Obituary: Adrian Van Kaam / Priest, Duquesne professor helped Jews in Holland during 1940s

April 19, 1920 - Nov. 17, 2007

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The Rev. Adrian Van Kaam, a Catholic priest whose understanding of the dynamics of spirituality was formed as he smuggled food to Jews in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland, died Saturday at the nursing home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, North Side.

Father Van Kaam, 87, a Spiritan, founded the Institute of Formative Spirituality at Duquesne University. He emphasized how the soul is shaped and how faith is lived out in daily life. His reputation was worldwide.

"He was a guru after the Second Vatican Council, especially for the renewal that was going on in religious communities," said the Rev. Girard Kohler, who had lived with him.

Born in The Hague, he was in seminary when the Nazis invaded in 1940. He started a clandestine discussion group to help laity see what saints and scholars of the past had said about faith in dark times, said Susan Muto, his longtime colleague in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 1944, believing that liberation was imminent, he went to a retreat in western Holland and was trapped behind Nazi lines after the disastrous Allied Operation Market Garden. There he endured the "hunger winter" of 1944-45, when Hollanders survived on turnips, potatoes and toxic tulip bulbs. The starvation diet permanently ruined his health, Dr. Muto said.

He hid in a barn, but rounded up food from farmers to take to Jews and others in hiding. That Christmas he wrote and produced a clandestine play, "Christmas Night in Ravaged Holland" which recast the nativity story in wartime Europe.

He believed that "there are no coincidences, only providences," Dr. Muto said. "He believed it was providential, because of his future mission, that he was catapulted out of the ivory tower of seminary into the Dutch hunger winter."

Ordained in 1946, his health was too poor for the mission field. He taught seminary, and gained a reputation for helping people apply their faith to daily life. With a Belgian mentor, Maria Schouenaars, he founded classes in faith for young adults who had grown up during the war. They met not in churches, but factories. At the request of Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, a Vatican official who later became Pope Paul VI, he was sent to do this nearly full time.

In 1954, he answered what he believed was a call to teach faith formation at Duquesne. Instead, he was assigned to replace a deceased psychology professor, Dr Muto said. When he protested that he had no psychology degree, he was sent to get one. He traveled widely, studying under giants such as Carl Rogers and Erik Erikson.

"He was able to critique the field of psychology from within," gleaning the insights into human nature but rejecting the field's anti-religious assumptions, Dr. Muto said.

In 1963, he returned to his roots in spiritual direction after an accrediting agency balked at courses he was teaching on religion and personality. Forced to move them out of the psychology department, Duquesne created what became the Institute of Formative Spirituality. He was soon inundated with sisters and priests seeking to reshape their spirituality in the wake of Vatican II. Later, Protestant clergy seeking training that their own traditions did not provide, would flock to the institute.

In 1980, he suffered a near fatal heart attack. Doctors at Mercy Hospital forbade him to do work of any kind. Still hospitalized, he begged Dr. Muto to smuggle in a notebook and pen.

"I cannot rest if I cannot write," he told her. He produced "The Blessing of a Coronary."

He was always seeking ways to bring the spiritual riches of ages past to people who might never earn an advanced degree. To do so, in 1988 he co-founded the Epiphany Association with Dr. Muto. When Duquesne closed the Institute of Formative Spirituality in 1993, the pair continued at what is now Epiphany Academy in Beechview.

He died as the Little Sisters of the Poor sang Salve Regina, said Dr. Muto, who was present.

"We feel he just simply yielded himself completely into the arms of the mystery, which is the mystery of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," she said.

He is survived by two sisters, Lia Schillkens Van Kaam and Bepp Van Gemert, both of the Netherlands. The viewing will be at Epiphany Academy, 820 Crane Ave., Beechview, Friday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. The Mass will be celebrated Saturday at 11 a.m. in the chapel of Duquesne University, followed by burial at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Peters. Epiphany Academy will host a time of remembrance from 2 to 4 p.m.

Donations may be made to the Epiphany Association, Duquesne University or the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at or 412-263-1416.


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