It was with great sadness that I learned this morning of the death of my friend and collaborator on Fordham’s Bronx Irish History Project, Fr. James Joyce S.J.. I only knew Fr. Joyce at the very end of his life, but he made a strong impression not only on me, but on everyone whom he touched at Fordham’s Bronx Irish Oral History Project.
Describing Jim is not easy because he was a very humble man who never boasted of his many achievements. He lived what his mentor St. Ignatius taught, “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.” Though he was once president of St. Peter’s College, Fr. Joyce preferred to spend most of his life “walking with the excluded.” Those walks took him into psychiatric wards, a dangerous parish in Kingston, Jamaica and into the prisons of Northern Ireland, where he reassured isolated, suffering prisoners that God had not forgotten them. He also served as chaplain in the Tombs, the notorious prison on Lower Manhattan, as well as working with runaway kids and former prostitutes at New York City Covenant House. Fr Joyce wrote just a year before his death, “St. Ignatius sent us to spread faith in Jesus among all, no matter their state or condition.”
Fr. Joyce’s many actions came from a deep wellspring of Catholic faith that was nurtured in his boyhood Brooklyn home. His father, a police officer, and his mother, a secretary, were introduced by a Catholic priest and religion was at the center of a happy childhood. His mother inspired him to become involved with Catholic social teaching. A civil rights activist who worked with Brooklyn’s African American community, Fr. Jim’s mother organized a bus trip to hear Dr. Martin Luther King famous “I have a Dream Speech” on the March on Washington. Her activism, however, was not popular with some of the Brooklyn neighbors who carved threatening racist graffiti into the stairs of the family home denouncing her mother’s support of black civil rights.
A large, powerful man who excelled at Rugby, Jim was an especially gentle man who deeply influenced not only by Catholic teaching and by scripture, but also by writers who espoused non-violence. He had a profound belief in non-violence, which came from not only from his reading of the new testament, but also from Gandhi, whom he read extensively and Dorothy Day, the now beatified founder of the Catholic Worker whom Jim knew very well.
As a young man, Fr. Jim prayed fervently to look at things through Jesus’ own eyes and Fr. Jim looked on all people with great compassion. He also embraced Ignatius Loyola’s meditations on the three degrees of humility and one of the most extraordinary things about this unique person was his own profound humility.
I spoke often to Fr. Joyce about his years in Northern Ireland. He arrived in Northern Ireland in 1973 and stayed until 1978, during some of the worst years of the troubles. Witnessing the awful violence there only strengthened Fr. Joyce’s commitment to non-violence. He became a figure trusted in both communities and he worked at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland and at the Glencree Reconciliation Center Which brought Protestant and Catholic kids together in the Republic of Ireland. Fr. Joyce also worked secretly as a courier in a failed attempt to broker a 1973 cease fire. He became a great friend and supporter of Fr. Des Wilson, the controversial, but popular Catholic priest from West Belfast.
Fr. Joyce had a profound love for Ireland and all its people, which I saw throughout our many discussions with the people we interviewed for Fordham’s Bronx Irish Oral History Project. Though Fr. Joyce was dealing with pain from chemotherapy and stage three cancer, he brought humor, warmth, and great stories to our discussions of the Irish in the Bronx. Our guests could feel that he exuded a unique aura of goodness. We hope to continue the project as one of his many enduring legacies.
I never heard Fr. Joyce utter a mean or unkind word. After a lifetime of prayer and trying to live his faith, Fr. Jim had achieved a special vision of himself and God. St. Ignatius spoke of finding God in all things, which I know Fr. Joyce did. Ignatius Loyola also taught, “Teach us to give and not to count the cost.” Fr. Jim blessed us all by spending a lifetime of giving and never counting the costs.
Contributed by Geoffrey Cobb.
Editor’s Note: The wake for Fr. Jim Joyce will be held at Murray-Weigel Hall on Wednesday July 26 from 2pm to 5pm for family and friends. The funeral Mass will be at the Fordham University Church on Thursday July 27 at 11am. The funeral will be livestreamed via the Fordham University Campus Ministry website. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.