The Irish Jesuit Missions continues its series of interviews with Fr John Moore SJ. From ecologist to theologian, Fr John Moore SJ takes us though his life’s story in Ireland and Zambia.
When John Moore entered the Society of Jesus’ noviciate straight from secondary school, it was customary at the time. Like the other young Jesuits who came straight from secondary school, he was assigned to study for a degree in UCD. He did first Arts but switched over to Science the following year. In his final year one of the research projects he undertook was a follow up survey of vegetation in the Dublin Mountains, which had been researched 50 years previously by the famous naturalist, Lloyd Praeger, the results being published in 1905. He was required to re-survey the parts closer to Dublin and write up the results.
After getting his B.Sc. degree he was sent to study philosophy in the Irish midlands. A few days before he left Dublin, the Fr. Provincial (who had been his Master of Novices and knew all about his scientific interests) suggested that he might look around and start work in an informal way on his Ph.D. during his spare time. He was fascinated by the vast areas of Bogland which stretched in all directions and discovered that a local bog had two very rare plants growing on it: one a rare rush never seen in Ireland before, the other one found in only one other place in Ireland. So he decided to work eventually on a Ph.D. thesis on the ‘Bogs of Ireland’.
During the holiday periods he decided to finish the re-survey of the mountain area south of Dublin, covering the whole area of Praeger’s original survey. He wrote up the results during his spare time while studying Theology at Milltown Park. He finished the job before leaving for ‘Tertianship’, the final year of Jesuit formation which focusses on deepening one’s spiritual life. He was sent to Germany for this stage of his formation, so he left the manuscript with the Professor of Botany to see it through the printing process.
Dublin Mountains’ conversations in Germany
While in Germany his paper on the “Resurvey of the Vegetation south of Dublin” appeared in print and his Professor in Dublin sent him a few reprints. These he distributed to some of the ecologists living on the European Mainland. To his surprise, a reply came back immediately from the famed German ecologist, Reinhold Tüxen. He, along with the famous French ecologist Braun-Blanquet, had been invited to Ireland after Europe began to recover from the effects of World War II. They published their results (in German) in 1952 and John had critiqued some of their work in his paper. Tüxen was extremely pleased. He wrote “Although we published our Irish material 10 years previously, nobody seems even to have read it, let alone critiqued it! “Can you visit me before you return?” Tüxen asked. And so began a long and valued relationship of scientific interests with Reinhold Tüxen.
Before John’s ordination, his Provincial casually mentioned to John that UCD (University College Dublin) had requested to have him on its staff after he had finished his Jesuit studies. “I said ‘Yes’ - is that OK for you John?” All he could say was “You are the boss! If you want me to take up the offer, that is OK by me.”
So John taught for 23 years at UCD, Botany Dept., being eventually appointed Professor and Head of Department.
In the 1970’s the Irish Government was sending quite a lot of official aid to Zambia University, financing lecturers from the Irish Universities to give courses at the University of Zambia. Fr Michael J. Kelly, SJ, a good friend of John since the novitiate, was at this time Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University in Lusaka and was much involved in arranging this government aid; he petitioned the Irish Government to finance John to come as External Examiner of the Biology Department. John accepted the offer and was very struck by the difficulties of running a third world University according to First World standards. When his work in the University was finished John stayed on for some time in order to visit the Irish Jesuit Missioners and help in their work.
A ‘road to Damascus’ moment
John returned to UCD in time to organise things for the new academic year. It was while making his annual retreat in the Jesuit retreat-house, Manresa in Dublin that it happened.
John had been 23 years in the Botany Department of UCD. He was unexpectedly overcome with a very strong feeling that he should relocate to Zambia! Having prayed over the matter, he sent a letter to the Provincial requesting to be sent to the Zambian mission. He was quite late going onto the missions at 56 years of age.
The answer he wanted arrived with one condition – that he remain working within third-level education. Fr Michael Kelly SJ set about arranging a position for him at the University of Zambia and John prepared for this new phase in his life. Then with only two days to go before departure, a telegram arrived from Michael: “SOMETHING GONE WRONG WITH JOB. STOP. COME ANYWAY. STOP.”
