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"Who Isn't at the Table?"

Profiling Father Gerry O’Rourke

“Who Isn’t at the Table?”

A TIO Interview by Bettina Gray and Paul Andrews

Periodically TIO profiles seasoned leaders who have made critical contributions to a developing interfaith culture but are unknown to most people. Rev. P. Gerard O’Rourke is one such pioneer, a man who honed hospitality into an art form. He was an open door for hundreds who became interfaith activists.

On August 16th of this year, Bettina Gray and Paul Andrews drove to Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, to visit with one of their mutual interfaith heroes, Father Gerry O’Rourke, who at the age of 94 maintains his delightful, spirited vision of life, generosity toward others, and a willingness to engage with people of all faiths and viewpoints. Fr. Gerry, as he is fondly known by the many he has worked with, was director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and has served communities in Los Angeles, Buenos Ares, Moscow, Ireland, and around the world through ecumenical and interfaith service organizations he has helped found.

Father Gerry

Father Gerry

Bettina: What got you started?

Gerry: I came from a very political family in Ireland, but it was a beautiful form of politicized. My Uncle Dan was in the first Parliament after Ireland left England. In 1918 he represented my county, and he was an extraordinary man. I visited him about a couple of months before he died. There he was in a sick bed dying of cancer, and he was writing a letter to one of the departments in Dublin for a friend of his. You know, when I was in Mill Valley back here in California at Mass one day, an Irish Protestant came looking for me. He says, “I’m here to say to thank you for having such a great uncle. He was my teacher and he treated us Protestant kids as if we were his own children.” 

I listened to a guy once, a priest, and he spoke about the difference he was able to make in his life because he was a priest, and I said to myself, “Oh, that’s something I want to take on, to make a difference and to continue to make a difference.”

Bettina: What difference do you think you’ve made?

Gerry: Well I’ve empowered lots of people in different ways. I took on things that were a challenge and then handed them on. 

I was asked to be the head of the ecumenical and interreligious work of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. That opened up huge space for me – a role to make a difference. I was able to work with others, and I was surrounded by powerful women who were making a difference also. This wasn’t just a man’s job.

Paul: Are there times in your life and interfaith work where you saw the actual results of interfaith being transformative?

Gerry: Yeah, the work we did in Northern Ireland was huge. At one point we held an ecumenical conversation in Tinakilly, in County Wicklow, south of Dublin. It was a safe space. In that group were two magnificent Presbyterian priests who were on a death list from their own church because they were friendly with the Catholics. So you see how careful we had to be. That was the way things were at that time.

Bettina: And how did you get that to happen? 

Gerry: Just by empowering people. We were an ecumenical group anyway, because the people we worked with in Northern Ireland, we always from various denominations. It was so vital to work with others. It took about two years to get that meeting set up in Tinakilly. It was important to make sure we got the right mixture.

Bettina: What makes the right mix? 

Gerry: People who talk to you, people who listen. One of the things we found worked was having dinners. Dinners in different towns with the proper mix. There were people of conflicting views of both sides. I remember at one of the dinners in Derry, there was a guy – an Orange man (Protestant political faction) – who was the top dog among them. The organizer of the dinner had him sit beside me and he said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in the same room with a Catholic priest, and is the first time that I ever ate a meal with a Catholic priest.”

Now those dinners are happening all over. And why did people come? Because there was an opening.

Bettina: What gets people willing to take the risk?

Gerry: What was touching us all at that time was the faithfulness – the relationship with God . . . and that will do. And that you genuinely respect them. 

“No one left out.” It’s an expression I used to use all the time. This even moved up all the way with Martin McGinnis (IRA) and the Protestant minister, Ian Paisley. The two of them worked together genuinely — you couldn’t measure how significant that was.

Paul: Can you explain more about what you did in the 1990s in Russia?

Gerry: The elderly used to be well fed in the Soviet Union; the state took care of it. But that stopped when the switch came at the end of the Soviet Union. Now there was a real hunger.  A bunch of lay people came together and we filled a plane, a 747, with food in 15-pound and 20-pound boxes. The EU was kind enough to send daily shipments of food, but there was no volunteer assistance to receive it. There was a mafia - that got (the food) and sold it, that’s how they financed themselves. That’s the reason (our contact) told us you can’t give us bulk stuff, and she had somehow lined up a hundred young soldiers to distribute the food.

