We all remember him as one of the best resource persons who went on American TV last April after Benedict XVI's election. He is not only a very important man in his own right but also a longtime friend of Joseph Ratzinger, his former mentor at the University of Regensburg. I am posting herewith two very informative articles about him for those who may not have seen them before. The first is from the site of St. Ignatius Press, which publishes Ratzi's books in English, and the second is from the British Catholic libertal newspaper Tablet:
From St. Ignatius Press:
Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., (shown here with Ratzinger in 1999) Provost of Ave Maria University and Editor-in-Chief of Ignatius Press, is a longtime personal friend of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Press is the primary U.S. publisher of his works, having issued some 25 books.
Father Fessio is close to a number of the cardinals who elected the new pope, including Francis Arinze, the former Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship; Christoph Schoenborn, Archbishop of Vienna; George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia; Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Quebec; Angelo Scola, Patriarch of Venice; Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, France; Jean-Marie Lustiger, former Archbishop of Paris; Jorge Medina-Estevez, former Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation of Divine Worship.
Ignatius Press has also published Cardinal Shoenborn's works, and those of cardinals Arinze, Pell, Lustiger, and Medina-Estevez.
Pope Benedict XVI was Fr. Fessio's doctoral director and mentor at the University of Regensburg in then West Germany from 1972-1975. As a member of Ratzinger's "Schulerkreis" or group of former students, Fr. Fessio participated in many of the yearly three-day-long gatherings of that group.
In 1989, Fr. Fessio, along with then Frs. Schoenborn and Marc Ouellet, and another fellow Jesuit, established under Cardinal Ratzinger's patronage, a house of formation in Rome, Casa Balthasar. The house takes inspiration from the life and works of two theologians who were highly regarded by, and close friends of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: Fr. Henri de Lubac, S.J. (made a cardinal by John Paul II in 1983) and Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (named cardinal by John Paul II in 1988).
The late Frs. de Lubac and Balthasar's books are published by Ignatius Press.
Every year from 1989 to the present, Fr. Fessio has traveled to Rome for the annual meeting of the directors of Casa Balthasar, which is attended by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Fr. Ouellet (now cardinal of Quebec), and Fr. Schoenborn (now cardinal of Vienna).
Cardinal Shoenborn, also a former student and close personal friend of Pope Benedict XVI, was a classmate of Fr. Fessio's in Regensburg during the 1972-73 academic year. Their friendship has continued over the years and Fr. Fessio has been a frequent guest at the cardinal's residence in Vienna. Fr. Fessio also collaborated with cardinals Ratzinger (then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and Schoenborn (executive editor) on the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Because of Fr. Fessio's engagement in the post-conciliar liturgical controversies, he has had frequent contact with cardinals Medina-Estevez and Arinze, both of whom are Ignatius Press authors.
At Fr. Fessio's invitation, Cardinal Schoenborn visited Ave Maria University in February, 2004; Cardinal Arinze visited in Feb., 2005; and Cardinal Pell has agreed to visit in Feb., 2006.
Ave Maria University is the first new Catholic university established in 40 years, founded by Thomas Monaghan, founder and former owner of Domino's Pizza. Ignatius Press is one of the largest Catholic publishing companies in the United States, founded in 1978 by Fr. Fessio. Ignatius Press has published the works of (now) Pope Benedict XVI for over twenty years.
The site has a Gallery of 8 photos in large-format (one of them used above) taken when F. Fessio accompanied a group of pilgrims to visit Cardinal Ratzinger in 1999. Great-looking Ratzi, of course!
From the Tablet
The priest who bestrides America
Joseph Fessio is a million-dollar publisher, the man who runs a university founded on a pizza fortune, a conservative Jesuit who fell out with his superiors and a friend of the Pope. It’s made him one of the US Church’s biggest players
HE IS a plain priest, neither a cardinal nor a bishop. But the combination of Benedict XVI’s prolific output as an author and the fortune of a pizza billionaire have helped make Father Joseph Fessio, the standard-bearer of Catholic orthodoxy, one of the most powerful men – indeed, perhaps the most powerful man – in the Church in America.
For years Father Fessio has regularly clashed with the superiors of his Jesuit order who do not share his more orthodox, Balthasarian views of faith. But with the elevation as Pope of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his former tutor and one of the stars of the publishing house which Fr Fessio runs, the priest is even being talked about as the next Archbishop of San Francisco.
His influence in America until now has been dependent on his twin roles – that of editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, the premier publisher of “authentic” Catholic writing which he founded in San Francisco in 1978, and provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida. Ave Maria is the first new Catholic university to be established in America in more than 40 years. It was launched in 2003 with $250 million donated by the billionaire Thomas S. Monaghan, who made a fortune when he sold his Domino’s Pizza empire.
Fessio commutes from west to south across America to keep up with both jobs. Wearing two such important hats would daunt others, but Fr Fessio is unfazed. “I have a big head and can wear many hats,” he says.
It is the close working relationship with Benedict XVI which has expanded Fr Fessio’s influence, with sales of his books booming. “We sold one million dollars’ worth of books in the month of May”, he said. Aggressive advertising has not hurt. Ignatius Press capitalised on its exclusive rights to Pope Benedict’s works in English with its first-time-ever purchase of a full-page advertisement in the Sunday New York Times. But even before the papal election, Ignatius Press was doing well with its sales of books by “soundly orthodox” theologians, Ratzinger paramount among them. Its back catalogue includes 22 volumes by Ratzinger. The Ratzinger Report, based on an Italian journalist’s interviews with the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was issued in the mid-1980s and sold 50,000 copies, a remarkable sale for a theological work.
Two more are in the pipeline: The Way to Jesus Christ which will be published later this summer, and in the autumn, the company will bring out Benedict XVI’s reflections on Pope John Paul II.
