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Father Robert F. Manning, SJ, a longtime Jesuit leader and the former president of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and provincial of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus, died on Oct. 6 of prostate cancer at Campion Center in Weston. He was 71.
A native of Somerville and a graduate of St. Clement High School, Father Manning entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 17 at Shadowbrook, the Jesuit novitiate in Lennox. He volunteered for the Jesuit missions and was assigned to Iraq, where Jesuits from the New England Province had been operating Baghdad College and Al Hikma University in Baghdad since 1932. While there, he learned Arabic, studied the Koran and did his master’s thesis on the philosopher Avicenna. In 1964 Father Manning participated in Pope Paul VI’s historic visit to Jerusalem where, fellow Jesuits say, he was touched by the sight of Muslims, Christians and Jews living together in peace. He remained in Baghdad after the Baathist coup of 1963, returning to the United States in 1964 to study at Weston College. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1967.
In 1968 Father Manning enrolled in the New Testament doctoral program at Princeton Theological Seminary, the first Catholic, the first priest, and the first Jesuit to do so. According to his friend and successor at Weston Jesuit, Father Richard Clifford, SJ, his increasing involvement in the anti-war movement and peace and justice issues led him in 1970 to accept the invitation of Father John Brooks, SJ, then the new president of the College of the Holy Cross, to become chaplain and teach theology. He remained in Worcester from 1970-1985, serving as rector of the Holy Cross Jesuit community during his last three years.
In 1985, Father Manning was named provincial of the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. After six years as provincial, he was named rector of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, where he served from 1991-1996, before being named president of Weston Jesuit School of Theology (WJST) in Cambridge.
As president, Father Manning played a critical role in the re-affiliation of Weston Jesuit with Boston College, which combined WJST, BC’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry and the online programs of the Church in the 21st Century Initiative into the new School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. The school, which is considered one of the nation’s foremost theological centers, opened on the Brighton Campus of Boston College this summer.
In addition, Father Manning served on the board of trustees at the University of San Francisco and Creighton University and on the boards of the American Theological Society and the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). His work with NCEA’s seminary division helped influence the Program for Priestly Formation of the United States Catholic Bishop’s Conference.
An avid reader, he enjoyed all things theological, including reading widely in contemporary theological scholarship, as well as the New Testament, which he read in Greek. Most recently, said his Jesuit friend Father Paul Harman, SJ, he read through St. Paul’s letters in commemoration of the Pauline year.
“Father Manning was a man of great passion for Christ, for the Church and for the Society of Jesus,” said Fr. Harman. “No one who knew him could mistake his priorities.”
During much of his presidency at Weston Jesuit, Father Manning endured multiple operations on his shoulders and hips because of a degenerative joint condition. In February of 2007 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which forced him to resign as president in August of that year.
“A warm hearted and deeply affectionate man, Father Manning knew how to encourage people and let them know how special they were,” said Father Clifford. “Though in great pain during the 18 months of his illness, he spent much of the day phoning and emailing his friends and former students, and there was plenty of laughter in the exchange.”
Father Bradley Schaeffer, SJ, rector of the Weston Jesuit Community, added, “From the beginning of his illness, Bob told me that he wanted to die as a good Jesuit should, with his eyes set on the Lord. He has done that; he has completed his journey of faith with incredible grace and fidelity.”
His funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 8 at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, Newton. He was the son of the late Denis and Mary (Dorney) Manning and brother of Raymond, Malden and Denise McAuliffe, North Reading. Father Manning was buried in the Jesuit Cemetery, Weston.