FR. JOHN HARDON
by John Janaro
Chapter 10 of Fishers of Men
In order to follow Jesus Christ, and to embrace the whole reality of
the message of salvation, the believer must be attentive to the voice
of Christ teaching, ruling, and sanctifying in a singular fashion
through the office of Peter, the apostle to whom He gave the unique
and universal commission: "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17).
For a priest, who wields the power Christ gave to his apostles, Peter
stands as the center, unifying force, and director of his priestly
ministry. "Simon . . . you in your turn must strengthen your
brothers" (Luke 22:32). Such recognition of the Holy See has always
been the special charism of the Society of Jesus, and the crown of
the Jesuit vocation is its specific loyalty to the Pope.
The concerns of Peter in his unique apostolic service have comprised
the substance of the vocation of Fr. John Hardon, SJ. Fr. Hardon is a
man whose priesthood is shaped by a desire to respond to the needs of
the Universal Church as they manifest themselves in the various
circumstances of the Church in the United States. In all these
circumstances he permits himself to the directed by the successor of
Peter, thus insuring that his priestly vision and activity will be
truly pertinent, truly universal, and truly Christian.
"The hardest thing in the world is to submit our will to the will of
God," Fr. Hardon reflects. Nevertheless he has strived to make this
submission the guiding principle of his life. But the will of God-or
the will of anyone else for that matter-was a troublesome point for a
fiercely independent boy who grew up in the shadows of the industrial
mills and factories of Cleveland, Ohio.
John's father was an iron construction worker, and at the age of 26
he suffered a fatal accident, falling from a scaffold while on the
job. The year was 1915, and young Anna Hardon found herself a widow
with very little money and a one-year old son.
She was, however, a woman of deep faith, a Franciscan tertiary who
embraced her poverty and her difficult circumstances with courage and
grace. Anna Hardon never remarried, but she raised and supported her
only child by working as a cleaning woman, mopping, sweeping, and
cleaning offices in the city. She would often work nights, spending
her days keeping an eye on John. The boy was willful and
self-possessed; he was determined that no one was going to tell him
what to do.
Yet as he grew he also became deeply devoted to his mother, and her
religious sense-which filled the home and dominated John's
upbringing-made its mark upon him. Upon entering the house John or
his mother would always say "Praised be Jesus Christ" to which the
other would respond "Now and forever, Amen." There was a statue of
the Virgin Mother of God, and always holy water by the front door. As
is so often the case, the wealth of Christ that enriched their small
home was accompanied by the poverty of the world. Mother and son
could not afford a telephone; in fact they seldom bought a newspaper.
". . . correct them and guide them as the Lord does" (Eph. 6:4). Anna
Hardon was determined to raise her son as a dedicated and devoted
Christian, imbued with a full appreciation for God's salvation and an
abiding love for the Church. John was taught especially to love the
priesthood, and to have a sense that priests extend the mission of
Christ on earth. This vision of the priesthood, combined with his
mother's unceasing example of life in the Spirit of God, drew John to
reflect upon his own place in the pilgrimage of faith. His mother
never openly suggested the priesthood to him; nevertheless from his
earliest years it was a path that seemed particularly challenging. He
desired to be of service to others, and the priesthood embodied the
highest expression of service.
John Hardon was a boy with a strong desire for achievement, and with
abilities that made all sorts of achievements possible. In school he
excelled, consistently receiving the highest grades, and he developed
a variety of interests. Priesthood, however, was always a factor, and
as he grew he became aware of the different ways of dedicating
oneself exclusively to the Gospel; ways that were a response to
Christ who invites total commitment: "If you would be perfect . . ."
As an eighth grader, John first heard of a way that seemed
particularly inspiring to him. In his Church History class, he was
struck by the story of St. Peter Canisius who preached the Gospel in
the midst of a crisis of faith in 16th century Germany. St. Peter's
life and work-so vibrant and so full of achievement-drew strength
from his special commitment to a religious congregation called the
Society of Jesus. "Grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his
power" (Eph. 6:10).
