At the end of every semester, Theology Professor Thomas King, S.J., asks the students in his “Problem of God” class to write a paper on what God means to them. Each year, he says, several students write about how the death of someone close to them affects their feelings about religion.
“I often can’t predict which way those papers are going to go,” King said. He means that he’s never sure whether the death of a family member will drive students closer to God or cause them to give up on religion.
“They go both ways,” he said.
The papers hit closer to home for King than many of his students realize. When King was in seventh grade, his dad, a real estate developer and father of four, died of cancer. Always religious, the death of his father gave King’s faith more meaning, even as a child.
At 72 years old, King has a long history at Georgetown. Every weeknight for more than 30 years, King has celebrated 11:15 Mass in Dahlgren Chapel. His service has a devoted following of students who return every night. He is the co-founder and president of University Faculty for Life, a nationwide organization dedicated to working against abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. King is also a member of Pax Christi, a Catholic organization promoting peace.
King said that he tries to show his students that there is more to life than being in a hurry all the time. He believes that people need time to reflect on their lives. That’s why he celebrates Mass every night. That’s why he takes his classes on contemplative retreats.
Some of his students admire him for what they say is his courage in supporting the pro-life movement, a courage they say that is particularly lacking in academia where popular opinion makes a pro-life stance difficult. Students at his non-traditional Mass say they appreciate the community he builds and the chance he gives them to break away from a hectic college schedule.
Other students dislike King. They say he has strict definitions of morality and religion, and those who fall short of his ideals find no sympathy from him.
Born in Pittsburgh, Penn. in 1929, King is the second of four children. Although when he was very young he thought briefly about becoming a priest, he said that he never felt that he had a vocation or a call from God to religious life.
His brother William was different. William was a first-year student at Georgetown when King was still in his senior year of high school. While still an undergraduate, William joined the Jesuit novitiate.
King said that his brother’s decision to join the priesthood was important to him, but it still didn’t occur to him to become a priest himself. Before the days of need-blind admissions and full financial aid, King’s family could not afford to have two children at Georgetown. King decided to attend the University of Pittsburgh.
“Sometimes people asked me why I was going to college,” King recalled. “My answer was ‘momentum.’ I was going so fast through grade school and high school, college was just the next step.”
King said that his decision to go to college in Pittsburgh lacked any free choice.
“Momentum is kind of a non-freedom,” King said. That’s why his decision to join the Jesuits is so important to him.
Sophomore year in college, King began to feel the sense that Christ was present in his life. One day, King felt that Jesus invited him to become a priest.
“I said yes, and it seemed so fundamental,” King said, “like it was rising up from my toenails.”
Part of King’s philosophy on life and religion involves freedom. He said he doesn’t believe that people are just part of a complex, moving machine.
“I didn’t have a vocation,” King said about becoming a priest. “I had an invitation. I wanted to come. It was my free choice.”
King picked the Jesuits because they seemed the most intellectual of the religious orders.
“I’m not the brightest person around, but I’m more intellectual than most,” King said. “I don’t mean I’m more intelligent, but the process of learning and knowing is important to me.”
After majoring in English in college, King started studying physics in the seminary but gave it up because it was too hard. While still in the seminary, the aspiring Jesuits were given the opportunity to teach a course at Georgetown. King chose to teach a course entitled “Kierkegaard and the Christian Life. ” During the course, King realized what it was he wanted to do with his life as a Jesuit.
“I found that I could express the ideas of a lot of the theologians in a way that people liked,” King said. “It made me think I should be a theology teacher.”
One of King’s most striking attributes is his ability to connect with people. He’s quiet and unassuming but also friendly and disarming. He enjoys meeting new people.
After being ordained in 1968, King immediately began teaching at Georgetown. His first year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and nearly constant protests at various places in Washington, D.C.
One weekend, thousands of students had arrived in D.C. with the plan of closing the city down. Many of them chose to sleep in West Potomac Park before a big day of protests. At 5:15 a.m., D.C. police stormed through the park and kicked students out. All of the colleges in the District closed their campuses to the protesters, refusing to let them stay. Every college except Georgetown.
King remembers that Georgetown’s president and dean of students were out of town that weekend. With no University official around to close the campus, thousands of students flocked to Georgetown, sleeping on the lawn and in dorm hallways.
“I walked out of my room in New North and saw bodies up and down the hall,” King said. “I went around seeing people and meeting people, saying ‘Welcome to campus.’”
As a member of Pax Christi, King is opposed to war and capital punishment. Not quite a pacifist, King said he believes people need to pay more attention to preventing conflict.
