Dec. 21, 2020 – Fr. William A. Barry, SJ, was called to eternal life on Fri., Dec. 18, 2020. Fr. Barry was born on Nov. 22, 1930, entered the Society of Jesus on August 14, 1950, and was ordained on June 16, 1962. He pronounced his final vows on August 15, 1967. Bill served as provincial for the New England Province from 1991 to 1997.
Obituary By Fr. Joseph Appleyard, SJ
Fr. William A. Barry, SJ, was born in Worcester, Mass., on Nov. 22, 1930, the oldest of four children of William and Catherine (McKenna) Barry. His parents had emigrated from County Kerry in Ireland, met and married in Worcester, and settled in the south end of the city, below the hill on which the College of the Holy Cross is located.
Family life centered around the parish, where Fr. Barry sang in the choir and was an altar boy. The family said the rosary at home and attended daily Mass together, and Fr. Barry began to think he might be a diocesan priest. Like everyone in their neighborhood, the family struggled to make ends meet in the Depression years. Fr. Barry worked in a fruit and grocery store all through his high-school years and even while he was in college.
He attended the parish school, where he was taught by the Sisters of Mercy (Jim McDavitt, later to enter the Shadowbrook novitiate as a lay brother, was a classmate). Then he moved to St. John’s High School, where the Xavierian Brothers taught. He excelled academically and graduated as valedictorian. Nonetheless, he realized later, he was “a big fish in a small pond.” When one of the brothers asked him what he was going to do after graduation, Fr. Barry said he had not thought about it. When the teacher suggested that he think about going to college, the only college Fr. Barry could think of was Holy Cross, so he applied there for admission and a scholarship and in 1948 entered as a commuting student, not much more than a long walk from home.
At Holy Cross he had excellent teachers, he thought, among them Fr. Harry Bean, SJ, for sophomore Latin and English and Fr. Luke O’Connor, SJ, for freshman religion. With the latter he talked about the spiritual dimensions of his life, the conflict between his desire to enter the Jesuits and his attraction to a young woman with whom he thought he might follow a lay vocation. He also discovered that he was in a much bigger pond academically, among smart students from across the country. But his confidence in his intellectual abilities grew and he found himself enjoying exercising his mind. His vague intention of becoming a diocesan priest increasingly gave way to the thought of entering the Jesuits.
If he decided to enter the Jesuits, he thought it would be when he graduated from Holy Cross, but when a classmate told him he would be entering the Jesuit novitiate after his sophomore year, Fr. Barry thought, “I can do that too.” So, in August of 1950, he entered the Shadowbrook novitiate.
Curiously, in light of his later work, he thought he was not good at Ignatian prayer because he thought it consisted of imagining in detail scenes and places in the life of Jesus and he felt like he was not good at that. But he did flourish academically, especially in the juniorate, where he gave the Greek sermon in the dining room, traditional on the feast of St. John Chrysostom. In those days, the province was sending men to Europe for philosophy studies and Fr. Barry went to Pullach, the German-language philosophy faculty near Munich. There he got interested in Carl Jung and his relationship to Ignatian spirituality.
In regency, he taught German at Fairfield Prep for two years and then was asked to do a master’s degree in psychology at Fordham. He did his theology studies at Weston (1959-1963). It was there that he first began to publish, when two professors suggested that he modify course papers and send them to academic journals. He was ordained in Weston in 1962 and, as was the custom then, a year later he did tertianship at Pomfret.
In 1964, he began doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Michigan, where he found some 15 Jesuits studying in the university. A community formed, of Jesuits, religious from other congregations, and lay men and women, who came together for Mass and fellowship. When Fr. Barry finished his degree he was asked by the department to stay on for a year to teach the courses of a professor who would be away. It was during this year that he came to the realization that his interests did not lie in academic psychology but in something to do with religious community life and Ignatian spirituality.