John was impressed with the Jesuit spirit, and he wanted to attend a
Jesuit High School. His mother, however, barely made enough money to
support the two of them, and the Jesuit school was simply too
expensive. So he attended the diocesan high school of Cathedral
Latin. Here John's thoughts of the priesthood became somewhat
submerged in a host of other concerns. His mother's health began to
fail, and he was convinced that he would have to build his future
around the responsibility of caring for her. So he considered various
professional careers, keeping in mind always his two driving-and
perhaps at times conflicting-ambitions: to be of service to others
and to "make his mark upon the world."
Teaching appealed to him; it certainly provided the opportunity to
share knowledge and wisdom-even the depths of his faith-with others.
Then there was the stage; John embarked upon an acting career while
in high school that continued all the way through college. His
interests in the sciences, however, as well as his interest in
helping people attracted him to the medical profession.
Thus when John entered college any interest he had in the priesthood
had to contend with his concern for his mother, his desire for a
career and the various professions open to him, and finally-an
interest that had been developing all along-his thoughts of eventual
marriage and family. There was a girl he had known since his boyhood
days who was intelligent, familiar, and devoted to the same ideals he
himself possessed. She, it seemed, would make a very fine wife,
should John decide that he wanted to get married. In facing all of
these varying directions for his life John had one firm rule: no one
else was going to make his decision for him.
"You know me through and through" (Ps. 139:14). In reflecting on
these years, Fr. Hardon notes that a vocation "is a very special
grace given by God to certain men." This grace, however, requires
human cooperation or it will not come to fruition; in fact it may
never even be discovered. In order for a man even to be aware that he
is called to be "another Christ" he must respond to the purposeful
movements of the Spirit.
Such "movements" became more compelling for John during his years at
John Carroll University. He had at last obtained his wish to attend a
school run by the Society of Jesus, and the Jesuit presence had a
profound impact on him. There was a certain strength about the
Jesuits, a "manliness" that John had never experienced at home
because he never knew his father. Also their mental discipline
impressed him; it motivated him to major in Philosophy and it began
to shape his approach to spirituality through the direction of Fr.
LeMay, a brilliant and discerning man who saw in John great
Entering the Society, however, seemed out of the question. His
mother's health was getting worse and John simply could not imagine
leaving her to take care of herself. He had also applied and been
accepted to Ohio State Medical School. And then there was the
possibility of marriage....
As a senior in college John had pretty much made up his mind that he
was not suited for the priesthood. The two biggest influences in his
life, however, caused him to reconsider. Fr. LeMay did not agree with
John's assessment of his situation. After three years as his
spiritual director, Fr. LeMay had reached a different conclusion:
that John did indeed have a priestly vocation.
His mother had also discovered the depth of John's consideration of
the priesthood. She had no intention of standing in the way of God's
will for her son, and was confident that He would provide for her
just as He does for all who seek His Kingdom. Knowing very well
John's sensitivity about being pressured into doing anything, she
never once urged him to become a priest. Instead she simply took him
aside and informed him that he must not allow his mother to stand
between him and the will of the Holy Spirit; indeed the very same God
who was calling him would guard every hair on his mother's head.
"Have a little more trust in my faith," she told him. "If any man is
thirsty, let him come to me" (Jn 7:37).
John had reached the moment in his life when a decision had to be
made. The strength of the Jesuits, their intellectual vigor, and
their commitment to teaching seemed to embody all the things that
John was looking for in a life of service, and a unique opportunity
to share the faith; even the thought of marriage and family was
overwhelmed by a realization of the spiritual family that springs up
around a priest who brings the life of Christ to so many people.
Therefore John became determined to enter the Jesuit novitiate. There
remained the very difficult matter of informing "the girl" of his
decision; it appeared as though she was hoping they might get
married, and in fact marriage had been discussed on several previous
occasions. Less than a week before he was to enter the novitiate,
John took her out to dinner at a nice restaurant in downtown
Cleveland. There he revealed to her his plans and the mysterious and
persistent call that had begun to mold his life. "I should have
waited until the end of the meal," he recalls. She was understandably
upset, but eventually she came to see the wisdom of his decision, and
years later she remarked to him that he had "made the better choice."
