Sentire cum Ecclesia
Festschrift in honour of Christopher O’Donnell O. Carm.
Gort Mhuire, Monday, June 11th 2018
Speaking Notes of Bishop Brendan Leahy
Thanks for the invitation to be here today to launch this Festschrift in honour of Fr. Christopher O’Donnell. I am delighted and honoured to do so.
I first “met” Father Chris, not in person but through one of his works. As a young student in the early 1980s in Clonliffe College, I was given a gift of a book by Father Christ entitled “Life in the Spirit and Mary”. It was his first publication. I recall reading it with great delight. It clarified, brought depth, opening my eyes. The link between Mary and the Spirit was a theme that was only beginning to be explored anew by theologians and spiritual writers at the time. Looking back, I can see it as a grace to have had that encounter as it helped form me, also in understanding not just Mary, not just the Spirit, but perhaps more subtly, it helped me grasp the Church more clearly and the link between Mary, the Spirit and Church. More about that later.
As the years went by, I would have heard of Chris as a great teacher, a researcher, a wise counsellor.
I was indebted to Fr. Chris because, after I published my doctoral thesis on the theme of the Marian principle in the Church in the ecclesiological writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar, he wrote an encouraging article review of it in Milltown Studies. Starting out on my academic journey, the seriousness with which he, an acknowledged expert in the field, took my publication and reviewed it, was a real encouragement. And I took it as an act of love on his part to do it so carefully.
I recall meeting Fr. Chris when I was an external examiner in Milltown Institute. He was always most gracious whenever we met. I also recall meeting Christopher in the Marianum university as he carried out his research. He is a serious researcher. The wonderful bibliography in this very well-produced Festschrift attests to that.
And again, I would have been one of many who benefitted so much from encyclopaedia on the Church. It is widely recognised as one of the first comprehensive anthologies of post-conciliar ecclesiology. It’s a major testimony to the detail of Chris’ research and systematic scholarly dedication. It has been translated into a number of other languages and I can imagine many, many students of theology have benefitted greatly from it. I imagine it opened up many avenues of research for students all over the world. In many ways, in the encyclopaedia, we can see how Chris integrated the Council's teaching on the Holy Spirit and on the charismatic dimension of the Church with the more traditional teaching on the hierarchy and on the Sacraments.
Certainly, Chris has brought the ecclesial dimension to bear in all his writings. He is a man of the Church, whose research prompted love of the Church. He helps people to listen, to think and to “feel” with the Church. We know that his doctoral thesis was on the ecclesial dimension of Confirmation.
This recognition of the role of the Spirit, the link with Mary and charisms that I mentioned earlier, is a theme I would like to highlight in Christopher’s work. He has opened up horizons that probably still need to be explored much further. In the letter two years ago to the bishops, Iuvenescit Ecclesia, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, spoke of the co-essentiality that exists between the hierarchical and charismatic gifts in the Church. In its opening paragraph it says, “Thanks to the Church’s life itself, to the numerous Magisterial interventions, and to theological research, happily the awareness has grown of the multiform action of the Holy Spirit in the Church, thus arousing a particular attentiveness to the charismatic gifts by which at all times the People of God are enriched in order to carry out their mission.”
Fr. Chris O’Donnell has contributed to that greater awareness and perhaps has indicated a further step – to link the charismatic dimension of the Church to the Church’s fundamental Marian principle. Famously, In the 1988 papal document on woman, entitled Mulieris Dignitatem [On the Dignity and Vocation of Women], Pope John Paul II quotes Hans Urs von Balthasar, affirming, ‘the Marian profile is also, and perhaps even more so, fundamental and characteristic for the Church as is the apostolic and Petrine profile to which it is profoundly united…’ (footnote to art. 27, n. 55). The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states that the Marian dimension of the Church precedes the Petrine dimension (n. 773). In a catechesis on November 25, 1998, Pope John Paul II observed that ‘at the dawn of the new millennium, we notice with joy the emergence of the “Marian profile” of the Church that summarizes the deepest concerns of the Conciliar renewal.’ This is a line of thought we find also in Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.
I think Chris’ theological research, taken as a whole, sheds light on avenues to be pursued in exploring further the link between the Spirit, charisms, Mary and the Church’s co-essential charismatic/prophetic/Marian profile. Not least in following Chris in understanding love as an ecclesiological theme. It’s not simply to be relegated to moral tracts or popular books of spirituality. We see Chris’ attention to this ecclesiological theme in his work, Love in the Heart of the Church: The Mission of Thérèse of Lisieux (Dulin: Veritas, 1997). Holiness, growth in Christ, being a member of the Church and love all rhyme in Chris’ theology.
Of course, I cannot but mention how in all his work Chris has been attentive to Scriptural foundations and the Tradition, and knows how to mine the Church’s reservoir in a way that is ecumenically sensitive.
Above all, Fr. Chris is a Carmelite. As such his theology is a melody within the great symphony of the great Carmelite tradition of theology. I know the members of the Order greatly appreciate and are rightly proud of Chris’ contribution. And I congratulate all of you because while we honour the man himself, it is important to recognise those who have journeyed closely with him, along with his twin sister, Máire who I also salute and congratulate tonight. I liked how Chris in the one of the introductions to the Festschrift was described as a Team player.
The Festschritf in Chris’ honour is a joy. I congratulate the co-editors, Pat Mullins and Simon Nolan. It is well structured, beautifully produced – with a fine hardback, so rare now – and very clearly laid out, moving from the Scriptural foundations to the more systematic themes. I enjoyed very much the contributions to this book. And I congratulate all here who contributed. Unfortunately, my life as a bishop doesn’t always permit me to linger as long as I would like on great articles such as we have in this collection.
I note with a certain poignancy this evening how contributors to this volume have already reached the end of their earthly pilgrimage. Fr. Finbarr Clancy, S.J., whose incredible scholarly detailed research is clearly evident in his contribution. Then too Fr. Raymond Moloney, S.J. whose great clarity can be seen as he writes on the inner bond of spirituality and holiness in two patrons of mission, Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis Xavier and Fr. James McCaffrey O.C.D. whose contribution on the priestly prayer of Jesus I enjoyed very much.
But all the contributions are stimulating. The fact that I know so many of the authors makes it invidious for me to mention any of them specifically – whether it be Pat Mullins with whom I studied in Rome; Tom Whelan whose liturgical expertise we all admire, Oliver Treanor who was my esteemed colleague in Maynooth, Archbishop David Moxon who I’ve met in Rome, and Ricard Byrne our Prior Provincial who hails from Ballyroan just like I do. But all the articles are a treat – starting with a variety of Scriptural topics and then ranging from topics such as Carmelite Marian studies to Elizabeth of the Trinity, from lectio divina to ecology, from Tolkien to Thérèse of Lisieux, from the relationship between body and soul to Mariology. It’s a wonderful collection of spirituality and theology combined that I warmly recommend to your reflection and prayer.
One last thing. When I came to apply for the position of professor in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Christopher very kindly acted as a referee for me. I wasn’t privy to what he said to Fr. Dermot O’Farrell, then President of Maynooth and now Bishop of Ossory, but I got the job! So I am grateful also for that!
I am indeed particularly pleased to be here this evening to launch this Festschrift and so honour this great Irish theologian and wish him many more years of theological contemplation and action.