Discovering Father James M. Gillis C.S.P: A Guardian of Truth
By Matthew J. Bellisario September 2011
“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
I hope you will be entertained as well as somewhat educated by this lengthy article which I have put together over the past couple of weeks. 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 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 his work, as well as two biographies about him, I have a great admiration for him. I want to introduce you to Father James M. Gillis C.S.P. I apologize for the length of this post, but in order to do justice to this priest, I could not abbreviate it.
Every so often you come across a book that was meant just for you. I frequently visit the three Goodwill bookstores in my area and I find some great used Catholic books from time to time. Several weeks ago I ran across a book titled ‘This Our Day’, by Father James M. Gillis. I had never heard of the priest before, and I thumbed through the 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. The book looked interesting, covering a series of topics related to Catholicism, and the problems American Catholics faced in this era. After I got the book home I did a bit of research on 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. I quickly got on the internet and ordered the second volume in the series as well as his two biographies and a few of his other books. It is from these sources that I have composed this article, relying most heavily on Father James F. Finley’s work, yet I have also used Father Richard Gribble’s work to add in more detail. The bibliography follows the article.
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 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,’ and wall to wall meant that 4000 plus showed up to hear what he had to say. They stood in the aisles to hear him. He addressed figures such as Neitzche, Twain, Doyle, and Shaw. 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. 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.
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 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 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 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.” What a motivating lecture that must have been for him. Gillis then continues, “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.” This priest Elliott, and his lecture would be recounted many times by Father Gillis to lay people, religious, and priests over the course of his life, and in fact 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 seminary with one of the highest 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 or not 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. Inspired by what he had seen and heard, Gillis later visited the Paulists for a retreat to continue his discernment. The vocation director bluntly asked Gillis what objections he had to joining the Paulists. After he answered, the vocation director told him that the 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 lengthly 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, which was only eleven years old at the time, and struggling for survival. The Paulists were the first community to settle at Brookland, supporting the university by enrolling their students there for classes.
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 the “Americanism” 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. This caused a controversy for those who had understood the destruction of the French Revolution and the French monarchy, as well as the loss of the Papal states. Debates ensued among the American bishops. Quickly 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. Hecker instituted preaching requirements for the Paulist missions. Certain subjects had to be preached on including, salvation, mortal sin, death, and eternal damnation. It is also interesting to note that the particular 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, nor moral degradation was not an option in the mind of Gillis, whether it be in America or anywhere else.
In 1900 James Gillis received the first of the major orders, the subdeaconship, 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. Ceclia’s parish. He then returned to Washington where his superiors informed him that he would be continuing his education to earn theology degree as well as teach at the Paulist college. There he became well known for his great 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 a man, and also to a women dying of consumption in a bad part of town, to which he gave her the sacraments. 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, Jesuit turned Paulist. This would be his mission band test, which would last until 1906. Soon Father Gillis’ gifts developed further on the mission band. In 1906 he was given a full schedule on the mission circuit, which would be one his favorite engagements.
It is said that Father Gillis put his heart and soul into his missionary work, and his sermons were described as being zealous, and 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 of all us 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, to which Gillis had no idea as to his notions, until his superior exploded in rage one day after Father Gillis, on his own authority, postponed a mission so that another Paulist priest could join him. He 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 lengthly 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 even got up and left, offended by his stark plain preaching. Perhaps incidents like this are what landed him in trouble at times. In reading his journal, he reflects back 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 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 house. He felt obligated to help them financially, to which he had none 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 a deep sorrow for not being able to help his family more than he did. Gillis was not so exited 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 into 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 mean time 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, Father Gillis then took upon himself more missions, and this quickly lead him to a health breakdown, where for 6 weeks he had to take time off. 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 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 and many anti-catholic bigots who tried to thwart his missions. He was told to leave by anti-Catholics in the town of Bentonville, Arkansas, where he ended up preaching between two red hot stoves in an old wood court house with a few men spitting tobacco on the stoves. Not disheartened after being declined to speak at the opera house, he went to the local newspaper who took to the underdog. Surprisingly he was then able to book the opera house, and for the situation he found himself in, had a well attended crowd. On Jan 31st, 1915, Gillis and his new counterpart Father Conway held a non-Catholic mission at Saint Paul’s in New York, where about 800 non-Catholics attended. It is attested that there were 90 converts to the true faith for this mission. The two priests put together a mission tour which ended in January 1917 at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. After this, Father 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 that is correct. A sick priest on a leave of absence preaching 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. Father Gillis had a strong belief that a priest should always be in study. Always an avid reader, on the voyage he read 34 books, and used the time to meditate on the future of his priestly vocation. All of the God given talents and traits of Gillis came together and were cemented by all of 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 vacation, everything would change for the great priest. As Father Gillis’ first biographer, Father James F. Finley C.S.P. wrote, “the world was in for a sound spanking.”
In September of 1922 Father James Gills was made 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, and 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 on 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 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. Times however were about to change 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 the New Deal and prophetically 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.”
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, 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. On the air in 1941 he called it a psychological blunder to even to try and do so. (Click the link, here to listen one of his radio shows from 1941, just when Pearl Harbor was bombed. The audio is a bit ragged, but what a neat slice of American Catholic history!) 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. In fact, until he wrote a letter asking what the status of his invitation was, he was offered no reason as to not being invited back. Finally in a 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 particular political party per se on air or in writing. He merely applied Catholic principles to the moral dilemmas that the country found itself in, on the brink of a world war. If these included addressing those in the political realm, then so be it. Father Gillis was all for speaking the truth, no matter who it offended. 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 philosophy, which was in my opinion, his duty as a priest to do. 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. His order got wind of his forthcoming response and asked him to refrain. Like a well grounded Catholic priest, he also sought advice from his spiritual director, who told him not to print it. He then sought advice from 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 bit on two other radio stations for a few years after, but never to the popularity that he had on the ‘Catholic Hour.’
Father Gillis however was not nearly done with his mission as priest, and he continued on 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 particular times and events. He 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.” So 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...” 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 a priest today on radio or television coming out 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 in an instant. It must be noted that through all of the turmoil and controversy that surrounded Father Gillis, the Paulists never disowned 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 shut him up. 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 never see or hear from them 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 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 copies of the topics he had given talks on. 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 particular 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 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 result he gained converts. Later in his life he wrote four books on the spiritual life, two of them being ‘Son 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.
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 Elliiott once said, “Gillis is a star, he’s as bright as he can be, and he is so pious he shames me.” His 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. 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 his 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 the Father Gillis as being a hard man to follow in the pulpit. In his 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 built in honor of Father Gillis on Park St. in Boston. 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 severe heart attack, it seemed that once again he may recover and continue on 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 priest.
It has been a pleasure so far 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. There are a few of his books available on Amazon, most of them out of print. There is one biography that is 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 fairly easy to find online at used books stores, which is a compilation of articles he had written between 1922 and 1949. Whether or not you agree with all of his articles, there is much you can learn about the history of the American Catholic Church from the 1920s through the early 1950s from his work. Likewise it is a breath of fresh air to see a priest with such conviction and tenacity as to speak the truth, despite whether or not it was going to tick someone off. The foes which Father Gillis fought and warned against in his time are even more formidable in our day and age. He once said on his radio show, “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.” I say damn the torpedoes, give us another Father Gillis! For the state that we find our culture and nation in today is in dire need of one.
James Gillis Paulist: James F. Finley C.S.P. 1958
Guardian of America: Richard Gribble, C.S.C 1998
False Prophets: James M. Gillis 1925
This Our Day Vol I and II: James M. Gillis 1933 and 1949
So Near Is God: James M. Gillis 1953