Type of entity
Authorized form of name
Johnston, William, 1925-2010, Jesuit priest
Parallel form(s) of name
Standardized form(s) of name according to other rules
Other form(s) of name
- Bill Johnston
Identifiers for corporate bodies
Dates of existence
30 July 1925-12 October 2010
Born: 30 July 1925, Belfast, County Antrim
Entered: 20 September 1943, St Mary's, Emo, County Laois
Ordained: 24 March 1957, St Ignatius, Tokyo, Japan
Final Vows: 02 February 1961, Tokyo, Japan
Died: 12 October 2010, SJ House, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, Japan - Japanese province (JPN)
Transcribed HIB to JPN: 02 February 1961
Grew up in Holyhead, Wales and Liverpool, England, and returned to Belfast.
by 1952 at Eiko, Yokosuka-shi, Japan (JPN) studying
by 1954 at Sophia University, Tokyo (JPN) Regency teaching
by 1955 at Nerima-ku, Tokyo (JPN) studying
◆ Jesuits in Ireland : https://www.jesuit.ie/news/tokyo/
Goodbye to Bill
Fr Bill Johnston, who has died in Tokyo, had a good send-off, reflecting the remarkable impact of this diffident Belfast-born Jesuit. It included a message from President Mary McAleese: ‘I’m so sorry to hear of Father Johnston’s death, though glad for him that his suffering is over and he has reached life’s best destination. May he be enjoying a heavenly welcome.’ The Archbishop of Tokyo (whom Bill had baptised) led the funeral Mass in St Ignatius’ Church, accompanied by the Irish Ambassador, some thirty priests and Archbishop Pittau SJ. The Irish Times plans an obituary. All friends are welcome to a Month’ s Mind Mass in Milltown Park at noon on Friday, 12 November. The photo of Bill reproduced here was taken in 1988.
William Johnston SJ, RIP
Bill Johnson SJ, the Irish Jesuit internationally renowned for his work on mysticism and inter-faith dialogue, died peacefully this morning, Tuesday 12 October in Tokyo, Japan. Born in Belfast on 30 July 1925, he entered the Jesuits on 20 September 1943. He was ordained a priest on March 24 1957 and spent many years of his life in Japan where he became actively involved in inter-religious dialogue, especially with the Buddhists. Writing in an article for The Tablet in the aftermath of 9/11 he claimed, “We used to say that dialogue between the religions is necessary for world peace. Now we can say that dialogue between the religions is necessary for world survival.” He was well known also for his best-selling books on mysticism, including Silent Music, The Still Point, and The Inner Eye of Love. Read the full text of Bill’s Tablet article below. May he rest in peace.
Death of Bill Johnston SJ
Bill Johnson SJ, the Irish Jesuit internationally renowned for his work on mysticism and inter-faith dialogue, died on Tuesday 12 October in Tokyo, Japan.
Born in Belfast on 30 July 1925, he entered the Jesuits on 20 September 1943. He was ordained a priest on March 24 1957 and spent many years of his life in Japan where he became actively involved in inter-religious dialogue, especially with the Buddhists. He was well known also for his best-selling books on mysticism, including Silent Music, The Still Point, and The Inner Eye of Love. May he rest in peace.
Born in a time in Northern Ireland when religious strife and segregation was prevalent, William Johnston went on to become one of the foremost persons in the area of interfaith dialogue, after encountering Buddhism while in Japan.
William Johnston was born in 1925 in Belfast, the youngest of four sons. When he was seven his family moved first to Holyhead in Wales, then to Liverpool. At fifteen he returned to Belfast, where he attended St Malachy’s College. In 1943, having finished school, Johnston entered the noviciate for the Society of Jesus, in Tullabeg, Co. Laois. While studying philosophy in Tullabeg, he was assigned to Japan, so in 1951 he travelled east. He first spent two years learning Japanese in a Jesuit community south of Tokyo, before moving to Sophia University in the city, where he taught English.
Johnston went to Japan expecting to preach and convert. While studying theology in Shakujii, however, he began to develop a fascination with Buddhism, in particular Zen Buddhism, and mysticism. He saw that for all the differences between his religion and those he encountered in Japan, when it came to meditation and the search for wisdom the great religions shared a common ground. From this revelation came what would be a lifelong involvement in inter-religious dialogue, in particular between Buddhism and Christianity.
When he travelled to Rome in 1958 for six months he further immersed himself in mysticism and transcendental meditation. He later called his time there a ‘revolution in my life’. Once he returned to Japan to resume teaching in 1960, having spent a short while in a New York parish, Johnston read the great 14th century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing. He was enthralled. He began then to write on it, work which he later turned into his doctoral thesis, later published as The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing.
