Death of Kevin Lynch, CSP

Posted By: Bob Byrns ACP Member News, Industry News,

“Vatican II and the renewal of the church fitted the Paulist mystique like a glove.”

                        --Kevin Lynch, C.S.P.

One of the most lasting and tangible legacies of Fr. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, was a tradition of teaching through publishing. That legacy was reinvigorated in the mid-twentieth century by Paulist Fr. Kevin Lynch, who died at the age of 97 on August 27,2002 having served as an editor and the publisher of Paulist Press for forty years, from 1957 to his retirement in 1997—though he continued to read manuscripts and offer editorial advice for more than 15 years afterward.

A Paulist life

Kevin Lynch was the third of four children, born in Belmont MA on April 4, 1925 to a devout Catholic family. After two boys, he remembered in a set of oral interviews conducted in July 2014 at St. Paul’s parish in Manhattan, “My parents wanted a girl, so God sent them a priest.” He recalled that he was deeply affected by his parish priest who solicited money from the wealthy, bought food, and then delivered it under cover of night to needy families during the Depression so they wouldn’t be embarrassed. He was educated in public schools in eastern Massachusetts and, for two years, in Pittsfield after a promotion took his father there.

Circumstances led him to apply to West Point, where one of his classmates was Anastasio Somoza, later the Nicaraguan dictator. Lynch scored third on the qualifying exam in his region, and the only reason he got in was that the number two student failed his physical. At the Point, which he attended during World War II, he spent a considerable amount of time with Fr. Joseph P. Moore at Most Holy Trinity, the Catholic parish serving the military academy. Moore invited Lynch to explore his extensive library. Cadet Lynch read deeply in the British writers and converts who were so instrumental in the English Catholic renewal in the early twentieth century, such as Ronald Knox and G.K. Chesterton, as well as the German Karl Adam.

At some point, Moore asked Lynch if he’d ever considered the priesthood. While it hadn’t been in the forefront of his mind, conversations between them helped Lynch discern his priestly vocation. He knew he didn’t want to be a parish priest and had found the Jesuits “overpowering” during childhood retreats in Newtown; he only knew Paulists because his parents had attended one of theirs. “I never had any contact with the Paulists whatsoever, but when I said that word, [Moore] said, `Go to the Paulists,’ he said, `they’re first class’,” Lynch recalled. Moore knew them via the Catholic World, which he read regularly, and Paulist missions preached at Corpus Christi parish in Manhattan, where he had served. Those retreats had a profound impact on Thomas Merton, whom Moore received into Catholicism while at Corpus Christi.

General Maxwell Taylor, West Point superintendent, dispensed Lynch from his military service obligation upon graduation in June 1946 and he entered the Paulists. Lynch recalled that during his opening novitiate retreat, while listening to talks on Hecker’s mystique, spirituality, and mission, “I thought to myself, this is exactly what you wanted and I’ve never regretted it, I never had a doubt.” Ordained in 1953,he spent the next four years at the Paulist campus center at the University of California-Berkeley where, he recalled with a chuckle, he met a West Coast culture very different from his New England boyhood. He described it as an openness, a friendliness, “a pagan frankness that was everywhere.” He enrolled in an interdisciplinary doctoral program in American cultural history and could have stayed to finish, but when he was invited to join Paulist Press in 1957, he felt that he was being invited to a central Hecker mission just as the Paulists had decided to expand their publishing ventures.

Paulist Press

Kevin Lynch’s first job at Paulist Press was editing the monthly magazine Information from a loft office on Varick Street in lower Manhattan. Influenced by his time in California, he began to write and edit on issues of social action. About the same time, he picked up courses on publishing at NYU, particularly those taught by the journalist and critic Vance Packard, who had just written The Hidden Persuaders. For an assignment in one of Packard’s classes, Lynch wrote a history of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the centenary of its cornerstone laying in 1958, which became an article in Information.

Everything in the Catholic world changed, of course, with Vatican II (1962-1965). The Paulists had already decided in the mid-1950s to dial up their publishing program. A perfect publishing storm brewed, then, with a council that needed to be understood and explained; a publishing house and religious community long dedicated to the positive interface between the church and culture; and a Paulist writer and editor with the sensibility and vocation to help explain Vatican II to the English-speaking world. No explicit decision was made to focus almost entirely on the council, he recalled: “It was just intuitive. You just saw that this was the future. This was the most exciting thing that had happened in the church since producing the response to the Reformation.”

Lynch took over the pamphlet division in 1961 and, with lay collaboration that had been a hallmark of Paulist apostolates, realized quickly that the operation had to move away from pamphlets into longer but still affordable paperbacks. “You realized that the old apologetical pamphlet of `we’re all right and they’re all wrong,’ those days were over,” he remembered. “What was also true was that the pamphlet economically was a dead duck.”

Still, his first big project on the council was a pamphlet series on doctrine that emphasized scripture. He drew on scholars who were imbued with the nouvelle théologie, ressourcement, and aggiornamento that was driving Vatican II. They were now not just priests but nuns, as well, along with increasing numbers of laymen and laywomen. Many would become leading scholars, but Lynch published their first effort: “I always remember Charlie Curran always saying to me whenever we’d meet: `You were the first one ever to publish me’.” A second series was on ecumenism, one of the great climate changes of Vatican II, which was a natural for the Paulists given their longstanding ethos of being interested in great spiritual awakenings and religious revivals across cultural and religious divides (notwithstanding Hecker’s sometimes-fierce criticism of Protestants in his day). “Vatican II and the renewal of the church fitted the Paulist mystique like a glove,” he said years later, snapping his fingers. “The Paulists were right at the center of it.”

