Laubacher, Father James Auseon

1987, January 11

Date of Birth: 1908, July 8

July 8, 1987

Dear Confrere:

The death of the Reverend James A. Laubacher on January 11, 1987 came with the dignity that had characterized his entire priestly life. All who had experienced his presence knew that an impressive figure had departed from their midst.

James Laubacher was born in Malvern, Ohio, on July 8, 1908, the son of Francis A. and Sarah (nee Auseon) Laubacher. The family moved to Oxnard, CA, and there he received his elementary education. The strong Catholic tradition of his family led him early to consider a calling to the priesthood, and he entered the high school of St. Patrick’s Seminary, Menlo Park, in 1921, and then transferred to St. Joseph’s College when it opened in Mountain View in 1924. His theological studies were taken at St. Patrick’s from 1928 and 1932, and during that period he was accepted by the Sulpician Fathers as a candidate for their apostolate of seminary teaching.

Ordained a priest of the then Diocese of Los Angeles-San Diego in 1932, the Sulpicians sent him to Baltimore for their formation year after a summer of parish ministry in Los Angeles. During that year he satisfied the requirements for a B.A. in philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and taught philosophy there for the following two years while earning both an M.A. in philosophy and an S.T.B. degree in theology. At that juncture the Sulpicians decided to send Father Laubacher as one of their first two members to take doctorates at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. The academic discipline of that experience made an ineradicable impact on his life. Trying to master French and theological science at a level he had never experienced almost drained his self-confidence. But he emerged triumphant after three years with a dissertation on the historical development of dogma that gave him insights which would enable him to understand the epochal work of the Second Vatican Council in a way that few of his generation in America were prepared for. The Louvain experience also strongly motivated him to improve academic standards in American seminaries. Better theological libraries, accreditation of seminaries, and years of leadership in the seminary department of the National Catholic Educational Association were all the fruit of those exhausting years in Louvain.

Father Laubacher returned in 1938 to St. Mary’s Seminary as a professor of dogmatic theology. On the side he also enjoyed a brief career as director of dramatics, and his potential for administration began to emerge after he was appointed the vice-rector in 1940. In 1944, a few months after the appointment of his predecessor as provincial superior of the American Sulpicians, he became the youngest rector in the history of St. Mary’s School of Theology. In that same year he was appointed a member of the Sulpician provincial council.

In those two roles Father Laubacher firmly established his reputation as a strong and perceptive administrator. Shy and yet a perfectionist by nature, he threw himself wholly into all the daily details of the superiorship of a large and flourishing institution of priestly formation, often over-taxing himself and rarely taking relaxation. His daily spiritual conferences with the community were regarded as masterpieces. His presiding presence at the altar each day, at community meals, and at meetings of the faculty, reflected his unswerving commitment to exemplary priestly spirituality. In his eulogy at Father Laubacher’s funeral, Father Robert Leavitt would describe that commitment as a passion for the priesthood, “meditated on from every side, connected to every Christian mystery, penetrated spiritually and lived out morally. His love for the priesthood was anchored in doctrine and theology, not motivated by piety or sentimentalism, and when he thought of heaven it was in union with Jesus Christ in every circumstance of human life. He believed St. Paul’s declaration ‘neither death nor life nor any other creature can separate us from the love of Christ.’”

His concern for the welfare of seminarians and his brother Sulpicians was evident in the countless hours he gave to the often-thankless task of participating in faculty and provincial council meetings. From 1944 to 1971 at the provincial level, he was at the heart of decision-making on the opening and closing of seminaries, personnel assignments, curriculum revisions, relationships with the wider church, and Societal renewal. A far more visible reminder of his seminary ministry is St. Mary’s chapel at Roland Park. Built during his administration, Father Laubacher chose the inscription on the main altar, “Oblatus Est Quia Voluit” (he gave himself because he willed it). To many people, however, he seemed formidable, aloof, and cold, while others were able to penetrate whatever barrier may have been there and found him a warm friend, a trusted confidant, and a ready source of encouragement. That impact seemed to vary even from year to year. Some ordination classes at St. Mary’s never seemed to achieve a close or trusting relationship with him, while the respect and admiration of other classes approached a level of veneration.

