Fr. O'Malley wears glasses, a priest's collar and black clothes while giving a speech in front of a Georgetown University sign
Category: University News

Title: Georgetown Mourns Beloved Jesuit Professor, Renowned Historian John O’Malley, S.J.

Vice President for Mission & Ministry Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J. (left), O’Malley (center) and President DeGioia (right)
Vice President for Mission & Ministry Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J. (left), Fr. O’Malley (center) and President DeGioia (right) in 2019.

His Mark on History

As a prolific author and scholar, Fr. O’Malley offered new insights into the forces that shaped Jesuit and the Catholic Church’s history and sought to make church history more accessible to a wider audience.

His book The First Jesuits, for which he intentionally chose a secular publisher, won two best book prizes and was translated into 12 languages.

“John — in his life and in his scholarship — captured the fullness of the Ignatian tradition that has been passed down to us from St. Ignatius and the first Jesuits. His prolific writings contributed important insights about Jesuit and Church history, and because of his work, we have a deeper capacity to engage in the richness of the Ignatian tradition.”

— Georgetown President John J. DeGioia

He wrote 28 other books, one of which, Trent: What Happened at the Council, won the American Catholic Historical Association’s John Gilmary Shea Prize for best book in 2013. And his detailed accounting of Vatican II in What Happened at Vatican II?, which was translated into six languages, shed new light on what he called “quite possibly the biggest meeting in the history of the world” and the Church’s engagement with the world.

“I’m sometimes called a church historian, but I think that’s a very limited way of describing what I try to do,” Fr. O’Malley said at a 2021 event hosted at Georgetown for his memoir, The Education of a Historian: A Strange and Wonderful Story. “One of the purposes of my life was to get church history out of the church, to get it in the public forum and help people realize that these religious events were cultural events and sometimes political events.”

His interest in the Jesuits in particular, was sparked by joining them.

Fr. O'Malley speaks from a podium in front of blue stained glass

Historical Formation in the Jesuits

Fr. O’Malley entered the Jesuits in 1946 — the beginning of a process that helped him interpret the past through a more balanced lens, he said at the 2021 Georgetown event. Within his first 15 years in the Society, Fr. O’Malley was immersed in studying the German Counter Reformation and the role the Jesuits played in it. He would have continued these studies but for a fateful trip to Italy in 1960.

“My first-time taste of gelato helped turn me into a resolute Italophile and prodded me to abandon German history in favor of Italian,” he wrote in his memoir. “The book thus reveals the crucial role of intuition in life and in scholarship. It illustrates how neither life nor scholarship is a tale of two plus two equals four.”

“Fr. O’Malley was not only a great scholar and teacher, but a great Jesuit recruiter to the university. When I was asked to consider coming to Georgetown, it was John who called me up and encouraged me to pursue it. I am here because one doesn’t say no to John. But what I will remember most will be the many conversations we had over the years, especially around the dinner table, finishing our meals off with an Italian digestivo — he loved a good amaro. He loved all things Italian. I will miss him.”

— Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J., Vice President for Mission & Ministry
Fr. O'Malley speaks to an audience from a podium on the alter of Dahlgren Chapel
Fr. O’Malley authored 29 books, contributed 150 journal articles and participated in two historic Jesuit General Congregations.

He earned his doctorate in history from Harvard, and would contribute to 150 journal articles and win three lifetime achievement awards from the Society for Italian Historical Study, the Renaissance Society of America and the American Catholic Historical Association. He was elected to serve in two historic Jesuit General Congregations, one of which also included the future Pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.

After teaching at the University of Detroit Mercy and the Weston Jesuit School of Theology for 41 years, he began teaching at Georgetown in 2006, where he remained until his retirement in 2020.

“Fr. O’Malley was a beloved member of the Georgetown community, a devoted pastor and a trusted mentor, advisor and friend to students, colleagues and Jesuits around the world,” says Rev. Ron Anton, S.J., superior of the Georgetown Jesuit Community. “May he rest in peace.”

“What has made John such an incredible teacher is that he always embodied all of the joy, wonder and awe of a young student. I recall John while working on his 2018 book on Vatican I, scurrying back and forth between his office in New North and Lauinger Library. He would stop by my office en route with his bag of books and would regale me with all of the fascinating details he was learning about the intrigue around the council — all with the delight and enthusiasm of a first-year undergrad. That type of wonder, delight and awe in the pilgrimage of learning is one of the greatest gifts he has passed on to so many.”