Lynch traveled to Rome several times during the council years, although he didn’t attend any sessions. For many years, he continued to visit Rome each fall after the Frankfurt book fair and was constantly making contacts, often with Paulist Fr. Thomas Stransky as guide. There were Sunday evening soirees at Paulist’s Rome parish at the time, Santa Susanna, which gathered bishops, periti, journalists, and Protestant observers to the council.

Under Lynch’s leadership, the initial efforts were to put out the Vatican II documents with commentaries and several volumes of council speeches. Paulist Press also published the first several years of the important journal Concilium. About this same time, he oversaw moving the editorial offices to a series of locations in Bergen County, New Jersey, settling at its current home in Mahwah in 1985.

It was in these years immediately after Vatican II that Paulist Press became one of the most influential English language publishers when it came to the great work of understanding, explaining, and especially implementing Vatican II. Fueled by the council’s enthusiasm and the Press’s growing reputation in the field, both established and younger scholars in larger numbers were bringing their ideas and manuscripts to Fr. Lynch and his team of mostly lay editors.  “There was a gravity to it all,” Lynch recounted. “It just sort of came towards us. These bright Vatican II people coming with ideas.”

Pamphlet series yielded to Lynch’s vision of accessible and affordable paperbacks along with parish programs. The earliest was Come to the Father, which originated in Canada as a response to the eroding secularism that challenged northern Europe and then North America. Aimed at children, the series drew on the insights of the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean  Piaget and was grounded in deep piety and the human experience that God is love. To implement the program, there also needed to be extensive workshops for the catechists, which naturally ended up raising their own theological knowledge.

Come to the Father in the 1970s was followed by Renew in the 1980s. Parishes across the country were experimenting with programs and one in nearby Newark NJ was succeeding by forming small groups in parishioners’ homes. After some editorial work and testing by the Press, the program was eventually adopted by about a third of the dioceses in the United States. Remembering the decentralized ecclesiology that Renew embodied and promoted, Lynch recalled, “It was an instrument for creating the sense of the church as a community of faith.”

The series Classics of Western Spirituality brought the fruits of Catholic spirituality to a wider audience, but also introduced them to other great writers in the Jewish, Muslim, and non-Catholic traditions. Faced with an initial list of the usual Catholic classics, Lynch remembers instinctively thinking, “We don’t own God. We think we do, but we don’t. This is one of the great things coming out of Vatican II, this respect for these other traditions and trying to build bridges and understand them not as competitors or heretics.” Started in 1978 with a volume on Julian of Norwich, the series now totals over 135 titles and is known not only for its readable translations, but also for its excellent introductions that place a particular spirituality in its historical context. From the start, Lynch said, “I knew right away that this was going to fly right to the moon.”

Not everyone was always pleased with Paulist Press and Kevin Lynch’s decisions, however. He found that the arch-conservative paper The Wanderer was increasingly critiquing his efforts. On visits to Rome, Lynch said that he often saw the paper on the desks of curial officials. Renew might have been taken up by more dioceses, he speculated years later, had it not been for the paper’s drumbeat against its lay leadership that seemed to threaten clerical oversight. Opposition culminated in 1984 when Anthony Wilhelm’s Christ Among Us was pulled from publication. As Lynch recounts the story, his supporter Newark Archbishop Peter Gerety had defended the work personally to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at that time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but he could no longer allow its publication.

Christ Among Us had been written by then-Paulist Fr. Wilhelm, who had taken seven years to compose the manuscript from notes developed while serving at the Paulist Information Center in Minnesota.[1] Published in 1968, it sold 1.7 million copies—“without an inch of advertising,” Lynch said—and became essentially the American catechism just as Come to the Father functioned as the Canadian catechism. But Gerety had to pull his imprimatur under pressure from Ratzinger, whose action a National Catholic Reporter editorial labeled “remarkably autocratic.”[2] As Lynch recalled, he was told by Gerety the very day that the Press was breaking ground for its new building in Mahwah. Driving through a fierce rainstorm up Route 17, Lynch decided to keep things quiet and then personally told Wilhelm over lunch in San Francisco, where he had settled after leaving the Paulists and marrying. Christ Among Us was then republished by Harper & Row and sold well. Looking back, Lynch suspects that the wider context was the impending universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, finally issued in its English version in 1992—a mistake, according to him, since national catechisms should reflect their home culture, which is an idea Isaac Hecker would have surely endorsed.

In fact, Lynch believed Hecker’s pragmatism was at the heart of the questions concerning the particular American contribution to implementing Vatican II. Lynch’s own experiences with other faiths in public school as a boy led him later in life to seek out Protestant and Jewish authors and markets, eventually helping to establish the Stimulus Foundation in the 1970s to publish titles on Jewish-Christian relations. Hecker’s interest in marrying American culture and the Catholic faith, later attacked as the strawman “Americanism,” was proven to be ahead of its time when Gaudium et spes encouraged Catholics to embrace the world around them.

Reflecting on his career, Lynch said he hoped Isaac Hecker would be pleased with his own efforts to expand Paulist Press. He had worked, he said, to be in line with Hecker’s vision that saw American culture and virtues as underlaying and supporting Roman Catholicism. “I’ve always felt that there are certain Paulists who are what I call Hecker Paulists,” he said at the end of his life. “I would like to be thought of as one of those.”

[1] Details here need to be verified by Paulists.

[2] The New York Times, Nov. 29, 1984: accessed Aug. 2, 2014.