By Mike Aquilina*
(Click Here for Second Reflection)
Millions fed their faith with his catechism.
Millions watched him, on network TV, champion the faith against the feel-good hipness of Phil Donahue.
Everything Father Ronald Lawler did, he did with a holy and winsome passion, up to the moment of his death November 5, 2003 at age 77.
The world knew this Capuchin priest best as the co-author - with Bishop Donald Wuerl and Thomas Comerford Lawler - of The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults.
That project began with a direct request from Vatican officials, who were concerned that ordinary Catholics could no longer distinguish true Catholic teaching from counterfeits. There was a confusion of voices, all sounding very smart, all claiming to be authentically Catholic. As Father Lawler told a reporter several years ago: “This was a turbulent time. Some catechisms were incomplete ... Some were just trendy ... So many ... were creative, perhaps, but were unclear about what a person should believe and do to gain eternal life.”
The Teaching of Christ appeared, in 1976, as an authoritative voice, and it remained what one journalist called “the king of catechisms” until the Church’s promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1993.
In that book, as in everything he wrote and preached, Father Lawler was absolutely clear about “what a person should believe and do to gain eternal life.”
That was his consuming passion, and he wanted it to consume the world - beginning with the people nearest him at the moment. Family members recall him, newly ordained, standing on a table in a cafe in Washington, D.C., preaching social justice and civil rights.
Though he came to prefer other venues for his teaching, he never lost his youthful zeal. To the end of his days, he found it difficult to quote Scripture without tears.
His superiors assigned him to teach seminarians. Eventually, he would serve as president of two major U.S. seminaries, St. Fidelis near Pittsburgh, Pa., and Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut. Among his students were Archbishops Sean O’Malley of Boston and Charles Chaput of Denver. Archbishop O’Malley eulogized him as one of the most brilliant minds he had ever encountered. Archbishop Chaput said that no one “has had a more positive effect on my own life and thinking.”
Father Lawler also served on the philosophy faculty of several universities, including the most prestigious. At Oxford he made lasting friendships with the renowned philosophers G.E.M. Anscombe, John Finnis and Peter Geach, as well as the great Anglican theologian Eric Mascall.
His academic specialty was moral theory, and he could train his mind on highly technical questions, producing an important book on Philosophical Analysis and Ethics. He produced the first major philosophical study of Pope John Paul II in English. He co-authored the book widely recognized as the standard text on Catholic sexual morality. He was a world-class ethicist and the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Still, he often said that he preferred to use “words of no more than three syllables.” This tendency played well when he faced a hostile Phil Donahue on what was then America’s most popular talk show. During a commercial break, the host’s handlers said that viewers were calling in, and they overwhelmingly favored “the priest.” Phil backed off for the time remaining, but he never invited “the priest” back again.
Father Lawler had better things to do with his time, anyway. He delighted in the company of many families, whose kids he named his “honorary grandchildren.” His friends recall that he could move from a conversation with a three-year-old to a graduate seminar in theology in a matter of minutes. In both, his message would be the same, and the language not all that different.
The children kept him in their hearts. The Church found its own ways to honor him. In 1982 he was elected to the elite Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. The only Academy member from the United States, he was inducted the same day as two undisputed giants of modern theology, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Yet as he finished his last days of living with cancer, he examined his own conscience with a maxim his mother had taught him in kindergarten:
Kindness is to do and say
The kindest thing in the kindest way.
So he did, and so he said. Children judged him well by this standard. At his funeral Mass, two little ones could be heard disputing over whether “Father Ronald” would be the patron saint of licorice or of chocolate.
His confessor pointed out that there’s no reason one man can’t do both.
* Mike Aquilina is Vice President of The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. First appeared in Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.
Father Ronald was as great a friend as I - and my family - should ever hope to have. We traveled to Rome and many other distant places with him, but the moment he most liked to recall was close to home.
One Sunday he called to say that someone had given him a stack of Eat ‘n’ Park gift certificates, and he wanted to share them with the children. We accepted his offer and met him for dinner.
While we were enjoying dessert, an older couple came up to our table, where Father Ronald was surrounded by five small kids whose affection for him approached hyperdulia. “Am I to understand,” said the gentleman, “that all these wonderful children are your grandchildren?”
Father Ronald blushed and smiled and explained that he was a celibate Catholic priest, but that these were his “honorary grandchildren.” He never forgot that moment and told the story often. For us, it sums him up.
Everything he was given - from his possessions to his wisdom - he longed to give away, and to give it all in love. In doing so, he became most truly “a father and a priest” (Jg 18:19) ... and a grandfather to the countless little ones he called his “theologians.” They now carry his legacy of love - love to be given without reserve.