Remembering Ray Gawronski.
Father Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J. died last week in California on the same day I arrived on the island of St. Thomas for my sister's wedding. Having moved to the Jesuit infirmary at Los Gatos barely a month ago after being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, Father Gawronski passed away at what is now considered the "young" age of 65, an age at which he was nonetheless able to look back on an interesting and varied life; as his obituary notes, Father Gawronski entered the Society of Jesus in his late twenties after "some years of various experiences," graduating from the College of the Holy Cross at the top of his class, working on Wall Street, farming in Virginia, driving a taxi in Hawaii, and earning a master's degree in world religions under the tutelage of comparative religionist Huston Smith. As a Jesuit, he studied at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and prepared for possible work in Russia but ended up doing a doctorate on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and moving on to a career of teaching and spiritual direction in the United States. The news that Ray had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had weeks to live came as a shock to the many people who knew and were influenced by him, and his death leaves a bit of unfinished business: a friend who will be ordained to the priesthood this June had expected Ray to preach at his first Mass, while someone else I know had wanted to make the Spiritual Exercises under Ray's direction this summer. I'm sure that many others are similarly bereft at the moment, and my prayers are with them as they mourn.
I can't claim to have really known Ray Gawronski, but he made a strong impression on me when we met in passing in California three summers ago. Ray's reputation preceded him even before we met; I already knew a number of people who had had him as a teacher or as a spiritual director, and I also knew that we had a common mentor in Father Tom King, whom Ray had gotten to know during his Jesuit formation. With this background, Ray Gawronski and I crossed paths at a Jesuit residence in Berkeley where we were both staying as guests; thinking that I lived there, Ray asked me where to find something in the kitchen, which unexpectedly led to a three-hour conversation on topics ranging from media perceptions of the papacy to modern Russian Orthodox theology to Polish culture. (Regarding the last topic, Ray urged me that I should learn Polish if I wanted to understand my roots and my place in the world; I regret that I've yet to realize that goal.) Ray was a force of nature, and though we never met or spoke again after that conversation in Berkeley, the impact of the encounter has lingered strongly in my memory ever since.
For an introduction to Father Ray Gawronski, his personality, his interests, and his characteristic emphases, one could do well to watch a lecture he gave in May 2014 at the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago on "St. John Paul II and the Polish Catholic Experience" - or, to give the alternate title which Ray suggests in the lecture itself, "St. John Paul II and the Polish Hermeneutic." In any case, the mention of St. John Paul II at the start of both titles may be somewhat misleading, as the lecture focuses much more on the distinctive elements of the Polish Catholic experience over the centuries than on the life of Karol Wojtyła. Ray's love for Poland and insight into its culture are amply displayed here, as are the breadth of his learning and his love for the Church. Listening to this lecture again, I pray that Ray Gawronski will continue to inspire others, particularly through those whom he mentored in the intellectual and spiritual life. AMDG.