As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
When Fr. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, turned 96 on September 16, he had spent 25,956 days seeking God as a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, where he made his first profession on August 24, 1946. What McDonnell has accomplished as scholar, teacher, ecumenical visionary, and poet can be traced back to, and is held together by, his monastic calling.
When in the late 1950s the theology department at Saint John’s University discussed whether to teach its Catholic students some Protestant theology, McDonnell voted against the proposal on the grounds that they did not have enough time to teach the Catholic students Catholic theology. The resolution passed. Then the faculty looked around to send some member off to study Protestant theology—and it turned out to be McDonnell.
With financial support from the Butler Family Foundation in Saint Paul, McDonnell went to Germany and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Trier in 1964, with a dissertation on John Calvin’s theology of the sacraments. These days, Catholics writing on such subjects is old hat. Back then it was almost unheard of.
On McDonnell’s return to Collegeville, the Butlers asked, “Where do we go from here?” After consulting with his confreres, McDonnell proposed the establishment of a postdoctoral research institute at Saint John’s, where scholars from multiple faith traditions and their families would form a community of study and prayer. Ecumenism, the pursuit of the unity Christ gave the church, was at the heart of the enterprise: “You do not tag on the ecumenical dimensions after the research is all finished,” McDonnell said. Instead, ecumenism must inform it. The Butlers caught the vision and funded it, with the equivalent of $2.9 million in today’s dollars.
On receiving the John Courtney Murray Award (its highest honor) from the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1993, McDonnell responded, “The one thing I am proudest of is the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. It has been successful beyond all expectations.” It is reported that, on another occasion, McDonnell said he was second proudest of the fact that one of his books had been translated into Urdu.
McDonnell’s publications are numerous. His work on the charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church was groundbreaking. His book, The Other Hand of God: The Holy Spirit as the Universal Touch and Goal, is a major contribution to the twentieth century’s revival of Trinitarian theology. [Read an excerpt from the book below.]
McDonnell has logged more hours in official dialogs, both international and national, between the Catholic Church and others, than just about any of his contemporaries. His conversation partners have included classical Pentecostals, Disciples of Christ, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. For fifteen years he served as consultant to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican ecumenical office.
At age seventy-five McDonnell began writing poetry seriously. He has since authored five published volumes of poetry. He says he does not write “pious verse or inspirational verse.” Rather, he writes about people with problems. “They had big problems with God, they had big problems with people around them, and they made terrible mistakes. People like us. Their relationship with God was not an easy one.”
The scholarship, leadership, and dogged, unflagging engagement from Saint Benedict’s sons and daughters, McDonnell pre-eminent among them, propelled much of the ecumenical progress of the past century. It is progress sealed by Pope Saint John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, “Ut unum sint” (“That they all may be one”), where he reaffirmed the Second Vatican Council’s irrevocable commitment to ecumenism.
Through those 25,956 days of seeking God as a monk, McDonnell has witnessed the birth of a movement from which the church continues to benefit. He has learned the fundamental ecumenical truth expressed in one of his succinct poetic images: “All our truths need bungee cords.”
The following is one of two excerpts from McDonnell’s notable career that we have chosen to publish on Bearings Online. Return tomorrow, October 31, for the second installment.
The following excerpt by Kilian McDonnell, OSB, is from The Other Hand of God: The Holy Spirit as the Universal Touch and Goal. © 2003 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.
What Does it Mean that the Spirit Descends and Touches?
Touching, contact, ascending, and descending have nothing to do with spatial movement or chronology. Nor do they have to do with place, geography, frozen stasis, or with pausing along the highway but with function and movement, expressed in the crudest possible terms so that the reader will take contact and touch seriously as function but not literally in a geographical or spatial sense. We neither shift the tarrying point from Christology to pneumatology nor erect a new stop-over. Rather, we discern the movement without omitting any of the Son or Spirit moments from the Father, and bypassing none on the way back to God. The Spirit is not a pit stop along the Trinitarian highway.
This seems to be what Heribert Mühlen means when he says that the Spirit is “itself the unmediated, mediating immediacy of our standing over against Christ.” He is writing of the analogous character of the mediating functions of Jesus and of his Spirit. “One cannot say that the Logos is in the strict sense one and the same in the Father, in his human nature, and in us, for that would mean the ‘extension’ of the hypostatic union also to us. Still less can one say . . . that the Father is in the strict sense one and the same in the Son, in the Holy Spirit, and in us. The Holy Spirit, however, is, in the strictest sense, one and the same in the Father, in the Son, in the human nature of Jesus, and in us! The Spirit is, without qualification, the universal mediation which, on the basis of the Spirit going out from the Father and the Son, mediates all with all.” There is no encounter or contact with God, no faith encounter with other Christians, outside of the Spirit. […]
The metaphors of touching, ascent, descent have nothing to do with one person being the means of reaching another person in some second moment. If the Son is in the Spirit and the Spirit in the Son, the one is not a “second moment” for the other. Nor are the images of descent and ascent, of touching, in their deepest roots a reflection on the eternal nature of God, though God betrays who God is by divine acts of self-communication. Rather, they are a primitive reflection on the lived experience of God’s converting and sanctifying power as God reaches through and in the divine self to save.
And when speaking of the contact function or the function of touching, one must be on guard against taking contact or touch to represent a limited point. A pin or a nail or a touch of a hand has a limited extension. But the contact function of the Spirit extends as far as the mediatorial office of Jesus Christ—to the whole created order of nature and grace. If Jesus is the universal mediator, the Spirit is the universal mediation.
The personalist contact or touching function helps to avoid an abstract view of trinitarian outreach that would order trinitarian life in arid philosophical categories. The Trinity is about the personal force of God’s love expressing itself in a reaching out beyond the divine Self to touch and transform humanity and creation and lead them back to their place of origin, the Father, in praise and wonder. Contact and touch are implicit in the lover/beloved relationship, and in any manifestation of communion. If there is no touch, can there be true love? When the person-to-person love relationship is forgotten, trinitarian doctrine becomes “technology, perverting the uncluttered simplicity and spontaneity of the faith,” to employ the derogatory language Basil uses in a different context.
The Spirit dominates the whole “space” between God and humankind, changing us by giving a share in divine knowledge, gifts, and life. Or the Spirit is “the turn around.” The Spirit is the end point of God’s journey to us; the Spirit is the point of departure of our journey to God. The texts also indicate this intent by suggesting that the Spirit acts as a bridge. Even after the redemption, there is another bridge between the divine world and the human world. If the Spirit is not present and active, we are cut off from God. We go to God only in the Spirit through Christ. Everything that God effects must pass over this bridge. The Spirit is “the Absolute Nearness.” The Spirit conveys the immanence of God, a creative presence understood as being one with God’s reality. Preparing for the Jubilee Year 2000, the Theological Historical Commission issued the document The Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, which uses contact language to describe the role of the Spirit in God’s nearness: “It is impossible to have any contact with God if not in the Spirit. . . . The Spirit is the place for experiencing God-in-us and God-for-us.
This is part one of our Collegeville Institute Greats report on McDonnell. Return tomorrow, October 31, for the second installment.