As a young Jesuit priest, John Kavanaugh went to work with Mother Teresa at her home for the dying in Calcutta. It was a transformative experience. “The most indelible thing about Mother Teresa was her insistence that the greatest need in life is greater trust, that the absence of love is the greatest poverty, and that the Eucharist is not only the center of our worship, but also the center of our concern for the poor.” Those lessons, he later said, were the “three sustaining things in my life.”
A quest for the value and meaning of human life became the central theme in his career as a philosopher and ethicist at St. Louis University, where he taught for thirty-six years. He was a particularly sharp critic of the accommodation of Christian faith to the idols of culture. His book Following Christ in a Consumer Society contrasted the soul-destroying aspects of a materialistic society with the personalism of the Gospel. The implications of this perspective caused him to challenge the comfortable pieties of both the left and the right. What was needed, he taught, was to recover in Christ the model of what it means to be a human person, fully alive, and to recognize in others the image of God. This was “revolutionary holiness.”
Kavanaugh died after a long illness on November 5, 2012.
“The more we try to ground our identities in external possessions or triumphs, the more we plaster our names on everything we can accumulate, the more we cling to surface and style, the less we find underneath.”
—John Kavanaugh, SJ