On Saturday, March 12, Fr. Johnny Klinger, SCJ, died. Originally from Paterson, NJ, he was 86, professed his first vows in 1963, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1967.
Growing up, Fr. Johnny gave no thought to being a priest. He earned a degree in communications with the idea of working in television production. When he was drafted during the Korean War, a relative suggested that he should volunteer to be a chaplain’s assistant because it was “easy duty.” This experience, together with working with Korean children orphaned by the war, led to his life-long passion for working on behalf of the poor. When he read information about the Priests of the Sacred Heart (Dehonians), he knew it was where he was called to be.
Fr. Johnny’s first assignment was as a teacher and formation director at the province’s Kilroe Seminary in Honesdale, PA, before a brief stint in parish ministry in St. Louis. In 1974 he became province director of Justice and Peace.
Provincial Superior, then General Councilor
In 1977, Fr. Johnny was named provincial superior of the US Province. He finished his second term in 1983, moved to the Rio Grande Valley, but then found himself in administration again a year later when he was elected to the General Council in Rome. He was a general councilor from 1985-91. Fr. Johnny came back to the States in 1992 and spent six years with the Cheyenne River Pastoral Team based in Eagle Butte, SD. He then ministered for a year in South Africa before again joining provincial administration, first as director of apostolic activities, and later, as director of ministers and ministries.
Throughout his years of religious life, Fr. Johnny was passionate about social justice issues. When asked of his proudest accomplishment he talked about “building 30 homes in five days with the help of Habitat for Humanity.” Fr. Johnny was a significant part of the effort that got the national Habitat team, including President Jimmy Carter, to come to South Dakota for a home-building week.
Province award named after him
It was because of his many years working for social justice that in 2017, an award was created in his name to honor him.
“The Johnny Klingler Justice and Peace Award was established to acknowledge an SCJ or someone nominated by members of the province who, like Fr. Johnny, has worked tirelessly for social transformation,” said a representative of the province Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission, when Fr. Johnny became the award’s first recipient.
“When I was in Rome on the General Council I met many Ethiopians,” wrote Fr. Johnny in a reflection for the North American Migration Commission. “They came into Rome illegally, hoping to immigrate to the United States, Canada or Australia where members of their family lived. So many of them were living and sleeping outside of the train station. A call came from the Vatican to all religious communities asking them to give them room and board.
“We had seven to ten of the refugee men living with us in the Generalate. I was able to visit them often. I had parties for them and picnics in a nearby park. I took a few to visit my Roman friends. They told me about their lives and families and their culture. We got to know each other fairly well. Most of them were able to immigrate. I visited one of them in New York and San Francisco. He visited my family in New Jersey.”
Connecting with and helping others
Connecting with others, helping when he could – these were constancies in Fr. Johnny’s life, no matter where he lived or ministered. In retirement, he quickly became involved with the Benedict Center in Milwaukee, serving on its board and working in several outreach programs. The Benedict Center is an interfaith, non-profit criminal justice agency that works with victims, offenders, and the general community to bring about justice and rehabilitation.
Although he did his share of administrative work with the center, his greatest joy came in one-on-one interactions with the center’s clients. He frequently worked with women who took part in the center’s education program, tutoring those preparing for GED or HSED exams (high school equivalency). He regularly taught social studies and English through the program, helping some of the women gain literacy skills for the first time in their lives.
In retirement, Fr. Johnny also joined the informal group of “visiting uncles” who spent time in the Dehonians’ Philippine Region. “They said that they were looking for ‘older’ SCJs to come and be a presence to the young people,” said Fr. Johnny. “They wanted the SCJ students to learn about the congregation through the stories of our experiences.
“Right away, I thought ‘I’m perfect for this!’” As provincial superior, mission secretary and general councilor “I was able to travel to and experience much of the congregation.”
Visiting SCJ uncles also helped students with their English studies, since for most Dehonian students in the Philippines, English is not a first language. In the seminary Fr. Johnny taught English composition, public speaking and other communication arts classes. Just as with the Benedict Center, teaching was something with which he was familiar and enjoyed.
A Twitter autobiography
Fr. Johnny’s description of himself from his Twitter account: “A Jersey boy living in Milwaukee. Lived in Italy for 6 years. Like wine, the Brewers, digital photography. I have a heart for the poor and social justice.”
A life summed up well in the character limit of Twitter.
Funeral arrangements are pending.