A Jesuit Formation in the Crucible of War

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The road of Jesuit formation can be challenging, but it doesn’t get any more difficult than the one taken by Jesuit Father John Ruane nearly seven decades ago.

He celebrates his 90th birthday this month, and in many ways he doesn’t look much different than he did in an April 1945 group photo with 49 other Jesuits liberated two months earlier from a Japanese internment camp in the Philippines. Father Ruane still has a full head of hair and the same lanky visage he did when as a young man he posed in U.S. military uniform (the clothes were a gift as the Jesuits had left their confinement with only their prison garb). He still goes out for his daily walk, even in the worst weather conditions.

“He is probably the most well-liked member of our Jesuit community,” said Father Tom Sheridan, S.J., who notes that Father Ruane’s affable personality once caused a fellow Jesuit to quip, “Knowing John Ruane would cause one to have doubts about the universality of original sin.”

But don’t mix a genial disposition with evidence of an easy life. Father Ruane is a survivor. At the start of the war, there were 125 American Jesuits in the Philippines. Father Ruane was among 87 put under immediate house arrest by the Japanese and, as the war came to its close, eventually interned at Los Baños (A smaller number were interned on Mindanao, and others, who were parish priests, operated freely throughout the war, protected by their Filipino parishioners). Among this group, Father Ruane is one of three still living (the other two are Fathers James Reuter in the Philippines and Father Clarence Martin, who resides near Philadelphia).

After the war, Father Ruane returned to the Philippines, teaching philosophy at the Ateneo de Manila. Ordained a priest in 1949, he later taught at the now-closed St. Joseph’s College on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, Spring Hill College in Alabama, and at his hometown St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, beginning in 1970.

Retired from teaching just last year, Father Ruane resides in a Jesuit community near the college, and celebrates Mass at St. Cecelia’s Church in Iselin, N.J., and at convents in Jersey City.

“I like the work of a priest. I enjoy teaching,” Father Ruane said about his long career.

For decades he tried to inspire undergraduates with the wonders of Western philosophy. Most of those students, he noted, were at an age anxious to move on with their careers and perhaps couldn’t fully appreciate until much later in life the questions raised by the ancient philosophers.

Surely that wasn’t the case in Father Ruane’s young life, tempered as it was by his war experience. One of six children – his father was co-owner of two taverns in Jersey City – Father Ruane graduated from St. Peter’s Prep and, inspired by the example of Jesuit scholastics there,  entered the Society in 1937. After completing novitiate, Father Ruane, along with five other scholastics, journeyed to the Philippines in 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor would take place only months later, and the rumor of war was heavy in the air. On the boat over to the Philippines, the scholastics shared their space with military personnel.

“We went anyway,” Father Ruane noted in his understated fashion. By Christmas of that year, the scholastics huddled at a Jesuit school in Manila as Japanese planes flew overhead. As Japanese forces took over the city, the Jesuits were placed under house arrest for most of the war.

As Allied armies advanced, the Jesuits were interned at Los Baños, at an agricultural college 20 miles outside Manila. There they were held from July 1944 until they were liberated on Feb. 23, 1945, along with nearly 2,000 other prisoners, many from Catholic religious orders.

One short history published in American Catholic Studies describes their ordeal as including a “starving time,” as rations were cut back to less than 700 calories a day as the Japanese began losing the war. Prisoners survived on lugao, a watery rice dish. Beriberi, caused by vitamin B deficiency, was common. Documents captured after the war indicated that the prisoners were to be executed, an event curtailed only by their liberation.

That began with a surprise raid by American paratroopers and Filipino guerrillas, who descended upon the camp, killed the captors, and brought the prisoners to safety, traversing by boat a nearby lake as Japanese troops fired upon them. Just one prisoner was injured during the escape but Filipinos in a nearby village were killed by the Japanese, charged with abetting the escape.

Father Ruane, looking back on it, considers himself lucky. He had no bitter personal experiences with cruel guards.

“I never had direct contact with Japanese soldiers. We were just hungry all the time,” he said. Rations were sparse and, he notes, there surely would have been deaths from starvation if their imprisonment had lasted much longer.

Peter Feuerherd
Freelance writer Peter Feuerherd is a media consultant for the Jesuits’ New York Province.

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