Every Voice – Father Gerry O’Rourke

31 August 2020
Father Gerald O’Rourke - A Tribute by William E. Swing

URI – A Safe Space

URI reveres the many voices, personalities, and unique gifts offered by multitudes of people that contribute to URI’s integrity and vitality day-to-day. It is an honor to recognize Father Gerry O’Rourke, a Catholic priest for 70 years, for the profound gifts he gave to URI in its early years and particularly to appreciate Fr. Gerry’s passion that helped URI become “a safe space.”

In a recent tribute to Fr. Gerry’s life, Bishop Bill Swing said, “Though his contributions to the [URI] Charter were manifold, everyone in the room will remember him primarily for saying over and over again, ‘We are creating a safe space where all of the people of all of the faiths can come together.’”

With strong conviction, a twinkling certainty in his eye and a winning Irish brogue, Gerry regularly reminded URI meeting planners to make sure all the people were "at the table" – particularly those who might be overlooked.

Rita Semel, URI’s founding Global Council Chair, and Gerry’s good friend and interfaith colleague in San Francisco, said, “He taught us a very special lesson – one could be faithful to one's own religion while respecting others for their own, that in the end, we all want the same thing – a world in which each of us is permitted to live in safety and contribute to the greater good.”

Reverend Charles Gibbs, the founding Executive Director of URI, described Gerry, “He was a big man with a big voice and a big heart – a clear thinker, a deep listener, a boundary crosser, a bridge builder. He was firm in his beliefs and open to learning, growing, evolving. He embodied and valued authenticity; and invited and supported it in others. Again and again and again, he stressed the importance of relationships, which are the heart of everything.”

Charles recalled a particular conversation with Gerry: In my early years as URI's Executive Director when I was traveling around the world at a dizzying pace, he would often ask me to have lunch with him when I had a break between times of intensive travel. During one of those lunches, he fixed me in his no-nonsense stare and in his strongest Fr. O'Rourke voice, asked me, “Have you asked your body to forgive you?” Startled and not sure if he was serious (I should have known he was), I offered a lame, tentative response. He fixed me again in his loving stare, “I'm serious. You need to ask your body to forgive you and then give it what it needs to recover.” From then on, I began to ask my body for what it needed to heal, giving it the care it needed.

Gerry passed away on July 29, 2020, at age 95. His presence, his faith and his advice live on within the URI community. May we each take in Gerry’s wise counsel and make it our own.

As Bishop Swing reminisced, “If you wanted to ‘go deep’ on a crucial matter and if it was going to take quite some time to figure things out, you needed Gerry in the room. He spoke candidly of the truth that burned in his heart.”

Read more posts in the Every Voice series, which presents thought-provoking quotes showing how people all over the world give voice to URI.