Remembering Jesuit Father Robert F. Taft

Nov. 2, 2018 - Fr. Robert F. Taft, SJ, was called to eternal life today on Nov. 2, 2018. Fr. Taft died at Campion Center in Weston, Mass. He was born on Jan. 9, 1932, in Providence, R.I., entered the Society of Jesus at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Mass., on Aug. 14, 1949, and was ordained on June 7, 1963, at Weston College, Weston, Mass. He pronounced his final vows on Aug. 15, 1966 in Heidelberg, Germany.

Jesuit Memorial Reflections 

By Fr. John F. Baldovin, S.J.

Robert F. Taft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on January 9, 1932, and grew up in nearby Cranston. He was the second of five children of James Linwood and Kathryn (McGrath) Taft.  His mother was a grammar-school teacher, whose parents had been born in Ireland. His father, an attorney and later a probate judge, was related to the Cincinnati branch of the Taft family, from which had come William Howard Taft, president and chief justice of the United States, and his son, Senator Robert A. Taft.

Bob’s family was devoutly Catholic and it was in the family home and in his years as a Mass server that he acquired what he later described as “the rock-bottom unshakeable foundations of my Catholic faith.”

He followed his brother James to LaSalle Academy, an all-boys Christian Brothers’ high school in Providence, where his admiration for the brothers nurtured his growing desire to enter a religious order.  In a copy of the old Catholic Encyclopedia in the family library he researched the histories of the major orders, deciding that the Trappists and the Jesuits appealed most to him. The brother who was his sophomore home-room teacher loaned him a copy of James Brodrick’s The Origins of the Jesuits to read, and he was much impressed by a holy card he came across picturing Ignatius Loyola saying to Francis Xavier, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but suffers the loss of his own soul?"  So he applied to the Jesuits, was accepted, and somewhat against his parent’s wishes, who thought he was too young, entered the novitiate at Shadowbrook on August 14, 1949.

He spent four years there as a novice and junior (Jesuit-speak for one doing college-level humanities studies) before moving on to Weston College in Weston, Massachusetts, for his philosophy studies. In 1956 he was sent to the Jesuit Baghdad Mission to teach English at Baghdad College, the Jesuit high school there. This was followed by one year of studying Russian at Fordham University and three years of theology back at Weston.

During the years of studying theology he was able to realize a dream he’d had since his novitiate, of transferring to the Byzantine Rite in the Greek Catholic (Ruthenian) Church. He was ordained in 1963 and spent the next year in the last phase of Jesuit formation, tertianship, in Drongen, Belgium. In 1965 he was able to realize another dream, studying Oriental Liturgy, which he did under the famous scholar, Juan Mateos, S.J., at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. After receiving his doctorate with a thesis entitled “The Great Entrance,” on the preparation, procession and other rites associated with the gifts in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, he studied oriental languages in Leuven for two years. He returned to the Oriental Institute in 1971, to take up a professorship in Oriental Liturgy, Coptic and Armenian. He was also for a many years editor of Orientalia Christiana Periodica, the institute’s scholarly journal. After stints as visiting professor in the liturgy program in the Theology Department of the University of Notre Dame and as a senior fellow at the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Research Center of Harvard University in Washington, D.C., he returned to full-time teaching at the Oriental Institute until his retirement in 2003.

During his time in Rome he also served as a consultor to the Vatican Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Perhaps his greatest contribution in that capacity was his assistance in the 2003 decision of the Pontifical Council on Christian Unity to recognize the validity of the Anaphora of Addai and Mari of the Assyrian Church of the East, a Eucharistic prayer which contains no literal words of institution. Bob was also honored as a Fellow of the British Academy and made a mitred Archimandrite of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1998. He often boasted of his privilege of wearing two pectoral crosses!

Bob was also very active in the promotion of liturgical scholarship worldwide. He was especially proud of his support of women in scholarship and ministry. He was a founding member of the North American Academy of Liturgy from which he received the prestigious Berakah Award in 1985, president of the international ecumenical Societas Liturgica, and also a founder of the Society for Oriental Liturgy.

He is of course best known as a prodigious scholar. His oeuvre contains over 800 titles. Although painstakingly exact in his scholarship he had the gift of being able to communicate in very readable English. He may be best known among North Americans for his magisterial study of the Divine Office in The Liturgy of the Hours: East and West: The Origins of the Divine Office and Its Meaning for Today, (2nd ed. Liturgical Press, 1993) and Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding (2nd.ed. Pontifical Oriental Press, 1997), the latter a collection of brilliant essays that any aspiring student of the liturgy should digest thoroughly. The final volume of his monumental five-volume history of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on the anaphora or Eucharistic prayer is in preparation. The first volume of that history on the Entrance Rites and Liturgy of the Word, which had been published in French by Mateos, is now being re-written by his last student and good friend, Sr. Vassa Larin.

Taft was known not only as scholar and master teacher, but also as a great wit and raconteur. He language was often salty and he could be acerbic with those he considered to be lacking in intelligence, learning, or good judgment. He was pleased when I often reminded him that underneath his gruff exterior lay a heart of stone! In fact he was really a generous, kind, and gentle soul, but didn’t want too many people to know it. He was indeed a very good friend to me and to many, many others who studied with him or came to know him through his work as a scholar and as a Jesuit priest.

In 2012, Bob retired to Campion Jesuit Health Center in Weston, Massachusetts, where as a young Jesuit he had studied philosophy and theology. He continued to write and speak until his health failed. In the summer of 2017 he received his final honorary doctorate (of many such honors) from the Ukrainian Catholic University of Lviv, which he helped to found.

Taftie (as he was known to Jesuits and many friends) died peacefully at Campion Center on November 2, 2018, appropriately the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

He was before anything else a good priest and a faithful Jesuit. He was unfailingly prayerful both in private and in public, practicing liturgically what he spent most of his life writing and speaking about. His academic publications attest to his faith-filled scholarship.  His more popular theological writings reveal a man passionately devoted to Jesus Christ. I believe these are the first things he would want most to be remembered for.


Sunday, November 11, 2018
Chapel of the Holy Spirit
3:00-5:00 p.m. (Vigil Service at 4:30 p.m.)

Monday, November 12, 2018—10 a.m.
Campion Center, Chapel of the Holy Spirit
Order of Burial of the Hiermonk, The Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Robert F. Taft, S.J., F.B.A.
Bishop Borys Gudziak will preside and preach. Bishop Gudziak is eparch of the Paris Eparchy of Saint Vladimir-Le-Grand for Ukrainians of the Byzantine Rite in France, Switzerland, and the Benelux Countries. He is the head of the Department of External Church Relations, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and President, Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv.

Campion Jesuit Cemetery, Weston, MA

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