Father Ronald Lawler was an advisor to popes and cardinals. He was a bestselling author whose catechism fed millions of Catholics. To Franciscan University students at the turn of the millennium, he was a winsome and passionate teacher of theology.
Just before he died in November of 2003, Father Lawler arranged for his papers to reside permanently in the University’s archives. The collection includes his voluminous correspondence, his book manuscripts, lecture notes, and records of his consultations with Church officials and institutions. Since his activity spanned more than 60 years, it is a treasury of documents useful for historians, biographers, and other researchers. The world knew this Capuchin priest best as the co-author—with Archbishop Donald Wuerl—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 once told a reporter: “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 to him. Shortly after his ordination, his superiors assigned him to teach seminarians. Eventually, he would serve as president of two major U.S. seminaries. Among his students were Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., of Denver. Cardinal O’Malley remembered 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 faculties at Oxford University, St. John’s University in Jamaica, New York, the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and the Catholic University of America. 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. In 1982 he was elected to the elite Pontifical Roman Theological Academy and was for many years the only academy member from the United States. He was inducted with two undisputed giants of modern theology, Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Still, he often said that he preferred to use “words of no more than three syllables.” And, to the end of his days, he found it difficult to speak of the Catholic faith without tears. One of his students was Michael Sullivan, now president of Catholics United for the Faith. Sullivan, who received his master’s in theology from Franciscan in 2000, recalls sitting in “a hot, stuffy classroom” as “Father Lawler explained the Second Vatican Council’s description of the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life. He stood before us, weeping, and explained that the council was terribly misunderstood and that the reverence that seemed to have been lost as a result of the confusion following the council must be regained. He said that it was our duty to bring back that sense of awe and reverence. Each time I’m at Mass I remember how Father Lawler looked. His obvious conviction—and his tears—spoke volumes to his students where mere words would have failed.”
Yet the “mere words” are succeeding as new generations of students encounter the words of Father Lawler that now reside in the John Paul II Library. LuAnn Boris, head of Acquisitions and Serials, supervises the students cataloging the Lawler papers. She says: “They all start out the same way—here’s a job I’ve been assigned to do. But at some point, Father Lawler becomes real to them. His personality comes through in his letters, lecture notes, and in other small ways. They come to know him as a fascinating and complex character. In the end, they all say the same thing—they wish they could have met him in person.”
One of those student workers was Andrew Lauria, humanities and Catholic culture major, who graduated in May 2009. He found a lesson in that mountain of paper. Father Lawler, he says, “was a man of such joy and peace and he shared this on every line of the many letters he wrote. I sorted through letters from the 1940s all the way to those written just before he died, and it was amazing to see that his joy remained throughout his life. He never stopped loving, even in the struggles and sufferings.”
Lauria hopes that the archiving of these documents “will allow many more to enter into the life of a truly great man.”
(Click Here for Fr. Ronald Lawler’s Bio)Article URL: http://www.salvationhistory.com/index.php/site/comments/the_lawler_treasury/
The first time I met Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., he was about an hour late. This was not an uncommon experience with that good Franciscan priest who died last week after a two-year struggle with cancer.
When he finally arrived at the airport, he explained without guile that he forgot about me. He apologized, then insisted on buying lunch to make up for his tardiness.
So there we sat, wolfing down cheeseburgers (“My doctor says that I should avoid red meat - he’s a great man, though he needs to give more reasonable advice.”) We discussed this, that and the other thing, all of it woven together by the two subjects that always dominated his thoughts: God’s love, and how each is called to lead the great life, even doctors with bad advice.
Over his beer and my Diet Coke, we dawdled a bit with Scripture. “I think mankind’s greatest fear,” he mused, “is that Jesus truly meant everything he said.”
One never left a conversation with Father Lawler without a thought to revisit as the day went on.
Father Lawler was a theologian, scholar and a teacher. His former students include Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. He was co-author along with his brother Thomas and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Our Sunday Visitor’s best-selling catechism, The Teaching of Christ.
Father Lawler taught at Catholic University, St. John’s University and St. Thomas University, among other institutions. He was the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and was the only American on the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. He worked in the Diocese of Pittsburgh since 1990 assisting in the diocese’s efforts in adult formation.
I knew of that Father Lawler, of course. But the Father Lawler I came to know personally in his last years was a priest as comfortable talking with three-year-olds as with theology students.
When dropping by the office for a visit, he always had a tale to tell of one of the children from the legion of families that he worked with, like a grandfather who goes on and on.
Like any grandfather, he knew his role. “I give them candy and ice cream,” he explained, “and I have become great in their eyes.” But it was more than that, of course. He evangelized at every moment to every audience, small child or adult theologians.
The word “great” was always on his lips. He reminded people that they could be great, even if they were not so sure they could live up to the task. I asked him exactly what he meant by the “great life.” He answered simply that, “the Catholic life is the great life.”
Helping people to attain - and to want - that great life was all that mattered to him. By great, of course, he meant holy. Will Rogers might have never met a man he didn’t like; Father Lawler never met a person who couldn’t be holy. He saw that potential in everyone, and was not at all embarrassed to remind you of that regularly, though it might embarrass you.
When he cited Scripture he would often have difficulty holding back the tears. The good news of Jesus Christ was so good, that it made him cry with happiness.
The cancer that struck him was more an inconvenience to his work than a demon to be fought. Some people battle cancer; some people surrender to it. Father Lawler was simply not interested enough to make it the focus of his efforts. He never really thought that he would beat cancer. Rather, he assumed it would lose interest in him. As the symptoms grew worse and worse he seemed to think of it more as the Great Annoyance than anything else.
He died November 5 at age 77.
Father Lawler was a man who believed. In every fiber of his being, he believed. It is what made him a great man.
* Robert Lockwood is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. First published in The Pittsburgh Catholic.
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.
There was a book a few years back called A World Without Heroes. Tragically, that’s the world a lot of people live in. But not me. I’ve been blessed to know some great heroes and holy people.
One of those giants in my life, Father Ronald Lawler, O.F.M. Cap., went on to his reward this past November.
Father Ronald was a heroic scholar at a time in the Church when we really needed heroic scholars. He was an early and lonely defender of Humanae Vitae and until the time of his death was the only American theologian on Pope John Paul II’s Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. His former students include some of the finest and most faithful bishops and archbishops in the American Catholic Church today.
You can read more about his accomplishments and his generous bequest to The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology elsewhere on this site. I want to tell you what he meant to me as a friend and a spiritual father.
He was a wise man. He gave me invaluable help by reviewing drafts of my book, First Comes Love. And he gave me one of the gifts I cherish the most when he agreed to write the Foreword to that book.
As wise as he was, he was even holier. When I was with him, I felt like one of those early Christians who used to make pilgrimages to “living saints.” I wanted to live like him, to believe like he did.
I don’t intend to eulogize or canonize him. I just wanted to say that I’m going to miss him.
The last time I visited him, he was really sick with the cancer that eventually killed him. I was getting close to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh where he was, but I had to stop and ask directions. The man on the corner told me: “Turn down Pride and you’ll find Mercy.” He was talking about Pride Street. But I heard something more.
Father Ronald and I had a good laugh about it. Now I can see that it was the story of his life - he turned down pride and he found Mercy. I pray it will be the story of my life - and yours, too. Even in his weakness, Father Ronald was still giving me the strength of Christ.
* Scott Hahn is Founder of The St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. First published in Breaking the Bread (January 2004)