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First Person Father Drinan Befriended Jews,


I said a Jewish prayer for a Roman Catholic priest.

My congregation asked those who wanted to say the Mi Sheberach, the prayer for healing, to stand and name whoever needed health restored. When my time came, I quietly said, “Robert Drinan.”

The Jesuit and former congressman lay in a Washington hospital with pneumonia and a failing heart. Father Drinan died the next day, Jan. 28. He was 86.

The world lost a towering moral force, and Jews specifically lost one of the most important friends they ever had in the U.S. Congress.

In his last term in office — Father Drinan represented a Massachusetts district from 1971 to 1981 — I used to get off the Metro on Capitol Hill knowing that I was on my way to help him work “for the greater glory of God.” That was the Jesuit motto. It was heady to be a 21-year-old legislative assistant for a prominent congressman, and it was humbling to be the servant of a humble servant of God.

I was so used to seeing Father Drinan wearing his black suit and shirt and white collar that I sometimes forgot he was a priest. Then I’d be jarred back, such as the time I read his open letter in the Washington Post to Natan Sharansky. Now an Israeli public figure, Sharansky was then an imprisoned refusenik in the Soviet Union.

“A year ago at the conclusion of your trial you prayed, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ ” Father Drinan wrote. “Please continue to pray until you are answered.”

I paused from my Capitol Hill duties to ponder the power of prayer.

Father Drinan was a preacher who wasn’t preachy. He didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve; he didn’t need to: He wore his clerical collar, and saved his sleeve for liberalism. Father Drinan did more than talk about ecumenism, he lived it. He embodied interfaith dialogue.

Many voters, both Jewish and Catholic, would say, “If he only took off that darned collar, I’d vote for him.” But it wasn’t merely a strip of white: That collar was a bridge between the Jewish and Christian communities, even long after he had left Congress. Father Drinan said Mass for Nancy Pelosi, who was preparing to be sworn in as House speaker, and he said Kaddish in a Jewish house of mourning.

Among the books Father Drinan authored was “Honor the Promise: America’s Commitment to Israel.” He co-founded the National Interreligious Task Force on Soviet Jewry and was a trustee of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Father Drinan was a natural, frequent and welcome speaker in synagogues and before Jewish groups.

By the end of his decade in Congress, the overwhelming response of the Jews he represented — he was also our delegate to the Christian world — was adulation.

It would be cynical and incorrect to say that Father Drinan took the lead in Jewish causes because of his numerous Jewish constituents, especially in Newton and Brookline. His affinity for Jews and Israel began years before elective politics, and lasted until he died.

Betty Taymor, a Democratic activist, relates that in Father Drinan’s first campaign in 1970, a Russian immigrant in a particularly Jewish ward in Newton asked him what the letters “S.J.” after his name meant. They stand for Society of Jesus, designating Father Drinan as a Jesuit.

But Father Drinan answered in a flash, “Somewhat Jewish.”

His “somewhat Jewishness” transformed Jewish politics in Massachusetts. Father Drinan was a Jewish surrogate who paved the way for Barney Frank, his Jewish successor, whom he endorsed.

More important, Father Drinan had made Jews feel more comfortable about their political power in Massachusetts. Frank is only the second Jewish congressman ever in Massachusetts, and the first elected since 1886.

I think that in 1980, when Frank first ran, voters in the district had an assumption that was unexpressed and possibly unrecognized: If we can elect a priest, we can elect a Jew.

Last Saturday, I placed dirt and a small stone on Father Drinan’s polished wooden casket and watched as it was settled into the earth.

A little more than a week before, I had conferred with my rabbi about saying the Mi Sheberach for Father Drinan. But I feel safe, without conferring, about what I’m about to do: add two letters to the name of Robert F. Drinan, S.J,. z”l. Zichronot l’vracha. May his memory be a blessing.

Ken Bresler is a lawyer who lives in Newton, Mass.

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