Fr. Tennant Wright, SJ, remembers how gentle, annoying, playful, thoughtful, tough, and caring his fishing buddy and friend Fr. Philip Oliger, SJ, (1904 - 1986) could be.
I once threatened to throw him out of a rowboat into a chill mountain lake. No one could irritate me with his calm and kind and telling word like old Phil. He crossed the old Jordan to be with God sixteen years ago, but he walks with me still by mountain trout streams, through my days in China, whenever I talk with a student or go to confession or preside at the liturgy or act in any priestly or Christian or human way. Whenever I am angry or meet passion in any form anywhere, I remember him commenting after one of my outbursts that "Passion is the sign that we are alive."
I had promised to write a few words about Fr. Phil Oliger, SJ, whom I chose as my confessor. I kept putting it off. But one night I awoke thinking that I owe him this, some scatterings about the mystery of the man, like his silences when I would expect him to speak or like the old photo he treasured by his bed, a photo of someone neither family nor friends could identify after Phil's death.
A few years before Phil died, an Asian student at Santa Clara University interviewed him. She felt drawn to the man, and not just because he appreciated Asia and endured critical years of his life there. The young had a fondness for him and he for them. He spoke their language—or anyone's for that matter, the old, the young, the really young. Among other nutty wisdoms, he said that all babies understood Chinese and would whisper Chinese into their ears. The student wrote about an attitude in him "of reserve and toughness, intermingled with a sense of geniality which reveals someone who has suffered trying human experiences." No surprise, either the gentleness or the toughness.
Except for the usual childhood disappointments and illnesses, his youth held happiness and warmth for this sixth of eight children. His sister, Jo, recalls how close Phil was with his family, close enough to split his head open the day before his First Communion trying to "follow the leader" in the steps of his two older brothers. The Oliger family lived two miles from church and two miles from school. Each day Phil and some of his siblings walked to Mass, then home for breakfast, then to school, home for lunch, back to school, and home again. That's twelve miles walking and talking, plus the hours studying and playing together.
In the winter the three boys and their father hunted. But the warmer seasons, when the trout were rising--those were magic days. I am a fisherman, not adept, but I know an expert when I see one. Phil was the finest dry fly fisherman I have ever met. He could wade into a gin-clear stream, floating a fly down riffles and around boulders, settling it on a glass-slick pool. He could drop the tiny feathered hook with the lightness of the insect it imitated within six inches of a trout. Phil caught fish, even when they weren't biting.
Phil fished and hunted with his brothers. He spent easy time with his sisters. Some priests are never comfortable with women, always on edge or on stage or on guard. Not Phil. He had a healthy affection for women and they for him. Many cherished him as friend and priest and confidant who sent flowers on their birthdays. For years he was a resident counselor in one of Santa Clara's women's halls. His relations with them and later with many as alumnae were enviable and imitable.
Phil would call his sister "Knucklehead" when she messed up. Like the Chinese, he gave nicknames, a sign of affection, though often a mixed blessing for the person named. He named one student "Hoofer" because he danced well, another "Squash" because the word sounded like her name. Phil called one of his dearest friends "Doc" but renamed her "Double Doc" after she earned a second doctorate. Phil's Jesuit classmate, Fr. Pat Donohoe, was the "Holy Innocent," since he was the youngest in the class. Pat called Phil "Pop," since he was the oldest. I called him "Shen Fu," the revered title for a priest in old China.
For Phil, renaming had a touch of the sacred, like the biblical name changes: Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul. To be named anew by him was an honor. He celebrated the liturgy late each morning with a small group of students. For those fortunate enough to join him it was an unforgettable ritual. He was reverent but not stiff, personal but not maudlin. One student remembers: "He'd invoke our names with the names of the saints. We were really participating in the celebration, sharing in all the readings and helping to elevate the offering. We weren't separated from what was happening on the altar."
The Asian student who interviewed Phil spoke of his tough side and his gentle side. His family, his humor, his priestly counseling reminded us of his geniality. However, tough-mindedness permeated his life. Phil often remained silent, not uselessly arguing. If asked, he would respond. When he did speak, his words came from experience and learning. He could criticize, sharply when needed. With those in need he volunteered his reflections, caring for the truth, not for esteem.
I have known only one other person who read and remembered as much as Phil. His room was a well-stocked and disorderly library. Everyone who came to him with a problem left with a book to ponder. One student recalled how "I rarely saw him walking across campus without a book in hand, even reading while he walked." Passing him on campus one day I blurted out, "Shen Fu, why don't you look up and greet me when we pass? You're always reading one of your damn books." He smiled.
I learned much from Phil. About fly fishing, of course, but more crucial lessons about the use of criticism and the grace of anger. We were fishing at dusk on a High Sierra lake. I was not casting well. Phil reminded me of the key rule for a good cast: "Keep your elbow close to your side." I kept forgetting, and he kept repeating, "Keep your elbow in." Finally, tired and discouraged, I exploded: "If you say that once more I'll throw you in the lake."
Phil said nothing. He rowed to shore, put our tackle in the car, and drove to a store. He bought a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. We each had a good slug, then a relaxing dinner, chatting about fishing and the importance of passion, specifically anger. He said, "It's good to have someone rouse you, get your dander up, so you want to sock him in the jaw." Or throw him in the lake, I thought.
Any burst of anger or affection was welcomed by Phil as a sign of humanity. He believed that passion pushes us to what he called the "committed" life rather than to the ennui of the "habitual" life. That evening on the lake he pushed me as I had watched him push others in his funny way.
That other side of Phil--the no-nonsense survival side--whatever its origin, its time of maturing was his six and a half years in Japanese and Chinese prisons. "I look back on that period as one of the most fruitful of my life," he told me. When the Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1941, the Japanese consul put Phil and a number of other Jesuit seminarians and priests under the charge of the bishop of Shanghai.
Here he continued theology studies. He struggled with the confinement, roll calls at odd moments, constant surveillance, and food fit only for animals, he said. The daily menu was eight-year-old rice meant to feed pigs. He laughed that "in time the two- inch weevils in the rice seemed a tasty meal." He slipped from 165 to 120 pounds. His health never recovered. Amoebic dysentery was his lifelong guest that gave him hours each day of privy reading.
Those years of asceticism began his life of theological reading. He became a rare theologian, both learned and practical. On June 2, 1944, he was ordained in the prison compound. Life there had taught Phil that, "The illusion is that we are ever going to have a perfect human life. We are not. Suffering is a necessary ingredient in life, and the earlier we learn to live with it and draw benefit from it, the more productive our life is going to be."
In 1949 he returned to China. The Communists interned him for two and a half years. In comparison to the Japanese experience the Chinese prison seemed like hell, "a total lack of humanity," as he said. Phil rarely mentioned those days and nights in the Nanking internment. When he did, he spoke with anger of the "manipulation of the mind," the constant attempt to induce guilt and destroy personal identity, the lies and betrayals by those one thought to be friends.
The details I never heard. Those horrors were lost or hidden in the mystery of his soul. Under such punishment some priests fostered till death a hatred of the Communists. Not Shen Fu. Though he suffered, he learned. He said that in those years of agony he appreciated what St. Paul meant when he wrote, "We meet Christ in our own carnal bodies, in our limitations and the shortcomings of others." As Phil put it, "our Western world has forgotten God's historical action, that we humans are the channel of God's grace, which alone can bring the human mind to good."
Fr. Oliger met Christ in the tortured spirits and sick minds of the prison. He received a final training, begun in his family, that sustained him through the years as priest, teacher, counselor, and rare friend, who for many of us at Santa Clara University guided "the warped human mind to good."