Following this Johnston’s next major endeavour was the translation of a novel called Chinmoku, written by Endo Shusaku, a Japanese Catholic. The book, released as Silence, tells the story of a Jesuit apostate in Japan, and because of this many of Johnston’s colleagues weren’t pleased that he chose it. The translation, released in 1969, was highly regarded, and it introduced the acclaimed novel and writer to a new audience. Johnston met Endo when undertaking the translation, and they remained friends until Endo’s death in 1996.
Johnston continued to write over the decades that followed, and he amassed a wider and wider following. He was in demand as a teacher and travelled extensively, to China, the Philippines, Australia and elsewhere. In 2006 he released an autobiography titled Mystical Journey. Johnston died in 2010, in Tokyo.
Interfuse No 144 : Spring 2011
Fr William Johnston (1925-2010) : Japanese Province
Bill, the youngest of four boys, was born in Belfast, a city torn with political and religious tension and strife. Those earliest years scarred Bill's memory for the rest of his life. When he was eight, the family moved to Wales, and a year later to Liverpool, where Bill went to Xavier, the Jesuit school. He appreciated his Jesuit teachers but hated the use of corporal punishment. When Liverpool was targetted by German bombers in World War II, the family returned to Belfast and Bill completed his secondary education in St Malachy's College. He entered the Jesuit noviciate in Emo in 1943, did a BA in Classics in UCD, then studied philosophy in Tullabeg. The saintly Fr John Hyde later told Donal Doyle that of all the scholastics he had ever taught, Bill Johnston had the most brilliant mind.
In 1951 he and Gerry Bourke were accepted for the Japanese mission, and it was in Tokyo that he was ordained priest in 1957, taught English Literature in Sophia University, and enrolled for a doctorate in theology there. He did his dissertation on the anonymous medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing. Bill's book The Mysticism of 'The Cloud of Unknowing’, with a preface by Thomas Merton, became an authoritative work and set the tone for a lifelong spiritual journey through various styles of prayer. Bill had felt drawn to prayer from his early years, and the titles of his books reflect his spiritual journey: The still point: reflections on Zen and Christian mysticism (1970); Christian Zen (1971); Silent music: the science of meditation (1974); The inner eye of love: mysticism and religion (1978); The mirror mind: spirituality and transformation (1981); The wounded stag: Christian mysticism today (1984); Being in love: the practice of Christian prayer (1988); Letters to a contemplative (1991); Mystical theology: the science of love (1995); Arise, my love: mysticism for a new era (2000); Mystical journey; an autobiography (2006). He also translated Endo Shusaku's Silence (1969), and Nagai Takashi's Bells of Nagasaki (1984).
Because of the popularity of his books, Bill became well known around the world and, while continuing to teach religion at Sophia University, he gave talks and retreats in many countries, and was appointed to direct the tertians in the Philippines for two years. The last and most memorable of his retreats was to diocesan priests in China just a few months before he collapsed into his final illness.
As the book-titles suggest, Bill engaged actively in religious dialogue, especially with Buddhists. He wrote euphorically about the religious summits in Assisi convoked by Pope John Paul II, which he felt heralded the new era" implied in the title of Arise my love. He took part in a World Religious Summit in Hieizan in 2007. Throughout all this, his love for silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was remarkable. If he was not in his room or had gone out somewhere, he would often be found in the Chapel in silent prayer. With his prayer group of lay people, he would bring the Blessed Sacrament to a small chapel where they would pray silently together.
Bill first appeared in my life in 1944 as a teacher, instructing Michael Crowe and me in the customs of the Jesuit Noviciate in Emo. Indeed Michael was already a mystic. Bill was our angelus, the second-year novice who looks after a couple of first-years. He went on to be a great teacher. Most of his books were essentially didactic, teaching people how to pray. Being in Love begins: “You have asked me, Thomas, to write to you about the art of prayer” - and he goes on to instruct, with clarity and order,
Skip nearly sixty years. One morning in 2002 I had breakfast with Bill in Manresa, a chance to renew an old friendship. Looking back on the years since our noviceship, I ask him over breakfast:
“Bill, your life is productive. You have made a difference. You have helped countless people across the world. You have written bestselling and original books, lectured in your Japanese university and in many other countries. Of all the things you have done, what would you like to be remembered by? What was most worthwhile?”
Bill blushed, which he did easily, though his red hair had turned white. And he thought for a bit before replying: “I taught some people to pray”.
“When you say ‘taught’, I asked, do you mean by your writing and lecturing?”
