Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
News is made when a lawyer becomes a man of the cloth. On June 16, 1964, attorney James Burns Malley was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Francis Cardinal Spellman. More unusual than being a lawyer, Jim’s great-grandfather is Drury Woodson James, an uncle of Frank and Jesse James, making Fr. Jim a first cousin of the outlaws. Fifty years later, Fr. Jim celebrated his Golden Jubilee of 50 years as a Jesuit priest. A year later, Fr. Jim claimed his eternal rest and reward. Following Jim’s graduation from Farragut Academy, Dartmouth, and Harvard Law School, his “Alumni Album” at Dartmouth recognized the unusual life and destiny of Fr. James B. Malley S.J.
For the first 15 years, his life followed a predictable course, almost archetypical of the path to be expected of a bright young Ivy Leaguer of a certain vintage. Raised in a prosperous New Hampshire family, James B. Malley ’43 went off to prep school, followed his alumnus father to Dartmouth, matriculating within weeks of a new European war. After an accelerated program, he served three years as a Navy officer, then entered Harvard Law School. He started practice in Boston, was recalled to active duty during the Korean conflict, then worked briefly in San Francisco before joining a Manchester, New Hampshire firm.
He had settled into a promising career as a tax and trust specialist when not very suddenly, he concluded that “I wanted something more and different.” In 1954, Malley started the long, rigorous training in preparation for the Jesuit priesthood.
“I had been thinking about it for a year or more,” Father Malley recalls. “I had always been a religious person; it was my basic motivation and where my deepest values lay. What was paramount in my mind was that I wanted to devote more time to the expression of my religion.” The irony, he adds parenthetically, is that “it’s just as tough to do as a priest. I still get so busy that I must carve out the time to pray and to reflect.”
No second thought about his decision has nagged at him, he say, in grand measure because he left a good life, a challenging career with congenial partners, for a better, more fulfilling one. In a sense, what he found most gratifying in the practice of law was a very personal relationship, and I found I wanted to work with people in a more holistic way.”
He knew from the start that he wanted to be an order rather than a parish priest, but he did not have the Society of Jesus specifically in mind until close friends urged him to consider it. Although best known to laymen for their traditional emphasis in intellectual and educational pursuits, the Jesuits have throughout their history functioned in the slums, the missions, and the parishes as well, Father Malley explains.
So, at the age of 35, Jim Malley embarked upon eight years of general, philosophical, and theological studies, modified considerably from the 13 or 14 that might be required by a novice entering the order straight from high school. He was ordained in 1964 and, after a year of theology, requested and received an assignment as a missionary in South America. “I felt drawn there for a number of reasons, among them that my mother’s family were Spanish-speaking Californians. And there had been a real drive in the church towards Latin America, where the percentage of priests in proportion to the population has been low.“
Historically, Latin America – religious and secular in its policies and economy – has been “inundated by foreigners trying to transplant their structures.” Father Malley comments, “Since colonial days, the church has been staffed largely from the Iberian Peninsula, and more recently, North American has been called upon to ‘man the oars.’”
During six years in Brazil and a shorter interval in Mexico, however, Father Malley experienced a growing conviction that the importation of foreign priests was no answer to the problems of the Latin American people. “Though many disagree with me, I came to believe that our presence relieved the local population of the responsibility and the opportunity for social change. Thrown on their own, they would find a way.”
The Catholic presence in South America is terribly exciting, and it is an immensely complex reality.” Father Malley asserts. “It is different from the United States. The people are not church-goers, but in the cities particularly, they are deeply religious in their outlook and philosophy. It’s a cosmic reality. God is active in their lives.
“The church has always been on the side of the poor, and the poor know it. The official hierarchy is very much committed to social change, which causes some problems with some parts of the clergy and with powerful laymen.” Whether change can occur fast enough through the evolutionary process remains a question. “There is a long way to go. In spite of what is called ‘the Brazilian miracle.’ 70 percent of the people have less than a survival income,” he points out. “I hope conditions can change without bloody revolution. Places like Chile leave almost no option, but in Brazil, repressive as the government is, some encouraging cracks are appearing in the military.” One ray of hope is that industrialization will bring education and social progress with it. Meanwhile, people working for peaceful social change are dismayed to “see the United States all too often fearfully backing the status quo.”
“The years in Brazil were the richest part of my life,” Father Malley declares emphatically, then reconsiders. “Well, maybe not the richest – life has been good to me – but very rich. It was immensely exciting in 1965. The church was in the vanguard of social change. It was very ecumenical, and old hatreds were wiped out. We worked with the Peace Corps, and with Protestants. Everybody collaborated in community development – Catholics, Protestants, communists. Together we’d get the pipes laid and water running to people who had never had it before.”
Father Malley doubts that he will ever return to South America on assignment. “One side of me would love to go back,” he muses, “but the other side of me says the reasons for leaving are still valid. I had begun to feel a pain of the foreign presence and a little bit officious. It’s not for me to say what they need.” Aside from that, he adds, “We were spied on and often called communist priests, and our friendship could hurt the Brazilians.” A visit would not work out either. “It would be alike a date with an ex-wife. I have loved the place too much, and my heart was too much in it.”
Since 1973, Father Malley has been in the campus ministry at the Law Center of Georgetown University, an assignment that draws together many of the thread of his life. He has done some team-teaching in the past, but he is preoccupied with counseling, devoting long days to working with young people in many levels of student life. He normally does not wear a clerical collar, and his office – far from ecclesiastical in atmosphere – is in the cinder block basement of designed by Edward Durell Stone. The confessional cubicle is now his kitchen, whence he dispenses coffee along with pastoral concern, where a tidy larder betrays a quite secular predilection for Italian delicacies.”
An indefatigable scholar, Father Malley is taking three courses this term: family psychiatry to help his students and those close to them: German “for fun”: and computer science for a layman’s knowledge of an innovation he look upon as “another steam engine on the horizon,” its potential for change as profound. “Think what computers can do in legal education, and what they can do to close the technological gap for South American countries struggling to catch up. They could bring a quantum leap.”
If it seems a quantum leap also from the oppressive poverty of South America to the impressive hard and software of computer technology, it’s a long way too from commanding landing craft in the Pacific to settling estates in New Hampshire to laying pipe in Brazil. And Father James B. Malley S.J. has demonstrated amply that he’s a good man at bridging gaps.
Fr. Malley is prominently featured in the book Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I, Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence, by Eric F. James.