On September 1,1936, John Hardon entered the Society of Jesus, but
less than two months into his novitiate he began to experience
doubts. He felt once again that he had abandoned his mother when she
most needed him. Troubled in spirit, John wrote to Fr. LeMay. The
reply was swift and direct: "John, you belong in the Society of
Jesus. What you are experiencing is a temptation. Put it out of your
Thus advised, John set about banishing the temptation with stubborn
determination. The intimate bond between him and his mother, he
reasoned, obviously needed to be subordinate to the voice of the
Spirit. Therefore after his novitiate-although they continued a
frequent correspondence-John went seven years without visiting his
mother. He finally broke this period of separation only because his
superior ordered him to do so while he was a scholastic.
John's dedication to his seminary formation remained steady once his
initial doubts were resolved. Within this formation he discovered a
love for theology, and further developed his love for teaching. In
1941 he published his first article, on the study of Latin. That
summer, during a lakeshore vacation, one of the scholastics drowned.
His death touched John very deeply, and he told his superiors that he
did not think that he could ever take another vacation. And he
hasn't, to this very day.
Constant activity and corresponding achievement characterized John's
years of theology at West Baden College in Indiana. He developed a
profound desire to write and teach, but he also became very familiar
with his strong self-will, and recognized the dangers it posed to the
pursuit of his vocation. In light of this recognition, John was
determined not to request further theological study; he would leave
the determination of his future completely in the hands of the Holy
Spirit. Thus his love for theology would not become an obstacle to
his service to God.
On June 18,1947 that service was sealed for eternity in the mark of
the priesthood. "Greater works than these shall you perform" (Jn.
5:20). John Hardon was called to participate in the highest
achievement in human history: the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus
Christ. His participation, however, was such that the achievement was
not a result of his own powers and determination of will. Rather his
role lay precisely in his submission to the will of Jesus, in whom he
would find his dignity and fruitfulness. In this way Fr. Hardon was
required to embrace totally the very thing that he identifies as
"hardest in the world"-following the will of God straight through to
his very identity as "another Christ." It is to this Christ that he
must attribute all accomplishment, yet in this Christ such
accomplishment knows no limit. In the priesthood Fr. Hardon had found
the union of his high ideals-and his high hopes-with the demands of
Anna Hardon saw her son ordained to the priesthood and rejoiced that
God had brought so great a blessing into his life. A year later she
died, but not before she heard that the Jesuit superiors had decided
to send her son to Rome for advanced theological study.
The pursuit of Fr. Hardon's great love was destined to be a reality,
and the fact that he had not initiated or suggested theological study
convinced him all the more that the direction of his superiors was
the will of God.
From 1949 to 1951 he studied graduate theology at the Gregorian
University in Rome, receiving his S. T. D. and writing a dissertation
based on his extensive research into the thought and writings of St.
Robert Bellarmine. Fr. Hardon would have loved to remain in Rome to
teach, but health problems forced him to return to the United States
in 1951. Here he took a position on the faculty of West Baden
College, and began to teach Jesuit theology students.
Fr. Hardon had hopes of doing missionary work, perhaps as a teacher
at the newly opened Jesuit University in Tokyo. For health reasons,
however, he was told by superiors to "forget about the missions."
Nevertheless he was determined that, if he could not reach missionary
lands in person, he would at least get there by the force of his
teaching and writing. So he began to work a great deal in the field
of comparative religion; in the study of oriental religions Fr.
Hardon found not only areas that were compatible with Christianity
but also sections of thought that were clearly influenced in a direct
manner by contact with the Christian message.
Fr. Hardon brought the fruits of his extensive research into the
classroom, teaching future Jesuit missionaries about the religious
traditions and cultures that were waiting for them in the Far East.
Thus he reached the missions in spirit, and fostered an increase in
the understanding and evangelical zeal that anticipated the work and
vision of the Second Vatican Council. "Turn to me and be saved, all
the ends of the earth, for I am God unrivaled" (Is. 45:22).
During this same period Fr. Hardon began a study of the Protestant
denominations that have built America's religious tradition. In 1956
he published a book, , that gained such
a high reputation for thoroughness and scholarship that it is used as
a text in Protestant seminaries to this day.
