Gillis. His writing style is an absolute pleasure to read, and I highly recommend getting your hands on them. Most of his books are available used online. There is one biography that is currently in print, ‘Guardian of America’ which I found to be a bit more critical, yet more detailed and gives more background than the first written by Father Finley. His two-volume set titled, ‘This Our Day’ is easy to find online at used book stores, which is a compilation of articles he had written between 1922 and 1949. Whether or not you agree with all his opinions, there is much you can learn about the history of the American Catholic Church from the 1920s through the early 1950s from his work. More importantly, it is a breath of fresh air to see a priest with such conviction and tenacity as to speak the truth, despite whether it was going to “offend” someone. Father Gillis despite the many setbacks and roadblocks he encountered through life they did not discourage him from carrying out his duties as a priest. He served God in a courageous manner which is worthy of imitation. A passage of Sacred Scripture comes to mind when I think of Father Gillis, "Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong." (1 Corinthians 16:13) The foes which Father Gillis fought and warned against in his time are still the ones we face in our day and age. Like him we cannot give up the fight nor can we sacrifice our faith in order to please the world. I will leave you with these words of Father Gillis once said on his radio show. I say damn the torpedoes, give us another Father Gillis! For the state that we find our Church, culture, and nation today is in dire need of one.
“The battle ground is the campus, the classroom, the psychological laboratory, the newspapers, books, magazines, the stage, the screen, the law courts, the divorce courts, the legislatures, State and Federal. It is computed that we are fighting on 69 fronts. We must fight on 6900 fronts anywhere, everywhere that the subversive forces of materialism, immoralism and irreligion are to be found.” (Fr. James Gillis)
 Catechism of the Catholic Church 1808
 Richard Gribble, C.S.C, Guardian of America (Paulist Press 1998)
 James F. Finley C.S.P., James Gillis Paulist P7 (Hanover House 1958)
 Ibid 41
 Ibid 54
 Ibid 68
 Ibid 82
 Ibid 104
 Ibid 116
 Ibid 122
 James Gillis, Catholic World 152, 1940
 James F. Finley C.S.P., James Gillis Paulist P155 (Hanover House 1958)
 Ibid 158
 Richard Gribble, C.S.C, Guardian of America P238 (Paulist Press 1998)
 James M. Gillis, This Our Day, (The Paulist Press, Vol 1, 1933, Vol 2, 1949)
 Richard Gribble, C.S.C, Guardian of America P190 (Paulist Press 1998)