Died 23 October 2018
Jesuit Father James F. Bresnahan died on Oct. 23, 2018 at Campion Center in Weston, Massachusetts.
He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Dec. 28, 1926, the oldest of three sons of James F. and Margaret (Riley) Bresnahan, whom his father had married after first wife’s death. Both his parents came from Irish families that had settled in the U.S. at the time of the Civil War. When Prohibition ended, Fr. Bresnahan’s father opened a liquor store. His mother was a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College and had been a teacher in the Springfield school system. She wanted her children to attend public schools so, instead of the local Catholic high school, Fr. Bresnahan went to the highly regarded Classical High School.
Fr. Bresnahan was strongly influenced by the priests he knew in his parish, all of whom were graduates of the College of the Holy Cross, so it was no surprise when Fr. Bresnahan, who had escaped being drafted because of nearsightedness, entered Holy Cross, in June 1944, one of the few students there who were not in the Navy’s officer-training program that had operated at the college during WW II. At the college he fell under the influence of Jesuits whose names became notable in Holy Cross lore, among them Frank Hart future president Ray Swords, the economist Fr. Bresnahan Duffy, and the labor leader Frank Shortell. Their impact played a role in his entering the Society and shaped the direction of his future work in ethics and social justice.
When he graduated in 1947, he was one of ten Holy Cross graduates who were accepted at Harvard Law School; three of them eventually entered the Society. Fr. Bresnahan decided, in the middle of his second year, that he would apply to the Society and he entered the Shadowbrook novitiate in Lenox, Massachusetts, on July 30, 1949. He did philosophy studies at Weston. When regency approached he was assigned to finish his final year at law school, where he also received an M.A. in law, then taught English and Latin at Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine, coaching both football and swimming. He took the bar exam in this period and then spent the next four years studying theology at Weston (1956-1960), during which he published his first article, on the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. He was ordained a priest on June 13, 1959, at Weston College in Weston, Massachusetts.
In 1959-1960 he did tertianship at St. Beuno’s in Wales, where he came under the influence of the renowned director Paul Kennedy, who was among those taking the approach to the Spiritual Exercises that focused on the individual’s experience of prayer, a time Fr. Bresnahan found life-changing. Kennedy also assigned him to direct an eight-day retreat for the novices of an order of sisters.
Province superiors decided that Fr. Bresnahan, since he already had some experience of Anglo-American common law, should go to Rome and study canon law. Fr. Bresnahan, however, found canon law’s dependence on Napoleonic Law unsatisfactory and confining, and left the program after a year. In 1962 he moved to Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he taught theology and absorbed the developments of Vatican II, then still in session (and where his interest in fly fishing was revived). He pronounced his final vows on Aug. 15, 1965, at Fairfield.
In 1966, he began doctoral studies in theological ethics at Yale, an experience that shaped much of the work he would do for the rest of his life. One of the features of graduate work at Yale that appealed to Fr. Bresnahan was its ecumenical character and this, too, marked his later work. With the degree in hand, he taught for two years at Regis University in Denver, then was invited to join the faculty of Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, where he taught moral theology and had a joint appointment at the University of Chicago’s School of Divinity. In Chicago he got acquainted with a group of doctors at Northwestern’s School of Medicine who wanted to explore ethical issues in medical practice. When the U.S. provincials decided to close JSTC, in 1981, a move that he found misguided and disheartening. Fr. Bresnahan was invited to take a full-time position directing a program in medial ethics and humanities at Northwestern’s School of Medicine. For 26 summers he also taught in a summer program that the University of Notre Dame organized for its MD alumni. By this time, Fr. Bresnahan had published more than 30 scholarly articles and book chapters.
In 2002, he returned to the New England Province, to live at Boston College. Another community member, Fr. John Mullin, was the Catholic chaplain at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H. John introduced Fr. Bresnahan to doctors there, who welcomed Fr. Bresnahan’s expertise in medical ethics, resulting in an appointment at Dartmouth’s Medical School.
In 2007 he moved to Campion Center, where he continued to consult in the field of medical ethics. Health issues led to a slow decline and he died peacefully on the morning of Oct. 23, 2018.