In 1969, he was appointed to the faculty of the Weston School of Theology, recently moved to Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass. He taught pastoral theology and was a counselor to students. A decisive experience that year was being part of a four-weekend conversation the province sponsored, led by Fr. Dom Marucca, SJ, of the Maryland Province, about giving directed retreats, in a one-on-one format, which the Jesuits of the English-speaking Province in Canada were already doing. For Fr. Barry this occasioned a a startling insight: he could use his skills as a psychotherapist to help people talk about their experience of God. Another related outcome of these gatherings was a conversation among the six New England Province Jesuits in the workshop about creating some kind of center for Ignatian spirituality. The conversation gradually focused on the need to train spiritual directors and led to the establishment, in 1971, of the Center for Religious Development, in Cambridge, with Fr. Barry as its first director. Over the history of its existence the Center trained numbers of men and women from across the world, who often, in turn, created similar programs in their own countries. Fr. Barry and CRD faculty were involved in helping several of these get established, in Australia, Brazil, and in Jamaica and other countries of the Caribbean region.
Fr. Barry was involved in two other significant developments in these years. At the request of the New England Provincial he, Fr. Bill Connolly, SJ, and Bob Doherty, SJ, created a two-summer tertianship program to replace the year-long program at Pomfret, which had lapsed largely because the old program failed to meet the needs of younger Jesuits. During the years of its existence and during a later year-long tertianship at Campion Center, which Fr. Barry directed single-handed, dozens of young Jesuits were able to ground their spirituality in the Exercises and give a sound shape to their lives as Jesuits.
The other development was, arguably, Fr. Barry’s most significant contribution to the revival and flourishing of Ignatian spirituality in the twentieth century. In 1975-1976, during a year-long sabbatical, he and Fr. Bill Connolly borrowed a house on the New Hampshire coast and began to write The Practice of Spiritual Direction, a foundational text for those helping others grow closer to God and for the training of spiritual directors. It has been translated into six languages and sold over 60,000 copies of the English edition alone.
After his stint as director of CRD and as a faculty member at Weston in Cambridge, he held several jobs at the request of different provincials: vice-provincial for formation (1978-1984), assistant director of novices (1985-1988), a position for which he volunteered, and rector of the Jesuit community at Boston College (1988-1991).
In 1991 Fr. General appointed him provincial. He says he brought to the job a lesson he had learned as rector at B.C. He had grown up poor and in most of his jobs as a Jesuit he had to stretch budgets.
Three of the financial projects he undertook as provincial had huge impacts on the security of the province’s future and the wellbeing of its members. The first was to build up the province’s arcas, the three funds that each province may keep by the Society’s law to support certain purposes: for the formation program, the care of elderly Jesuits, and to support apostolic works which cannot operate without subvention. The second project Fr. Barry undertook was to fund the transfer of all the province members into the Social Security Program, so they would qualify for Medicare. The third, and perhaps the one most immediately appreciated by the aging cohort of province members, was to renovate Campion Center into the licensed health center that it is today.
When he finished as provincial, in 1997, Fr. Barry moved to Campion Center, but it was not to put his feet up. Since English-language tertianships were few in the Society, he was asked by the American provincials to develop a new tertianship program at Campion. Fr. Barry directed the program for five years. He also took over the editorship of the journal Human Development. No longer provincial, he could now respond to the many requests for spiritual direction, retreats, and workshops on spirituality. He kept up these activities for the twenty years that followed and wrote several of his bestsellers in the field of spirituality. He generously undertook many of the tasks that are the glue of community life—presiding at daily and Sunday liturgies, leading wake services, giving the homilies at funerals of community members. One of his minor but much appreciated roles was as the “beadle,” as it were, of the 10:00 a.m. community Mass in the smaller chapel—filling in when the celebrant or lector didn’t show up, turning the air-conditioners on when it got hot, making sure things went as planned for events like the monthly anointing of the sick.
Fr. Barry had survived cancer of vocal cords in 1995 while he was provincial and recurring back problems. Still it was something of a surprise when a few weeks ago, doctors diagnosed possible colon cancer. He entered the hospital for surgery, serious complications followed, and doctors told him there was nothing more they could do for him. He returned to Campion and died peacefully the following day, Dec. 22, 2020, a month after his 90th birthday.
Fr. Barry was one of the central figures in the New England Province and the Jesuit apostolate in the U.S. and abroad in the 40 years from 1970 to 2010—professor of psychology and religion, one of the pioneers in the revival of Ignatian spirituality, prolific writer of best sellers in the field of spirituality, founder and director of CRD, tertian instructor, vice provincial for formation, assistant novice director, rector of the largest university community in the province, and provincial. He will be missed at Campion, in the province, and in the worldwide Ignatian community, not least because he was the only one who really knew how the sound system in the smaller chapel at Campion works.