Thursday, August 08, 2013

Remembering George Vass.

I recently received word of the death of Father George Vass, a Hungarian Jesuit whom I lived with in Innsbruck three summers ago. A long-time professor of dogmatic theology at Heythrop College and at the University of Innsbruck, Father Vass died on July 28th at the age of 85. To learn more about his life, you may consult this obituary from the Austrian Jesuits (auf Deutsch), also available in English translation on the Heythrop College website. Father Vass was a man of many names: in his native tongue he was known as ‘György’; in the Jesuit catalogue and on the door to his room he was identified as ‘Georg’; in his books and articles and in conversation he was known, by his own preference, as ‘George.’ As a child in Hungary, George had learned both English and German, and, as he would freely admit, of the two he preferred English even though he spoke both languages (plus a few others) with equal fluency.

Though George had lived in Innsbruck far longer than he had lived anywhere else, the years that he had spent in England as a student and as a professor at Heythrop made him an inveterate anglophile. At various points of the day George could be found in the refectory drinking tea that he had made in his own English teapot; George’s fondness for tea made him somewhat special, as most of the men in the house preferred coffee. He often had a book with him, usually a work of contemporary English fiction or poetry. When I or one of the other Jesuit language students in the house came along, George would inevitably strike up conversation in English – much to the consternation of the rector, who preferred that we speak only the German language which we’d come there to learn. Naturally, George Vass was not trying to prevent us from learning German; he simply enjoyed speaking English when the opportunity presented itself, and I believe he also wanted to give the struggling Sprachschüler a break from the task of learning a difficult new language.

I spoke with George Vass for the final time during breakfast on the morning of my departure from Innsbruck. Knowing that I had recently gone to the Salzburger Festspiele, George was eager to hear about the performances that I had attended. (We had spoken about music a number of times before; George was an enthusiastic concert- and operagoer.) As I prepared to go, George gave me a firm handshake, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m glad to have met you.” The implicit sense of those words was that we would not meet again, as indeed we did not, at least not on this side of the Eschaton. Glad to have met George Vass, I pray for his peaceful repose and for the consolation of all who mourn him. AMDG.


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