WASHINGTON – For Jesuit Father James McCann, it all started with taking a course in the Russian language while in high school.
“They were offering different languages” to students, said Father McCann, 61, a Chicago native. “I probably put down Russian as my third choice. But what I think they did was that they took everyone who put Russian down as any choice at all and put them into the class.”
As providence would have it, Father McCann liked learning Russian. That led to an interest in almost anything having to do with the East.
That interest led to his current stop, a seven-year stint as head of the U.S. bishops’ Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.
It will play an important role in his next assignment, as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.
Pope Benedict XV established the institute for the study of Eastern Christianity in 1917. When it was founded, the word “Oriental” as a reference to the East was in vogue.
The institute provides theological and spiritual education to about 400 priests, religious, seminarians and laypeople. It also has the world’s only academic program for the Code of Canons for Eastern Churches, according to Father McCann.
The institute’s previous head was given a post with the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches.
In an interview with Catholic News Service, Father McCann said he had been told last November that he was being considered for the rector’s position. “But it takes a long time for these things to work themselves through,” he said with a laugh.
The Jesuit, who joined the order in 1967 and was ordained a priest in 1979, had been a professor and dean of freshmen at Loyola University in Chicago, then taught and served as director of peace studies at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Father McCann said he may be regarded as a “neutral party” as a Western, Latin-rite priest among a student body representing 20 Eastern churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
He noted there is still a “meeting in the hidden room” mentality among some Eastern Catholics because of their decades-long struggle to preserve church traditions under communist or other authoritarian governments. One way to address that, Father McCann said, is by establishing an Internet presence for the institute.
Father McCann speaks English, Russian, Polish and German. “I’m working on Italian,” he added.
His fascination with the East led him to two memorable experiences. One came in Ukraine when, as a young man, he suffered a burst appendix. “I nearly died,” he said, but he got the care he needed to survive and make a full recovery.
The other came while he was a young Jesuit. He and several other young men visited rural outposts in the Soviet Union as tourists.
“Because our travel papers listed us as ‘campers,’ we were not subjected to the kind of scrutiny the Soviets gave other visitors,” McCann said. He added that the experience of pitching tents each night and figuring out how to acquire enough food for sustenance with each new day gave him an appreciation for the hardships that Soviet citizens endured on a daily basis.
When Father McCann took over as executive director of the Office to Aid the Church in Central and Eastern Europe, it was a stand-alone office. In 2007, as part of the ongoing reorganization of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it became part of the National Collections Office, headed by Patrick Markey.
Besides Eastern Europe, the collections office also oversees Peter’s Pence, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Home Missions Appeal, Church in Latin America, Catholic Communication Campaign and Catholic Campaign for Human Development.
Before the reorganization, the offices – each charged with administering the receipts of national collections to benefit the church in specific regions of the world – operated with a great deal of autonomy.
Father McCann said that for him, the change was not a big deal. “It was a big plus for us. We maximized the use of our resources. We were separate silos before,” he said. Under the current structure, he added, it’s “a more professional operation.”
Father McCann is expected to stay in his current position into July, after which he will get ready for his new appointment, which begins in September.