Noted religious history author, editor and Holy Cross professor, Rev. Thomas Worcester, S.J., takes on an impressive new challenge.
By Rebecca Smith '99
Chances are, when he's not teaching or speaking about religious history, Rev. Thomas W. Worcester, S.J., professor of history, is writing about it. Editor of two best-sellers-and currently at work on a comprehensive reference book-Fr. Worcester has made a name for himself as one of the most successful authors in the field.
In 2004, he was asked by the prestigious Cambridge University Press-the publishing department of his alma mater, the University of Cambridge-to edit a volume in the well-regarded Cambridge Companions to Religion series: The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits, a collection of 18 essays examining the religious and cultural significance of the Society of Jesus.
Fr. Worcester enlisted 16 contributors, edited text and chose images for the book. He also wrote the introduction and conclusion for the volume and contributed an essay of his own. But the part of the project he enjoyed most was working with the authors, who represent a variety of perspectives and specialties, from art history to theology.
"Collaborative and interdisciplinary work is more interesting than single-authored scholarship, which can be very lonely," he says. "And it makes a more interesting book."
The part of the process he enjoyed the least is one most editors consider a challenge: dealing with authors who miss deadlines.
"One needs to be diplomatic but also firm," Fr. Worcester explains. "As I tell my students, 'Deadlines are your friends.' "
And he practices what he preaches: After three years, to the astonishment of his editor, Fr. Worcester submitted his manuscript before the deadline. Released in 2008 in hardcover, paperback and electronic versions, The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits currently ranks among the top 10 best-selling titles in church history by Cambridge University Press.
So, how did he manage such a complex project while also fulfilling his role in the classroom?
"It's a difficult balancing act," he acknowledges, "but, for me, publishing is as important as teaching. If you're at the forefront of your field, it's going to affect your teaching in a positive way."
Soon after completing the Companion, Fr. Worcester approached the Press with a proposal of his own. Born out of a history course he teaches at Holy Cross, titled "The Papacy in the Modern World," the concept was a collection of essays exploring the evolution of the papacy in the last 500 years-from the pope as an Italian Renaissance prince and patron, to the pope as universal pastor concerned with the well-being and salvation of human beings everywhere.
While studying in Rome as an undergraduate, Fr. Worcester was in St. Peter's Square for the canonization of Elizabeth Seton, and, when he returned a few years later, he witnessed the election of John Paul I. These experiences formed in him a personal as well as an academic interest in the papacy-one that he explores in The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor, co-edited with Rev. James Corkery, S.J., former Holy Cross international visiting fellow. Published in 2010, the book spent several months alongside the Companion at the top of the Press' best-seller list in church history, and it received regional and national media attention, including pieces in The Boston Globe and The Huffington Post—an internet newspaper to which Fr. Worcester contributes occasionally.
So it was no surprise that he was the editor of choice for the Press' next big project on the Society of Jesus: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Jesuits. The one-volume, 500,000-word tome will contain approximately 600 entries on everything about the Society, from its founding in 1540 to today, including significant people, concepts, places and institutions.
Fr. Worcester is charged with identifying, assigning and editing each entry, and he anticipates working with upward of 125 contributors. With the vast amount of work involved and the fact that the Jesuits will celebrate the bicentennial of their restoration as an order in 2014—a major anniversary that will generate conferences, publications and events that he wants to take into account in the encyclopedia—he looks forward to a publication date of 2016, at the earliest.
"To do this the way it should be done and have time for anything else is perhaps my biggest challenge to date," he says.
Still, his work as an editor and a teacher reaps great rewards. The first time Fr. Worcester taught "The Papacy in the Modern World," he recalls, a student gave him the best evaluation he'd ever had for a course: "It said, 'Fr. Worcester should be canonized, or at least beatified,' " he remembers, smiling. "Of course, not every student has been quite so favorable!"
Photo by Matthew Atanian
Did You Know?
Fr. Worcester shares a few papacy trivia tidbits that might surprise you, derived from his book The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor (co-edited with Rev. James Corkery, S.J.):
1. Though the papacy may face some challenges today, the office has endured more difficult times in the past. Two centuries ago, the pope was taken as a prisoner to France by Napoleon's troops. Many people thought that was the end of the papacy, but the pope outlasted Napoleon's imperialism.
2. Technological developments, more than theological ones, have been central to how the papacy has changed. The airplane, especially, made possible an itinerant pope, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before. Also, the Internet, faxes and email, help to make the pope known and present-at least electronically-throughout the world.
3. Some ideas we take for granted about the papacy are relatively recent. Today, bishops are selected by the pope; until the 19th century, most were chosen by heads of state or local clergy.