“What should I do Fr Provincial?”. The Provincial’s consultants had all been very clear in their requirement that John remain at third level teaching. He consulted Bishop Corboy of Monze, Zambia, who was in Dublin at that time for medical treatment. “You can trust Michael Kelly’s good judgement” he advised. And, with that assurance, John set out for Zambia and a new chapter in the book of his life.
Once a professor, always a professor
The search was then on in earnest for a job in Lusaka, but it had to be in third level education. He found out that when he applied for an advertised position in Agricultural Ecology, he didn’t even get an acknowledgement of his applications. Undaunted, he took the bold step of offering himself and his expertise to the Biology Department in Lusaka University. Not as a professor, not as a salaried staff member—but just as a n ordinary demonstrator! During the following year, he was back in the lecture halls and laboratories, giving tutorials and running practical classes.
At that time, a new lecturer had been employed and she was assigned to run a rather difficult course on Ecology, Statistics and Evolution to the final year students. She became ill. So John and two others stepped up to the mark, put a course together and got the students through their exams.
His opportunistic efforts paid off and he was offered a three year professorship contract, ‘once a professor, always a professor’. The contract was duly renewed after three years.
Former biologist turned theologian
At this time, In Malawi, there were big problems at the Diocesan Major Seminary situated at Zomba in southern Malawi. A decision from Rome requested that three Jesuits be sent in from Zambia—a Rector, a spiritual father and a Dean of Studies.
The Provincial Fr Jim McGloin had two well prepared men for the first two jobs, but he had no one who would be able to take on the job of Dean of Studies. He wrote to the Provincials of all the Jesuit provinces who might have a suitable man qualified to teach theology in English, even for a year or two. At that time John was living with the Provincial and each day when John enquired of him how the search was progressing, the reply was negative. John understood the awkward position the Provincial was in, given that the request had come from Rome. But he had a solution.
His contract was up for renewal but a thought persisted. Should he retire from Biology and teach theology, work towards taking up the Dean of Studies position? He shared his thoughts: Jim was delighted! “Do you really mean that?”.“I do!” said John and so it was settled. The two others were already in Zomba and soon he was welcomed as the third man.
A few weeks remained before the next semester and John had to work very hard to prepare to teach Theology of the Sacraments to students. During the following years he also taught Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.
The Jesuit Provincial had signed two 5-year contracts with the Malawian Bishops but then the Jesuit teachers were gradually withdrawn. After two more years, John too was moved on.
Next stop – Zimbabwe
At Arrupe College, Harare, English-speaking young Jesuits after their novitiate study for their degrees in Philosophy and Humanities. An extra teacher was requested from Zambia and John’s name was put forward. At age 76, there was initial reluctance from the Dean:“This is not a geriatric institute!” he exclaimed. The response was strong advice to accept this very special 76 year old. And so John arrived at his new position having already been rejected! Opinions changed however when it was known that his former experience included the installation of PC computer networks in two seminaries: he agreed upon request to oversee the installation of a new network at Arrupe College.
Philosophy of Science and an Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels and Prophets comprised the main content of his teaching. After seven years’ teaching at Arrupe College he retired, knowing that Arrupe College was seeking recognition and that a Professor on the staff over the age of 80 would not be well received by the international education authorities. Back at Ireland’s UCD, 70 was the limit for even the best preserved lecturer to function.
The influence of others
Fr Tommy Byrne SJ was his Master of Novices for two years and then was made Provincial during which time he always took an interest in John and the development of his scientific interests.
Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ and his account of the atom bomb blast at Hiroshima is the passage John likes to recommend to young men wanting to know about the Jesuits. Fr Arrupe had been a medical student before entering the Jesuits and was the master of novices in the novitiate situated on a hill outside Hiroshima far enough from the centre of the city to avoid any deaths from the blast. Since this was the first atomic blast to be exploded over a civilian target, the medical authorities had no idea of what the best treatment was for severe radiation burns. Fr Arrupe set up a clinic in the novitiate to treat the survivors suffering from severe radiation burns but he had no idea on how to treat them. He had just received a consignment of borax for his infirmary. He discovered that it was quite effective in alleviating the effects of bad radiation burns.
