Bill O’Donnell was no saint. In fact, I think he would object to any pious reference with his name. Why? Because he was one of the most honest human beings who ever walked the earth.
That’s the thing about a man like Bill O’Donnell: He didn’t have a drop of guile in his blood. And as far as his spiritual side—though I’m really in no position to make this assumption, since I did not know him all that well—but my feeling, my sense was that his was a tormented soul. Yes, that’s right, tormented.
Why? Because people who are genuinely honest, who can step outside of themselves—men and women who want to be good human beings, who aspire to be pure and honest—they know they are not perfect. They know it because they understand what it means to be perfect: They can actually conceptualize it, something most of us could never even begin to do.
Yes I believe Bill experienced distressing moments of doubt, and that those moments tormented him. Bill may have even had moments when he questioned his own faith.
Such incredibly rare individuals deal with their own demons and weaknesses in their own way—and Bill’s way was to fight for social justice, for peace, for love. Yes, love. Father O’Donnell was a man whose heart was overflowing with love—so much so that I would guess it damn near killed him.
But he was no saint.
It’s well known that Bill was a outlaw, having been arrested over 300 times. He was a jailbird as well, recently serving a six month sentence for trespassing at the School of the Americas. Prior to doing time at Atwater Penitentiary, at a going-away party, a friend told him, “I’m proud to know a priest that is going to jail for something other than pederasty.”
I once shared a flask of Irish whiskey with Bill at a friend’s house as we watched a heavyweight fight on television. It was a good fight, though many may be shocked to learn that a man like Bill liked to watch the fights. But he did.
Bill also had a devilish sense of humor—a wry, tell-it-as-it-is, loving, sarcastic wit that would bring a demagogue to their knees, and lift those up who felt discouraged by the darkness that sometimes seems to have enveloped the world. He would cock his head to one side, his eyes would sparkle, and with a phrase, he would turn the tables on those he believed were hypocrites, thieves, liars, and – what to him were perhaps the greatest sinners of all—the greedy.
Still Bill had his moments of doubt and pain. But if you ask me, that is the sign of a truly great man. Here was someone who gave his life to the church, to his Savior —a man who believed the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven was a path created by one’s work, by their actual physical and spiritual dedication to people and the earth and the future—here, on this planet, in this world, now… Bill was such a truly incredible, intelligent, honest human being that it seems only natural that he would question everything – even his own faith.
One thing is for certain—Bill often questioned his own intentions, and whether he did what he did to satisfy his own ego, out of anger, or for honest reasons.
Personally, I am not a religious man. I’m not devout enough to even consider myself an agnostic. But if there ever lived a man, or a woman, who, by their example, moved me to even consider becoming a religious person, it was Bill O’Donnell. He actually practiced what he preached.
That is why Bill O’Donnell was more than just a spiritual leader, more than a soldier in the battle for social justice, freedom, and peace – he was a living testament to the power of one’s actions if one follows their heart and thinks about others. Yes, Bill O’Donnell was flesh and blood, all right, and he never pretended to be anything else. In fact, if one had ever told him to his face he was a saint, my guess is that Bill’s eyes would have sparkled, he would have laughed that warm, loving laugh, then say something like “that’s the funniest damn thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life…”
God bless Father Bill O’Donnell. May he rest in peace.
James Carter is an Albany resident.