Fr Fessio’s present position was not something that could have been predicted when he was ordained a Jesuit priest in California in the late 1960s. He affected a hippy appearance in keeping with the times, wearing long hair, a semblance of a beard (“I wasn’t very successful growing one”), sandals and a crucifix on a leather thong around his neck. He worked in a ministry to help underprivileged children until his superiors sent him in 1972 to study theology in Europe.
The experience changed his life profoundly. In Lyons, he met Father Henri de Lubac, whose theology underpinned the Second Vatican Council and who was made a cardinal in 1983 by Pope John Paul II.
“It was a great blessing knowing de Lubac,” Fessio said. “I asked his advice about what theme I should do my doctorate on and he advised me to do it on [Hans Urs] Von Balthasar [the Swiss theologian who had been de Lubac’s student and who would also become a cardinal in 1988]”. De Lubac further suggested that Fessio seek out Joseph Ratzinger as his mentor, then at the University of Regensberg in what was West Germany.
It was the beginning of a long and close relationship between Fessio and the future pope. He also established a close bond with a fellow doctoral student, Father Christoph Schönborn, now the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, with whom he stays in touch.
Over the years he became part of a powerful European network of conservative church officials and theologians. He went on to frequently attend annual three-day meetings of Ratzinger’s Schulerkreis, or group of former students, Ratzinger himself often in attendance.
In 1989, Fr Fessio helped to establish in Rome, under the patronage of Cardinal Ratzinger, Casa Balthasar, a residence for young men considering the priesthood. Its board, which met every February, included Cardinals Ratzinger, Schönborn and Marc Ouellet of Quebec, as well as Fr Fessio.
The Jesuit priest also maintains close contact with other leading figures in the Church through his imprint. Besides Ratzinger’s books, Ignatius Press has published the works of Schönborn, and his fellow Cardinals Francis Arinze, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship; George Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, Australia; Jean-Marie Lustiger, former Archbishop of Paris; and Jorge Medina-Estévez, retired former Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship.
Fessio has not been bashful about using his contacts in his cause of conservative orthodoxy. He has been credited – or blamed, depending on one’s perspective – with having the Vatican quash attempts by the American bishops to authorise a moderate form of inclusive language in the lectionaries used at Mass and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Through a liturgical watchdog group he helped to found called Adoremus, Fr Fessio keeps tabs on what the group considers abuses of the liturgy. In 1997 Adoremus even accused Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles of verging on heresy in a pastoral letter on the Eucharist.
Fessio’s efforts to swing the Church to the right dates back to when he completed his doctorate and returned to his California province. He was appalled at what he considered the abandonment of traditional Jesuit education.
“I was just a simple priest trying to teach theology and found many of the theologians did not accept the traditional teachings,” he lamented.
In 1976 he established the St Ignatius Institute on the campus of the University of San Francisco (USF). It was basically a great books programme, using the classic texts of traditional church teaching.
“I was helping to restore Jesuit education, a way of translating the faith consistently,” he said. Fellow Jesuits saw the institute differently, as a bastion of ultra-conservatism which considered itself under siege. Fessio himself would decide which students to accept or reject. Jesuit theologians on the university faculty were barred from teaching or even saying daily Mass. Carmelite priests from a nearby monastery officiated.
By 1987 tensions mounted to breaking point, particularly after Fr Fessio got a million-dollar donation for his institute from one of the university’s leading benefactors. The then university president, John LoSchiavo, SJ, fired Fessio, who simply moved his quarters down the road to Ignatius Press.
But he remained an éminence grise behind the institute, USF history professor Paul Murphy says. In 2001, the newly installed university president, Stephen Privett, SJ, reorganised the institute, replacing the director and assistant director, who had been protégés of Fessio, with Murphy.
Fessio countered that he was starting his own conservative college nearby, which led his provincial superior, Thomas Smolich, SJ, to order Fr Fessio to have no role, public or private, in the proposed college. He reassigned Fessio to chaplain duties in a hospital 400 miles away. The reassignment caused a storm of reaction from conservative supporters of Fr Fessio all over the world.
“They treated him very shabbily, sending him to what was fast becoming a gulag for out-of-favour Jesuits,” said USF philosophy professor Raymond Dennehy, who helped Fr Fessio found the institutes two fellow conservatives, Thomas Monaghan, chancellor of his new Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and the university president, Nicholas J. Healy rode to his rescue. They invited Fr Fessio to become provost, with a key role to foster their mutual dream to make Ave Maria a bedrock of solid Catholic orthodoxy. Fr Fessio’s superiors approved the move. The university is the fulfilment of a dream Monaghan has had since he sold his business in 1999, determined to devote his life to Catholic education.
Raised in a Catholic orphanage and foster homes, Monaghan himself was too busy making a living to go to college. He believed that the well-known American Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown and Fordham may be academically excellent but they fall short in instilling fervour in the faith. In 20 years Monaghan dreams that Ave Maria “will produce more priests and nuns than any university in the world”.
The rise and rise of Joseph Fessio is a remarkable feat for a man who has had such strained relationships with his own order. Now, of course, it is the more liberal Jesuits who are under strain, the former editor of the order’s respected journal, America, apparently squeezed out after pressure from Rome over progressive writing in the magazine.
As to Fr Fessio’s rumoured elevation to the archbishopric of San Francisco, Professor Dennehy put it like this: “I think the Jesuits here would go on suicide watch if that happens.”
Fessio laughed when told about the rumours of his possible elevation. “It’s not going to happen. There is only one important See in the world and that See is occupied by my friend, [Joseph] Ratzinger,” said Fessio.
And that simple admission of friendship says it all.
Gerald Renner is the retired religion writer for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut,and co-author, with Jason Berry, of [C/]Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, published last year.