— Rev. Gregory Schenden, S.J., Director of Campus Ministry

His Mark on Georgetown

While at Georgetown, Fr. O’Malley published four books on ecumenical councils and received the Centennial Medal, the highest honor from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, in 2016.

“Fr. O’Malley’s work on church councils and reform, on Christianity, art, rhetorical style and on the Jesuits was always not only of sterling quality in itself but always included tools and signposts for others to use in their own work,” says Rev. David Collins, S.J., associate professor and director of the Catholic studies program at Georgetown. “In this sense, his scholarship was seminal when he published it and will continue inspiring further research for years to come.”

Fr. O'Malley makes a suprised face at a piece of cake with a candle while President DeGioia (right) laughs
Fr. O’Malley celebrated his 90th birthday in June 2017.

And while he was known for his scholarship, he was also known for his humility, humor and ongoing mentorship of his students.

Max Rosner (C’18), an alumnus who is an intelligence officer in the Navy, took a course from Fr. O’Malley in spring 2018. He often had dinner with the Jesuit and fellow classmates at Wolfington Hall, Georgetown’s Jesuit residence — “we would always talk about film, history, God and of course the rich life he lived” — and once joined him at the opera, which Fr. O’Malley loved. Rosner kept in touch with Fr. O’Malley after he retired from Georgetown in 2020.

“He was sweet and even though his professional life was dedicated to scholarship and the academy, he was no less committed to his spiritual life,” Rosner said. “He saw a mystical quality in the world, and it was evident in his humor, grace and sensitivity to beauty and God’s presence in the world.”

Fr. O’Malley was a kind and humble leader who embodied Georgetown’s Jesuit mission. I will forever be grateful for the integral role he played in my thesis on Ignatian Pedagogy and my personal spiritual development. His presence, love of knowledge and legacy will continue to shape Georgetown for generations to come.

Brittany Fried (SFS’19, MPP’23), assistant director of the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown
Three young men stand on either side of Fr. O'Malley, who wears sunglasses
(From left to right) Jack Segelstein (C’18), Rev. John O’Malley, S.J., Jonathan Marrow (C’18) and Max Rosner (C’18) attend the opera together at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

Rev. Collins, who was a mentee, friend and later colleague of Fr. O’Malley, echoed his warmth, encouragement and inspiration with faculty members.

“For colleagues, especially in the history and theology departments, it was a boon to have such an eminent partner in work and conversation,” says Collins. “His deep thinking about the nature of Jesuit education also redounded to the benefit of educational leaders across the university. We all found encouragement in his blend of erudition and joy for life. Both as a mentor and a friend, he was uncontainably cheerful and encouraging.”

“The world knew John O’Malley the brilliant scholar; those of us at Georgetown graced by his friendship knew Fr. O’Malley’s compassion, courage and generous Ignatian heart,” says Jeanne Lord, interim vice president for student affairs.

Fr. O'Malley speaks with glasses in his hand in front of a crucifix and pipe organ in a church
Fr. O’Malley delivered a Dahlgren Chapel Sacred Lecture on “Ignatius and Companions: Their Quiet Revolutions” in 2019.

Throughout his study of history, Fr. O’Malley sought to show how history informs “our corporate memory… [and] where we came from” — a memory, he said, that was badly needed in today’s world.

“The overriding passion of my life is to show that history is not just nice stories; it’s not just recreational reading,” Fr. O’Malley said at the Georgetown 2021 event. “If you really present history in the right way, it’s not namby-pamby. It’s not goody-goody stuff. But it does show how sterling characters have helped advance the human endeavor.

For Fr. O’Malley, studying the past was more than an academic endeavor.

“I love what I do. And I’ve always loved it. … You have to love what you’re doing. That’s been the greatest blessing of my life.”

Fr. O’Malley’s wake and prayer service will be held on September 16 from 7-9 p.m. in Georgetown’s Wolfington Hall. His funeral will be held on September 17 at 10:30 a.m. at Holy Trinity Church, and his burial will be in Georgetown Cemetery immediately following.

Fr. O'Malley takes a headshot in front of glass windows