Msgr. James G. Gillen, a longtime priest secretary to Cardinal William Baum, the former archbishop of Washington, died on Jan. 3 at the age of 94. A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Jan. 8 at the chapel of Little Sisters of the Poor’s Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, D.C., where he had been a resident for several years.
“We come today to commend our brother James to the Lord for his life of goodness in the priesthood and thank the Lord for him,” said homilist Msgr. Thomas Kane, a former seminary classmate of Msgr. Gillen’s.
Born in 1920 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Msgr. Gillen studied at St. Mary’s College in St. Mary, Ky., Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. and finished first theology with the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts at Sacred Heart Seminary, Washington, D.C. in 1948. In 1951, he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 7, 1952 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, Washington, D.C.
Msgr. Kane recalled Msgr. Gillen’s early pastoral life and how his old friend served in parishes and ministries that grew out of the post-World War II “suburban boom” in the Archdiocese of Washington in the 1950s and 1960s. “He was part of it all,” said Msgr. Kane.
Msgr. Gillen’s first assignment was as parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Parish, Silver Spring. In 1958, he was appointed assistant director of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and the Family Life Movement. Four years later, Msgr. Gillen was named director with residence at Sacred Heart Parish, Washington, D.C. In 1966, Msgr. Gillen was appointed pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Washington, D.C., where he served for three years until he was named pastor of St. Jerome Parish, Hyattsville in 1969.
“He had an infectious smile, a great sense of humor and a way of making peace where there was turbulence,” Msgr. Kane said.
In 1975, Msgr. Gillen was appointed priest secretary to Cardinal Baum. He continued in that role to His Eminence when Cardinal Baum became the Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome in 1980. Msgr. Gillen was made a prelate of honor in 1970 by Pope Paul VI and was raised to the rank of protonotary apostolic by Pope John Paul II in 1995.
At a Mass of Thanksgiving on the occasion of Cardinal’s Baum’s 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop in 1995, he paid tribute to his longtime priest secretary for his years of faithful service. “There’s no better company than James Gillen,” he said, noting Msgr. Gillen’s recent honor at the time of the title protonotary apostolic.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout was the main celebrant for the Mass, with more than 20 archdiocesan priests concelebrating the liturgy, including Msgr. K. Bartholomew Smith, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish, Silver Spring, who was Msgr. Gillen’s successor as Cardinal Baum’s priest secretary; and Msgr. Patrick Dempsey, Cardinal Baum’s current priest secretary.
Bishop Knestout recalled Msgr. Gillen’s kindness to all Cardinal Baum’s visitors during his time of service in the Vatican. “There are many aspects to the priesthood, certainly at the heart of it is the sacraments and the Eucharist,” he said. “And one of the many aspects of Msgr. Gillen’s priesthood was his hospitality in service to Cardinal Baum.”
Bishop Knestout also thanked the Little Sisters of the Poor for their loving care for Msgr. Gillen throughout the years.
“We shall not forget him as beautiful priest who lived his life in service of the Lord and showed us by example just how to do it well,” said Msgr. Kane.
Interment was in St. John the Evangelist Cemetery in Silver Spring.