Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press—as well as co-founder and publisher of Catholic World Report—celebrated his 80th birthday on January 10th. The following biographical sketch and video tribute were created by the Ignatius Press staff. ——-
Joseph Fessio, S.J., was born on January 10, 1941, in Alameda, California, an island town in the San Francisco Bay. His father—Joseph Fessio, Sr., of north Italian blood—had moved to the Bay Area from Salt Lake City with a baseball scholarship at Stanford University, eventually playing professional ball in the Pacific Coast League before settling down to marry Florence Miller and support his family as a salesman. Florence, Joe’s mother, came from Los Angeles, but she traced her roots back to French-Catholic Acadians in Quebec who, fleeing British violence, moved south along the Mississippi River, following the trail blazed by Jesuit Jacques Marquette.
Joe grew up playing ball and fixing cars in the village of Menlo Park, California, not far from Stanford. After graduating from the Jesuit-run Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, he moved to nearby Santa Clara University, another Jesuit bastion. There, he studied civil engineering and played baseball, in addition to other adventures, including a small sports betting business and a cross-country bicycle trip. When, junior year, his girlfriend broke up with him suddenly to enter the religious life, Joe—once on the debate team in high school—spent weeks researching vocations, building his irrefutable case that she should stay and marry him instead. In the process, though, he accidentally discovered his own vocation to the Society of Jesus, which he entered just a few months later in 1961, at age twenty.
After two years of novitiate in Los Gatos, California, Joe got his formation in philosophy and theology at Mount St. Michael’s and Gonzaga University, then taught for a time at Santa Clara, launching a summer program for at-risk high-school students, Project 50. In 1968, he was sent for graduate work at the Jesuit School of Theology at Fourvière in Lyon, France, where he grew close to the theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J. He was ordained in 1972, and two years later, under the direction of Father Joseph Ratzinger, he received a doctorate in theology from the University of Regensburg, Germany, with a dissertation on the ecclesiology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Returning to the United States, Father Fessio became a professor at the University of San Francisco, radically inspired by the faithful theologians he had encountered in Europe.
A year into his new teaching assignment, he made a pilgrimage by bus to Guadalupe, Mexico, and there made a decision to found and design USF’s Saint Ignatius Institute, a Catholic Great Books program that he would go on to direct and guide for thirteen years. In 1978, he also founded the publishing house Ignatius Press, with the hope of introducing the English-speaking world to European writers like von Balthasar, de Lubac, and Adrienne von Speyr, all with a basic mission “to support the teachings of the Church”. Since then, the Press has produced hundreds of book and film titles, sold globally, and struck up partnerships with fellow Catholic publishers like Magnificat, Bethlehem Books, and the Augustine Institute. After forty-two years, Father Fessio remains the full-time editor in chief of Ignatius Press.
As a publisher, he has helped fund and edit a number of periodicals, including Catholic World Report, the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and the Adoremus Bulletin, which is dedicated to the renewal of Catholic liturgy. Father Fessio’s advocacy of liturgical reform—running in tandem with Cardinal Ratzinger’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy—is well known, thanks not only to his role in co-creating the Adoremus Society, but also to his Masses and prayers at Ave Maria University, where he was chancellor, then provost, between 2003 and 2007. In order to foster authentic vocations in the Church, Father Fessio joined with Cardinal Marc Ouellet and others in forming the Casa Balthasar, a house of discernment in Rome open since 1991.
Father Fessio’s direct and unflinching style throughout his life as a Jesuit has earned him both reproof for “arch-conservatism” and praise for integrity. He has spoken about Catholic doctrine in media networks such as PBS and NPR. If, on the one hand, critic Father Andrew Greeley once described him, with a shudder, as “the most powerful man in the American Church”, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has called him “a true Jesuit . . . a man of the decisive decision”. He has received honors and awards from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the Institute on Religious Life, St. Patrick’s Seminary of San Francisco, Christendom College, and the American Maritain Association, among others.
Throughout his life, Father Fessio has been a lifelong runner and hiker of the Pacific Coast, as well as an amateur builder, designing the Ignatius Press offices in San Francisco and a retreat house in Sonoma County. Today, he is the official chaplain of the West Coast Walk for Life, and on weekends away from the Press he grows grapes and makes wine.