By Harry Keaney
Whether it be from his 46th floor office in the Time & Life Building, in Manhattan, or in his opinions on religion and theology, Michael F. Gilligan has a broad, panoramic view. He’s an Irish-American Catholic; he’s also an ecumenicist who describes the divisions within Christianity as “scandalous.”
Gilligan is not in the top echelons of any denomination’s hierarchy, he’s not even an ordained minister, but as the Henry Luce Foundation’s program director for theology, he’s certainly in a position to give a financial nudge to the cause of Christian unity, or, at least, an understanding of difference.
“What we are particularly attentive to is the role of religion in everyday life,” he said of the foundation’s program in theology. “We organize our support in three categories, theological education, theological scholarship and various forms of religious development.”
The foundation’s theology program has provided funding for seminary education, leadership, publications, religion and the arts, ecumenical programs and special initiatives.
The Henry Luce Foundation was established in 1936 by the late Henry R. Luce, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Time Inc. Now with assets of about $1 billion, it supports programs focusing on American art, Asia, higher education, public affairs, and women in science.
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Last July, the foundation announced grants worth $11 million.
Gilligan, who’s 50, is the foundation’s first program director for theology.
“I came to this because I had been working in theological education for 15 years,” he said. “My work matched a lot of the work of the foundation. In the past year I have visited 175 seminaries of different traditions. Since the 1930s, this foundation has a long history of ecumenical work. Today, our work is characterized by different forms of ecumenism, not only Christian ecumenism but also dialogue among the world’s religions. The demand of Jesus is that we all be one. . . . I think we have two responsibilities, to be faithful to who we are, individually and as a family, and, at the same time, in our day more than any other day, there is urgent work of reconciliation that we are called to.”
Prior to joining the Henry Luce Foundation, Gilligan was director of accreditation and leadership education for the Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada.
Before this, he was academic dean and professor of English at Pontifical College Josephinum, a Roman Catholic seminary in Columbus, Ohio.
He also served as assistant superintendent of schools and director for personnel for the Diocese of Columbus, and as academic dean and teacher at St. Charles Preparatory School, in Columbus.
He has taught at Ohio State University, Xavier University and the University of Virginia, where he earned a master’s degree in English, concentrating on medieval literature, and his doctorate in English language, literature and pedagogy.
Gilligan’s great-great-great-grandfather came to the U.S. from County Sligo in 1837, and settled in Junction City, in Perry County, in southeastern Ohio. When Gilligan’s grandfather, the second oldest in the family, was about 14, he realized he probably wouldn’t inherit the family farm, so he walked about 40 miles to the town of Newark and apprenticed to a grocer there, eventually opening his own store. Gilligan’s father, Carl, lived over the store, which was still open when Michael Gilligan was in his 20s.
Gilligan was attending high school at the same time as the Second Vatican Council. He was exposed to what he called the conciliar movement which saw the role of ecumenism, and of lay leadership and lay involvement in the church.
That he is a Roman Catholic and an ecumenicist now seems perfectly appropriate in his role as the Henry Luce Foundation’s program director for theology. Henry R. Luce’s father, Dr. Henry Winters Luce, was a Presbyterian missionary in China during the early part of the 20th Century. His son, Henry, a man who “wanted to know everything,” according to the foundation’s 60th anniversary history, chose journalism as a career because, he said, journalism “means that my interests must include everything from Beethoven to labor strikes.”
It’s not unlike Gilligan’s interest in religions, or, as he would, probably, more accurately put it himself, in theology.