Over the next several years Protestant seminaries and colleges began
seeking Fr. Hardon as a visiting professor. Curiously enough, they
wanted him to teach Catholic theology; they knew that he was familiar
with American Protestantism and also that he was committed to an
uncompromising Catholic perspective. While continuing his full-time
post at West Baden, Fr. Hardon also accepted visiting professorships
at a variety of Protestant schools, including Bethany School of
Theology, Lutheran School of Theology, and Seabury-Western Divinity
School. In this work he saw an opportunity to share the fullness of
the faith with those baptized in Christ who, because of the
circumstances of history, time and place, or culture, had yet to
receive a complete understanding and appreciation of the Christian
faith and of the Church that extends the power and presence of Jesus
Christ. "Who do you say I am" (Lk. 9:20)?
Fr. Hardon's experiences in the Protestant seminary were very
fruitful. Though his teaching alone did not often bring individuals
into a full communion with the Catholic Church, he did find that his
Protestant students gained a greater understanding of the Catholic
faith, and even began to grasp the sense of the Catholic priesthood.
He hoped that they would bring this understanding to bear upon their
own Protestant ministries, thus leading their people to a deeper
appreciation of the Gospel and a longing for a complete union with
the Church; the union that Christ wills for all who are baptized in
Moreover, Fr. Hardon's work in Protestant seminaries was in some
respects monumental and ground-breaking. When he first accepted the
position at Seabury-Western Divinity school, the Anglican Archbishop
of Canterbury sent a personal representative to Chicago to
commemorate the event: for the first time in history an
Anglican/Episcopalian seminary had appointed a teacher who was a
member of the once hated and feared Society of Jesus.
Fr. Hardon thus anticipated, and later fulfilled, the call to
ecumenical dialogue expressed by the Second Vatican Council, and he
did so in a manner that preserved continuity with the fullness of
Catholic faith and embraced a fresh vitality; elements easily
recognized before and after the Council by those attentive to the
Spirit of Truth. "For a man's words flow out of what fills his heart"
For Fr. Hardon, the voice of the Holy Spirit had a particularly
intimate connection to the words of the Vicar of Christ, not only as
a loyal member of the Church but also as a Jesuit. In 1953 he
pronounced his final vows, including the special vow of unwavering
fidelity to the See of Peter. Henceforth the directives of the Pope
took on a new and more deeply personal significance for Fr. Hardon in
his vocation as a Jesuit priest. He must be one heart with the Holy
Father, always seeking to work for the Universal Church within his
own sphere, and in the particular churches he serves.
This work became particularly important in the years following
Vatican II. From 1962 to 1967, Fr. Hardon taught Roman Catholicism
and Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University, where he
completed and published his book, , in 1963. In
1967 he returned to teaching Jesuit scholastics at two Jesuit
theological schools in Illinois and he later added a visiting
professorship at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, teaching
missiology to missionaries on furlough. During this whole time the
Church in America was undergoing a period of immense trial. Two areas
of the Church were particularly affected: consecrated life and
academic life. Both were afflicted by numerous temptations against
the unity of the Church, a sense of Christian purpose, and faith
"The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness" (Rom. 8:26). In the
midst of this disturbance of mind and heart, Fr. Hardon-steeped as he
is in both the consecrated life and the academic life-discerned the
key to weathering the storm. It is the same unifying component that
directed his own vocation and that, ultimately, is the central
element in the call of every Christian to conform his will to the
will of the Father in Christ Jesus; the key is loyalty to the Bishop
In 1967 Fr. Hardon began regular consultation with the Congregations
for Religious and the Clergy in Rome. Sensitive to the needs of the
Church in America, Fr. Hardon cooperated with Congregations in
searching for ways to implement an authentic ecclesial renewal in the
United States. Fr. Hardon accepted the task of assisting in the
organization of several important projects that touched upon
religious life, academics, and catechesis.
