Caught Rev. Donald Senior yesterday at Catholic Theological Union. Was one of 200 (I’d guess) devotees at this multi-religious-community seminary-cum-religious-ed-degree-granter to some 415 men and women, 115 of whom are men headed for priesthood. It’s in Hyde Park, blocks from U. of Chicago. Senior is a longtime New Testament scholar, president of CTU for 22 years, member of the Passionists. Hence C.P. after his name, for Congregation of the Passion.
Genial fellow to beat all, clearly an excellent front man for an institution sponsored and supported by 32 religious communities, including his own, the Passionists — which has a paltry five seminarians in attendance, none of them American. The Passionists have no American candidates for the priesthood, a fact that the priest (whose name I didn’t get carefully enough to give it to you), whose task is to ride herd on their CTU sems, was at a loss to explain. In Latin America there are bumper crops, he said, standing in a third-floor reception area in CTU’s new building.
I noted that some conservative organizations and dioceses are loaded with candidates while the Chicago archdiocese, for instance, has very few Americans and fewer Chicagoans in its ordination classes. But the Latin Americans are not conservative, this priest said, agreeing with me about Americans.
Letting his hair down a bit, he complained somewhat about the new Passionists, who haven’t the same kind of dedication to religious obedience he and other older priests take for granted. They have their preferences as to where they might be stationed and announce them, whereas the older ones generally have been willing to try something they hadn’t thought of at all, in the process learning they can do things they hadn’t thought of at all.
We visitors, lay people and religious sisters, average age 70 (Fr. Senior’s age) as a rough guess (with Irish faces everywhere: you’d think the boat had just landed, except for the evident prosperity), had heard Senior lecture in an hour of utter charm about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He shot down early in his talk the ballyhooed “Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary contention by James Cameron, of “Titanic” and “Avatar,” fame, citing an Israeli archeologist who said the bones he found (for filming) of Jesus, Mary Magdalen and the kids, while gladdening the heart of Dan Brown of DaVinci Code fame, were anything but, then addressing the question, what if we had the bones of Jesus? What if he didn’t rise? (A hotter question than Senior admitted: some years back, a chair-holding Jesuit theology teacher at Loyola U., whom I knew quite well, hedged on the question in a telephone conversation — the last he and I had, unfortunately.)
So doing, he raised from the dead (and criticized the life out of) a controversy from newspapers of a few years back, along the way staking out more or less scholarly claims to what theologians once called “incarnational” theology. By now, however, you’d think we Catholics, even septuagenarians with time for and interest in Sunday-afternoon mass and lecture, would be fully aware of ours being a religious faith that takes matter, i.e., this life, seriously.
But his was less a scholarly dissertation than a meditation on data and belief, a riff on various Scripture passages and commentary, ancient and recent, in no way bringing coals to Newcastle for his eager audience. It didn’t hurt that he had the nicely timed quip down cold as can be, which with his winning smile (never far from his Irish face beneath perfect white hair) drew many laughs and smiles — “Holy mackerel!” he threw into a description of the risen Jesus cooking fish for the apostles. On old joke, I’m sure, but the timing was perfect.
For the same scene, he had Jesus proffering “tender” forgiveness to Peter, who had denied him three times, three times asking him at this lakeside barbecue if he loved him. Tenderness suffused Senior’s account, in the lecture and in the 20–minute-or-so homily during the mass that followed, so much so that one drew from his depiction a near-feminine Jesus.
Indeed, the mass, at a simple table next to a makeshift pulpit which had earlier been his lectern, featured extended vocal performances by a young woman and flute accompaniment by another. The service, which moved at a funereal pace, seemed geared toward softening any rampant masculinity that might still be lurking in the hearts of Catholic worshipers, as did the lecture, delivered as it was smoothly, even soothingly. This was the very much the Church of Nice.