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When this scholar says 'It's Greek to me' he means it

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, October 7, 2012

Father James McIlhone, director of biblical formation for Archdiocese of Chicago, gives the homily during Mass at the Cardinal Meyer Center on Sept. 27. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

He is: Father James McIlhone, priest-scholar, professor at Mundelein Seminary for 23 years, author, recipient of academic honors, and the director of biblical formation for the archdiocese. He gives missions, seminars, does radio programs, days of renewal, and is a resident at St. Edward Parish. Ordained in 1974.

Growing up: “I’m an only child. Grew up on the South Side of Chicago, St. Lawrence Parish. That’s where I went to grammar school and from there I went to Quigley South, Niles, and St. Mary of the Lake.” He got his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies at Marquette University in 1987.

“My dad was a furniture refinisher for Sears Roebuck. Many times if something got scratched in transit he’d go out and make the scratches go away. When I was young, I’d go along with him and learned some of the tricks of the trade.” 

Irish roots: “I’ve got a family forest (not just tree) of about 7,500 people. I’ve been to Ireland 15-16 times. Basically my family is in Ireland. My mother and two of her sisters came out to this country and my father came out to this country, but the rest are all in Ireland. I have a first cousin, Father Dan Sullivan, retired up at Lake Villa. He’s my closest relative nearby.

My mother was from County Limerick and my father was from County Antrim, so I’m the Green and the Orange. My father was Catholic, although from the North.”

Never studied in Rome: “When I was going through the seminary a number of my professors teaching us to be parish priests, went directly into advanced studies rather than parish work. I made a promise to myself that I would spend at least five years in a parish before I did any kind of study. Near the end of the fourth year I was offered to go to Rome. I said ‘I’ll do it next year.’ The offer was withdrawn. Any number of people told me I made the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t agree.

“I went on to be a parish priest for 13 years and got my doctorate during that time. That experience in the parish was one of my strengths in teaching seminarians. When students would ask me, what good is this, I could say, ‘Well this is how this fits in a parish -- here’s how this works…’”

Becoming a Scripture scholar: “Going through school I hated literature and English. I liked science, math, and language classes. I laugh now, because I spend my life in classical and Biblical literature! The Lord has ways of bringing you around.  I love Greek and Latin and I love Scripture – all of the above.”

He has a down-to-earth approach to the Good Book. “It all depends on how you view the Scriptures – if you see them as literature, about what happened 2,000 years ago, then – you’re going to end up being rather stuffy. If you see Scripture is about someone who’s alive today and active – Jesus -- you’ll talk about it like the person down the street. And the only way to get to know Jesus is through the Scriptures. Are you looking at them as a document or as something that’s leading you to faith? That’s the distinction.

“I teach like I preach – and my classes were well received by the seminarians. The last question I asked when we’d finish a text was: ‘Now how would you preach that?’ Then direct them, and force them to wrestle with the text and come up with something to say.  Not just look at the local homily aid.”

Favorite Gospel writer? “I think it’s a toss up between Mark and John. Mark gets a bum rap. I try to show people he’s not this little school kid who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and had to be corrected by Matthew and Luke, but rather a prominent theologian in his own right.

“And of course, John is just spectacular. The depths and wonder of what he says. The line we say over and over again, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When you read that in Greek, “The Word became flesh” -- in a definite moment of time God became one of us. ‘Dwelt among us’ isn’t a good translation. ‘Pitched his tent among us’ is the meaning of the Greek. And of course the tent is the dwelling place of God.  The tent ultimately becomes the temple of God, and then the next line is, ‘We have seen his glory,’ and the glory is the presence of God. So Jesus in becoming one of us, becomes for us what the temple was for Judaism, and then that just develops throughout John’s Gospel.”

Trips to the Holy Land: “I think I’ve made eight or nine. Number 10 is in process. I’ve spent two and a half months there a few times and one and a half months there a few more times. The first time I went -- back in 1978 -- I thought it would be my only time. What happens when you are there, is your view of the Scriptures totally changes. You begin to see it in a whole new way because you’re in the culture, walking the steps, seeing what’s there, and how pieces fit together.

“One thing in an early trip that was wonderful for me was, as the bus came up the East side of the Mount of Olives, and you got to the top -- suddenly the entire city of Jerusalem just opens out before you as you look down. Remembering how on Palm Sunday they come up to the top of the Mount of Olives and then begin to descend into the City of Jerusalem. You can’t describe it. Nowadays you can’t do that because a wall is there.

“Another thing came alive on a recent trip, when we were out on the Sea of Galilee. It was a slightly rainy, windy day and we were in a rather sturdy boat, but still we were being tossed all over the place. I thought, ‘My God, what would it be like to be out in this on one of those first-century boats?’

His internet evangelization: “It’s called, ‘The Word Made Clear,’ the title of a book I wrote many years ago. The Cardinal had wanted me to ‘make the diocese biblical,’ kind of a tall order. I came to the conclusion the best way to reach the most people is the internet. I sort of borrowed the general idea from ‘Now You Know Media’ – 25-30 minute talks that come out on three CDs and you listen to them in your car, or wherever.

So I did something similar, but did it audio and video. Power-point came out with a way of actually recording the audio over the presentation, and then you could turn that into a movie. I started creating those and sent them out to a number of people, and they liked it, and we then put the website together with the Gospel of Mark, 16 segments of 30-40 minutes each. At the end of each segment there are discussion questions. [It’s free and available on line at wordmadeclear.net.]

“Then with the new ‘Year of the Mass’ in the Pastoral Plan, I’m doing a similar series on the biblical background of the Mass.

“For Cycle C, I’m creating a program similar to the Gospel of Mark on the Gospel of Luke. I’m on the ninth session of that.” 

Computer ease: “I’m self-taught. For 10 years I was the chief computer person at the seminary. I built and ran the system. I also spent much time researching what was available for the Scriptures on the internet. I chaired the computer committee for the Catholic Biblical Association for about four years and was a member of that committee for a number of years.”

Hobbies: “I like to cook. I like to take photos when I’m travelling. I’ve got close to 13-14,000 pictures of biblical sites around the world. I like a good TV show now and then. I’m a fan of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Service). It’s an excellent show on Tuesday night on Ch. 2 and it has a spin-off, NCIS-Los Angeles.

Reading? “I really like Jack Higgins mysteries. I ‘read’ a lot while driving – books on tape. In electronic form I’m reading ‘The Church and New Media’ by Brandon Vogt, the person who spoke at Priests Day in September on ‘Electronic Communication in the Parish.’

A ‘Favorite’ Scripture verse? “It’s the Jeremiah 29:11-13 text. “I know well the plans I have in mind for you, plans for your welfare, not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me.’”