“No, no”, he answered. “I mean that individuals asked me how to pray, and I taught them, one by one. Some of them were Europeans who came to Japan to learn Zen meditation, but they had no experience of the Christian tradition of interior prayer which goes back two thousand years. I taught them- that makes me happy”.
I thought about this. It was not what I expected. Bill was an international figure. He was moving on from Manresa to give a retreat to Lutherans in Sweden. He was just back from lecturing in USA. But he did not rate that as high as helping people to pray.
He saw prayer not so much as a private devotion, but as the only hope for the future of mankind. At the Assisi meeting of the world's religious bodies Pope John Paul II had said that the exigencies of peace “transcend all religions”. Bill took this further: “I still ask myself if we can develop the Pope's thought in such a way that people throughout the world – with or without religion - will be willing to sit together in silence, faithful to their own beliefs but united in a great love for peace and for the earth”.
He was a good teacher because he had learned from experience, reflecting on the history of his heart in the same way as Ignatius did. His journey had been a lengthy one, from Ireland his mother to Japan his wife (as he liked to put it), from the sectarian hatreds of Belfast to a philosophy of love, and from the stringent logic of the first week of the Spiritual Exercises to a contemplation in which the body and the heart were what counted.
That was one of his lifelong struggles: did he belong in the Jesuits, where the spirituality he had been taught in Emo was so rational, conscious, intellectual? He came to see that Ignatius himself was not like that, but a true mystic, reaching beyond language, so much in love with God that his tears of joy in prayer threatened to damage his eyesight. Bill too was a man who wept easily, and knew the ecstasy of falling in love. His friendships, with both men and women, were immensely important to him. Yet in prayer he knew the value of habit and discipline in opening oneself to the Lord.
His first advice was: Attend to your breathing; then to your posture – straight back, eyes half closed, in lotus position if you can manage it. Then find a mantra, a phrase that you can repeat: Jesus, Come Holy Spirit, or the like. Give time to prayer - Bill himself was faithful to an hour's meditation every day, and as the years passed be loved to spend longer periods with the Blessed Sacrament.
Bill knew that it would not be all sweetness and light. He went through difficult periods. On a mission to India his money, passport, visa and tickets were stolen, and he had to cancel a retreat because he could not travel. He was left alone to manage a tertianship in the Philippines and was forced to realise that his strength was in teaching, not administration. He opted to make a 30-day retreat in USA under a famous director, but was so shaken by his confrontations that he fell sick. The shadow of the Cross often fell upon him. He suffered a great deal from what he felt were abuses of truth, as when well-known theologians were censured in different ways. At such times Bill became angry and critical of how things were being done. But he continued to pray, and in time, as the storm abated, peace and the love of life returned.
St Teresa of Avila warns that ordinarily one does not enter the seventh mansion (the apex of mystical prayer) without severe illness and pain. When Bill read this, he reacted: For me this is frightening, and I hope the great Carmelite is wrong. Alas, she was right. The real history of Bill lies not in his books, lectures or travels, nor in the things that he did, but in the steady work of God, putting him through a long dark night of sleeplessness and anxiety, and finally stilling him with paralysis. Even words failed as he lost the power of coherent speech. The last two years may well have been the most formative of his entire life, when God, not Bill, was active. The book that he had had constantly come back to was the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, which urges us to seek God not through knowledge but through what the author calls a "naked intent" and a “blind Love”.
After two years in which he could neither move nor speak, Bill has gone beyond the Cloud of Unknowing to that happiness where, as St Paul writes: Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. The impression of his final weeks could be summed up in the word Peace. It was written on his face almost as though he had caught a glimpse of the happiness promised in the Gospel. May God be good to him.
Paul Andrews, helped especially by Dermot Brangan and Donal Doyle
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Johnston, William, 1925-2010, Jesuit priest
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- County Antrim » Belfast
- County Laois (Queen's) » Emo » St Mary's (Emo)
- Japan » Kantō » Tokyo » Chiyoda City » Kioicho » Sophia University
- Japan » Yokosuka-shi » Eiko
- Japan » Kantō » Tokyo » Nerima-ku
- Wales » Holyhead
- England » Liverpool
- County Offaly (King's) » Ballycowan (Bar.) » Tullabeg » St Stanislaus College
- County Antrim » Belfast » Antrim Road » St Malachy's College
- Japan » Kantō » Tokyo » Chiyoda-ku » St Ignatius Residence (Tokyo)
- County Dublin » Dublin City » Rathfarnham » Rathfarnham Castle
- Japan » Kantō » Tokyo » Chiyoda City » Kojimachi » 6 Chome−5−1 » St Ignatius Catholic Church (Tokyo)
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