Those are the kind of things, interfaith service, that were happening, and they still happen.

I was privileged to be in Moscow in 1993. Archbishop Anthony of the Greek Orthodox Church invited me to the first Mass that was allowed in the Kremlin Cathedral of the Assumption – the very first Mass that was celebrated there after 70 years of deprivation – and hundreds, hundreds of Orthodox priests from the different Orthodox segments showed up. I was the only Catholic.

Bettina: That must have been quite a moment.

Gerry: Those are the kind of things that can happen when you leave yourself open to opportunities to serve. 

Bettina: What do you make of the pervasive divisiveness in our world today?

Photo:    Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

Gerry: By 1990 if you wanted to do anything community-wise anywhere in this country you had to include in the conversation the other churches and the other religions. It was given. I myself was known for asking in meetings, “Who’s not at the table?” 

Paul: How do you manage interfaith relations in such meetings? 

Gerry: I manage that by giving them permission to be the way they are. 

Bettina: How do you theologically justify that?  You don’t try to convert anybody?

Gerry: Take the “Our Father” for instance, as an example. I realized this wasn’t just a prayer given to us Christians or us Catholics or us Orthodox. “Forgive us.” Now who do you think that was for? If you listen to those words, who are they for? They are for the human race. There’s no one left out.

If we listen to the Gospels and listen to the Scriptures there is enormous space, there really is. That doesn’t mean to say that you’ll hear exactly the way I hear. You may get an insight on some of those words that is brilliant for me. And I might have done that for you too.

Bettina: Do other Catholics think you are less of a Catholic because of your interfaith work?

Gerry: I’ve never been cast aside in that way.

Bettina: It’s nice to hear — I’m glad for that.

Gerry: People in the church see me as this forgiveness kind of guy. I have a process that I use. If you want to forgive someone or you want to forgive yourself, the most important word is “willing.” Don’t go to your feelings. Go to your will. Am I willing to forgive? Am I willing to accept forgiveness? This willing, that’s where the power exists.

Paul: The polarization going on in North America and the United States right now seems almost impossible to overcome, and yet you’re talking about a reconciliation between seemingly impossible sides.

Gerry: Impossible … only if you are not open to that miracle.  Somehow you have to respect one another despite all of that. I mean, first of all, I was the first Catholic priest the Orange man ever spoke with. It’s seeing the value of that and letting the other know that you have that respect. 

Bettina: We have a generation that calls themselves spiritual but not religious and yet that position is isolating.

Gerry: There is some kind of community going on.

Bettina: Explain?

Gerry: I don’t have to explain it. It’s a reality. They are reaching out to one another. You’ve got to get community where you are, no matter what it is. Don’t be shocked at anything. I will keep saying, relationship. Relationship, relationship, relationship, relationship, relationship. And the relationship is with who’s there, not who should be there. 

Paul: Advice for the current generation?

Gerry: First of all, I would say never give up. There’s so much at stake. When you talk about making a difference, you are saying, “What's at stake?”  I never feel that my voice doesn’t count, and don’t let that happen to you. Don’t give in to that feeling. 

Always ask, “Who is not at the table? “

Bettina: And how do you get young people to the table?

Father Gerry reflecting on life as a priest at 90

Gerry: It’s the power of listening, the power of language. That’s what we have. That’s what distinguishes us. That’s our vehicle to get things done – our language. 

Acknowledgment is so incredible. If we acknowledge the gift of life, it shows up in all kinds of different ways. It’s universal. 

Paul: What do you think is the vocation of retirement? — Do you have a sense of vocation now? Of what your life is now?

Gerry: I mean, you talk about my making a difference. I don’t do the formal thing of the Mass, but I participated in two Masses on Saturday and Sunday. You can’t do what you used to, but I continue to ask what kind of a difference I can make. It has everything to do with relationships, the possibility of relationship. That never goes away. 

When Paul Andrews and Bettina Gray commented that when they showed up for their appointment, they were greeted by a young woman at reception. Wearing a headscarf and most likely Muslim, she lit up like a sunrise when they told her that they were coming to visit Father Gerry. He has obviously made a difference in yet another life.

Header Photo: Max Pixel