Man’s inhumanity to man framed Fr Arrupe’s whole character and was noted by all who met him. When, several years later, Fr Arrupe viewed the film “Hiroshima, mon amour” where the nuclear blast was replicated—a terrible flash, then awful destruction—the memory came back to haunt him and he resolved never to view it again.
The present pope is also a much admired figure. John was inspired when he read about the change that Pope Francis had experienced when he lived in very poor areas of Brazil. Upon his return he was made Bishop of Bueno Aires.
The day the unexpected occured
Born in Kilmovee, County Mayo in Ireland, John is the eldest of two sons and two daughters. At 10 years of age the family moved to Dublin for his father’s work. He had been separated from them during his primary school years since his mother wasn’t very keen on the local school; so she had sent her son to be educated at the national school where her father was Principal. There the teaching standard was high and in fact, John Mc Grath, his grandfather, was the first Irish National School teacher to receive a University Degree from the Royal University in Dublin.
John’s secondary school years were spent vey happily at Belvedere College in Dublin and was his first encounter with the Jesuits, although John didn’t experience any inclination at the time towards becoming a member of the Society of Jesus. There was a connection in the wider family: Fr Jack Kelly SJ was a first cousin.
Then the unexpected occurred when, on John’s first enclosed retreat in 6th year, Fr Eugene Ward SJ gave the retreat to the young men during their last year of college. Fr Ward had returned from the Chinese missions to study theology and be ordained priest, but he had been blocked by World War II from returning as a young priest.
One evening during the retreat, he was reminiscing about his experiences in China and mentioned the enormous opportunities there since the Chinese people were very receptive to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Suddenly, like a flash, John was convinced that the Lord wanted him to be a Jesuit! Next day, determined to rid himself of what he felt to be a silly teenage crush on the Jesuits, he took a long walk in the rain – to no avail. He asked Fr. Ward, the retreat director, what he should do about it. “Ah interesting.” was the only reply he got, and that was all! But John could not shake the thought off. He decided to attended Mass every morning with the intention that the Lord would help him to shake off the idea. It did not work!
Next step was to run this persistent notion past the Prefect of Studies who advised John to speak with the Provincial about it. So far he had kept the idea to himself knowing that once it was shared, it would spread, which it did eventually. He confided his decision to his uncle, Fr Jack Kelly’s father, who scolded him for not informing his parents first. But John’s parents weren’t surprised at his decision to enter the Society of Jesus and were very supportive.
A lifetime’s decision finally made
It was decided—John went to Emo to begin his studies! And so the decision to become a Jesuit was partly influenced by Belvedere College, partly perhaps by his cousin Jack Kelly SJ and certainly by Fr Ward’s quiet evening musings over his experience as a missionary in China.
Ironically, at the beginning of John’s second year at Belvedere, the prefect of studies decided he should be a member of a small class studying classical Greek while the rest of the class were studying Science. His parents requested that he take Science, given his inclination towards the subject, but the Prefect was adamant. It was only a few months before the Leaving Cert Exam that the Prefect allowed him the option of writing the Science exam.; John decided to finish the Greek course. The result was that Science as a subject was not taken by him at secondary school and yet he ended up as a scientist plus theologian! The knowledge of classical Greek became very useful later on in study of Sacred Scripture—to this day, John always reads the New Testament in Greek.
Retirement in Zambia
John is now living a very busy retirement in Zambia in the novitiate for English-speaking young African men wishing to join the Jesuits. He teaches an introduction to the New Testament to novices—a challenge at times, as some hold fundamentalist ideas and expect every word in the New Testament to be ‘gospel truth’ even when taken outside of its context. John divides his time between community work, managing a large library and the Jesuit archives for Zambia.
The Irish Jesuit Missions is grateful to Fr Moore for the time and care given to his interview in July 2016 and for this ensuing article.
Author: Irish Jesuit Missions Communications, 24th November 2016