While Father Laubacher’s talents and powerful personality kept him in leadership roles for much of his active ministry, he was far happier in the roles of scholar, teacher, and spiritual director, which he sought to exercise also as a rector. The uncongenial role of administrator from time to time exacted a heavy emotional price, which finally led him to seek relief in 1958 from those duties, to the astonishment and dismay of many. For the next two years he served as director of the Sulpician year of formation at the Roland Park campus, which also had more administrative cares than he wanted. He then returned to full-time teaching and spiritual direction at St. Mary’s from 1960 to 1967.

Thus was set the stage for Father Laubacher’s greatest contribution to the wider church, when he accepted an invitation from Cardinal Lawrence Shehan to serve as his personal theologian at the Second Vatican Council. Developments at the Council’s first session had persuaded the Baltimore prelate that significant and complex theological issues would comprise the agenda of later sessions. As the former auxiliary bishop, the Cardinal had accepted numerous invitations from Father Laubacher to lecture at the Seminary on the priesthood. Vatican II’s last three sessions from 1963 to 1965 deepened the great esteem these two men had for each other’s gifts. Both were profoundly influenced by the debates and decrees of the Council, which both worked diligently to implement in later years.

Father Laubacher’s opportunity came in 1967 with his appointment to the rectorship of St. Patrick’s Seminary, when his predecessor, as earlier at St. Mary’s, was elected the Sulpician provincial. Although he loved California and visited his devoted family there on vacations as often as possible, he returned to seminary administration with great reluctance but with an obedient heart. With characteristic commitment he plunged into the task of seminary renewal which had already begun at St. Patrick’s. The following four years while he was rector were tumultuous for most seminaries in the United States. Although unusually qualified for his task by his experience in Baltimore and at Vatican II, his appointment was made all the more difficult by mountains of resistance from priests, as well as some bishops, who found the changes proposed for priestly formation in seminaries impossible to understand and accept and felt betrayed by those in charge. Exhausted by the struggle, Father Laubacher resigned his post in 1971 but remained on the faculty of St. Patrick’s for another year before requesting a new assignment.

Back at St. Mary’s Seminary he resumed spiritual direction of students and some teaching, even though he said he was losing rapport with seminarians and younger priests. A mild stroke in early 1973 caused some lasting muscular difficulties and bouts with depression. Yet he was continually sought out by priests for counsel and spiritual nourishment. His fellow Sulpicians also asked his help in their community response to Vatican II’s call for spiritual renewal. At the Province’s spiritual renewal conference in 1974, he delivered a masterful paper on the challenge of the Sulpician tradition. Another stirring example of the old power was his homily on priestly life and ministry at St. Mary’s alumni-day Mass in 1983, the year after he celebrated his golden jubilee of ordination to the priesthood.

Having retired in 1975 and taken up residence at St. Charles Villa in 1977, Father Laubacher received in that jubilee year much affirmation for the contributions to priestly formation he had achieved in the face of all too frequent pain and defeat. The last three years of his life were physically draining because of heart problems. His death came peacefully in the infirmary of St. Martin’s Home. Father Joseph J. Bonadio presided and preached the homily at the wake service in St. Mary’s Seminary chapel on January 14, and a Mass of Christian burial was celebrated there the following morning with Bishop Francis P. Murphy the principal celebrant. The homily was given by Father Robert F. Leavitt, president-rector of St. Mary’s, at Father Laubacher’s request. Burial was in the Sulpician cemetery, and the provincial superior, Father Gerald L. Brown, led the graveside prayers. Father Laubacher is survived by his brother, John, and his sister, Alice Usher, both of Oxnard, CA, and another sister, Dorothy, of Fresno, CA.

May Father Laubacher live forever in the joy of the Resurrection,

Sincerely yours in Christ,

William J. Lee, S.S.

Provincial Secretary