|Legacy of Rev. William (Bill) J. Young, CSB|
Where does one begin when it comes to capturing the presence and legacy of Rev. William (Bill) Young, CSB? Frequently social justice advocates are firebrands with confrontational personalities. By contrast, Father Bill’s forte was to raise consciousness about social justice issues through a very balanced disposition. His understated style – an approach consonant with the Basilian charism – was just as able to achieve results without much acrimony.
Father Bill was born in Toronto on 24 April 1925. At the age of seventeen, he entered the St. Basil’s Novitiate in Toronto. Six years later, in 1948, he graduated with honors in the areas of History and Modern Languages at the University of Toronto. Over the next four years, he studied theology first at the Grand Séminaire de Quebéc and then at St. Basil’s Seminary in Toronto. On 29 June 1951, he was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal James Charles McGuigan at St. Basil’s Church in Toronto.
From 1951-1958, Father Bill served as a teacher in various locales: Toronto, Quebec City, Paris, and Rochester. His first encounter with the University of St. Thomas came in 1958. Over the next decade he served in turn as a teacher (especially in French), then as an Academic Dean, and then as President in 1966-67. Father Bill once remarked that when he arrived at the Houston airport and the summer hot, humid air first enveloped him, he thought he had landed in hell! He departed UST for the next decade, 1967-1977. Then in 1977 he returned to UST to become the first Academic Vice President, 1977-79 and then President and Chancellor, 1979-85. When he became President for the second time, he stated, true to his personality: “They elected me this second time so that I could get it right!”
It was toward the end of his presidency, that his institutional commitment to social justice blossomed. In the mid-1980’s there was a great deal of discussion surrounding the pending publication of the U.S. Pastoral Letter, Economic Justice For All, and the critique made of it by Michael Novak – this document of course was the focus of our deliberations at last year’s Institute. Father Bill decided it would be good to have a group on campus reflect and deliberate on this debate. Then he found out a group in the Archdiocese was planning to do the same, so Father Bill offered: “why don’t we come together and mutually engage the Letter.” This was the beginning of the Social Concerns Commission, a joint endeavor between UST and the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Under Father Bill’s leadership, for the following decade, the Social Concerns Commission sponsored twenty-six events, for the community-at-large, covering a wide range of topics including the consistent ethic of life, heath care, immigration, housing, economic justice, family issues, business ethics, cultural diversity, labor issues, and the peace pastoral. Then in 1996, the Commission evolved into the present-day UST Social Justice Committee, which again under Father Bill’s guidance, continued (and still continues) to probe the relationship of Catholic social teaching to the pressing political, socio-economic issues of the day.
Deliberations on the UST Social Justice Committee during the period between 1998-2004 led to both the creation of this Institute, now in its fourth year and the new Social Justice Studies Program. Father Bill’s role was pivotal to the adoption of the social justice curriculum, persistently cultivating support for it among the Basilians and among the UST Board of Trustees.
We could dwell upon other charisms and other accomplishments that Father Bill either embodied or did. As a member of the Basilian General Council, the Basilian Newsletter accents the confidence he instilled in his confreres through “his steadfast and wise approach to things and his deep love for the community.” As Father Robert Crooker noted in his eulogy at Father Bill’s funeral, many Basilian seminarians point to Father Bill as “the sort of Basilian they aspire to be.” One faculty member once remarked that the calm, poignant demeanor of Father Bill’s homilies made him the perfect eulogist for one’s funeral. A recipient of the Chavalier des Palmes Académiques for his service to French culture, Father Bill retained a steadfast commitment to the French community in Houston. In turn, Father Bill also had to endure troubled times – be it as a UST President wrestling with the woes of the economic downturn in Houston economy in the early 1980’s or the short life of the old UST basketball team for which he had had such great hopes.
Although he could have spent his career achieving renown as a French scholar or as a spiritual director of both laity and clergy, for well over three decades Father Bill was the institutional conscience of social justice at UST. The French Catholic thinker, Emmanuel Mounier, accents that genuine Christian engagement entails an integration of the prophetic and political poles of action. Prophetic witness without political enactment degenerates into moral platitudes. Political action divorced from prophetic witness too easily becomes a set of vacuous manipulations. Generally, when we think of leaders who successfully integrated prophetic and political action, we think of figures such as Martin Luther King who knew that the moral righteousness of the civil rights movement would only reach its full realization through a protest politics steeped in an awareness of the dynamics of US political culture. However, Father Bill embodied a different exemplar of this synthesis: his reveille was not to the barricades but to the painstaking task of using institutional practices to foster, however meager at times, the ends of social justice and in the process, give moral renewal to these same institutions.
Just a week before his death, Father Young commented to the partners of the Institute how proud he was that UST now had a Social Justice Institute and how it was a wonderful example of collaboration between the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Catholic Charities, and UST. His closing reflections at the 2006 Institute, again in that balanced yet penetrating manner for which he had few equals, became an in-depth reflection on why the commitment to social justice, is not just an addendum to the Christian vocation, but is essential for each for us to realize our full spiritual life, both in personal and in community terms. To honor his steadfast devotion to social justice at UST and in the Galveston-Houston region, the UST Social Justice Institute is named after Father William J. Young.