In 1969 he helped organize the , a
union of religious who are dedicated to their consecrated vocation
and its witness of Christian perfection, and who are devoted to the
Holy Father and the unity of the Church. In 1973 he helped organize
the Institute on Religious Life, which today includes 30,000 members
from 135 religious communities.
In 1971 Fr. Hardon and a group of clergy and laity met with Ugo
Modotti, a Camaldolese Abbot who had been sent to America by Pope
Paul VI with a special commission to establish a Catholic Media
Organization. Fr. Modotti grew to trust Fr. Hardon and, one night
over dinner, requested that Fr. Hardon take over his commission in
the event that anything should happen to him. Two weeks later Fr.
Modotti died. Armed with a commission from the Holy Father Fr. Hardon
plunged into the media apostolate, assisting in the founding of Mark
Communications in Canada in 1972. He also began gathering support for
media work in the United States.
Meanwhile there remained much work to be done in the field of
education. The Holy See wished to establish a series of Pontifical
Catechetical Institutes in the United States in order to insure that
religious educators receive a clear understanding of the Christian
faith they are called to communicate. Fr. Hardon leant support and
assistance to those who worked to establish these institutions, most
notably Msgr. Eugene Kevane. And in 1974 Fr. Hardon became a
full-time professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic
Doctrine at St. John's University in New York City.
In connection with the need for comprehensive and faithful
catechesis, Fr. Hardon committed himself to two significant
publications. He cooperated with the Sisters of Notre Dame of
Chardon, Ohio to produce a religious textbook series for elementary
school called . Loyola University Press published the
first edition in 1976 and a revised edition in 1985. Today the series is used by over six hundred thousand students
throughout the United States.
For adults, teachers, and fellow priests, Fr. Hardon wrote an
extensive volume called simply . Published in
1975, this work was written to reflect the authentic implementation
of Vatican II and to assist all who desire to present the faith
according to the mind of the Church. "This is doctrine you can rely
on" (Titus 3:8).
Today Fr. Hardon is well established as a theology professor at St.
John's University, and he continues his dedication to catechetical
work. In 1982 he participated in the establishment of the Catholic
Home Study Institute, which provides training in catechetics all
across the country by correspondence and with the aid of audio-visual
techniques. And in 1980 he succeeded in forming an organization
dedicated to the Media Apostolate. The Catholic Voice of America,
affiliated with the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Arlington,
Virginia, began operation in October of 1986. One of the prime
purposes of C. V. A. is to facilitate extensive training for teachers
of religion by means of the media. Fr. Hardon hopes that this
organization will fulfill the commission he received from the Pope,
through the hands of Fr. Modotti.
"Keep on working at the Lord's work always, knowing that, in the
Lord, you cannot be laboring in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58). Fr. Hardon
recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into the
Society of Jesus. In reflecting on these years, he focuses on the
priesthood that has been given to him. Fr. Hardon notes that the
priesthood is not just a job; rather it is "the possession of
extraordinary power, especially the power to make the Eucharist and
therefore Christ's real presence on earth possible, and the power of
remitting sins." It is because of the priesthood that Christ is
present on earth both physically in the Eucharist and mystically in
the Church. Therefore it is important that, when they are ordained,
priests realize . This realization should grow as the
priest progresses in his vocation, and should inform all his
activities. As a teacher for 35 years, Fr. Hardon has developed a
keen awareness of the fact that he is a priest even in the classroom.
Because of the power of orders, the priest possesses a special
charism-like Christ Himself-to enlighten minds and strengthen wills
in the supernatural dimension. Thus he can bring his priesthood to
bear upon his teaching and his apostolic work.
Fr. Hardon sees the spirit of the priesthood as an all-encompassing
sense of mission. "The priest must want to share," he says, "to wear
himself out in sharing." This spirit is truly universal, reaching out
to embrace all of God's people, with a profound consciousness of
their needs and an appreciation of their destiny in Christ. With the
Vicar of Christ as his constant inspiration and source of direction,
Fr. Hardon continues to dedicate his life, in a spirit of
self-sacrifice, to the service of the Church, making the power of
Christ present and the truth of Christ clear for all those who seek
Chapter Ten of Fishers of Men published by Trinity Communications in