“We have all these preparations to war and we don’t give the same preparation to peace,” King said.
He draws parallels between the war in Vietnam and possible war against terrorists responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
“We went pushing into Vietnam, and we felt good every step of the way, but we realized what a mess it was,” King said. “We got ourselves into a war we couldn’t win, and I’m afraid it could be the same situation now.”
King said he is not in favor of letting terrorists go free, but he feels that any action taken needs to be carefully considered with a focus on eventual peace.
“I’m against many wars,” King said. “But I’m especially against wars you can’t win.”
As the co-founder of University Faculty for Life, King takes a strong stance on the issues of abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. Strongly pro-life, University Faculty for Life believe the evidence against abortion and euthanasia is on its side, and feel the best way to get its message across is to assure that the academic community hears it. In an attempt to distance themselves from fringe groups that plot violent action against abortion clinics and doctors, members of University Faculty for Life must sign a pledge not to perform any illegal acts as members of the group.
King’s view on abortion is in line with Catholic teaching that life begins at conception and ends at death. Abortion is an issue that King feels strongly about. “I do think that it’s taking a human life,” he said.
According to King, University Faculty for Life is about creating dialogue around an issue that he feels is not properly discussed. King said that the discussion around abortion should center on whether or not abortion is taking a human life.
“I find some of the things the pro-aborts say to be hard to believe,” King said. He talks about a man who called pregnancy an unwanted intrusion into a woman’s body.
“What? Did he fall with the snowflakes?” King said.
One particular image stands out in King’s mind. A young woman at Georgetown came to him after an abortion, and told him that she often wandered around campus at night. She said she was looking for her baby. King said that people will cite studies that say women feel a sense of relief after an abortion, but King said too often that relief is short-lived.
Still, University Faculty for Life has no set system of beliefs. King acknowledges grey areas for its members in areas such as stem cell research and euthanising those who are brain dead.
“You do get those murky areas,” he said. “We want them discussed.”
He said that too often pro-life groups become cheering sections and fail to adequately address a complex issue. Faculty at various universities wanted a group formed that would focus on exploring issues, not taking an immovable stance.
Part of King’s philosophy of peace extends into everyday life as well. He feels that American life is too hectic and that Georgetown in particular “breeds type-A personalities.”
Part of his attempt to change that has been celebrating 11:15 Mass every weeknight for the last 32 years. King started the Mass in 1969, and it is not a typical weekday gathering. The lights are off for most of the service, and candles light Dahlgren Chapel. King carries certain aspects of Mass over from pre-Vatican II days, including reciting from John’s Gospel. The “Our Father” is prayed in a circle around the altar, with those attending the Mass holding hands.
The students who regularly attend the Mass say they appreciate the slower pace, the soothing lighting and the chance to reflect on their lives. They like hearing King’s homilies, which are often recorded and sold through the Office of Campus Ministry.
Much of King’s personal philosophy is derived from the Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955. Pictures of de Chardin decorate King’s office, and memorabilia linked to the Jesuit crowds King’s bookshelves.
De Chardin was a French paleontologist, biologist and philosopher who spent much of his life trying to link religion and science. His work on evolution played an integral role in Catholic teachings on the subject, and much of his theory revolved around the idea he called the “omega point.” De Chardin saw evolution leading mankind towards an end goal which would be a new state of peace and planetary unity.
King said de Chardin has profoundly influenced his own thoughts; King teaches de Chardin workshops and has written several books on the Jesuit.
“As a priest and a thinker there is a life and vitality in [Teilhard de Chardin] that has moved me very much,” King said. “His interest in science has echoes in myself; he had a passion about him that speaks to me.”
One campus legend that has centered on King for years is his involvement in the famous exorcism written about by William Blatty in The Exorcist.
According to King, when the movie was being filmed on campus, Blatty approached him in Dahlgren quad.
“So you’re the one they say I wrote about?” Blatty asked King.
King denies any role in exorcisms, famous or not, but said the rumor has entertained him. Blatty asked King if scenes from the movie could be filmed in his room in the Jesuit residence. The movie involves two priests, one young and one old, who perform an exorcism on a girl in Georgetown.
“At the time of the movie, everyone thought I was supposed to be the younger priest,” King said. “Now they think I’m the older one.”
At 72, King has no plans to retire yet. He enjoys teaching students, especially first-years. “They take ideas seriously,” he said, “which is good, because I take ideas seriously.
“I still feel a lot of vitality and energy,” he said. “I don’t have any set time for retirement.”