Father Donald Senior was a Passionist priest and biblical scholar who died in Chicago on November 8, 2022, at the age of 82. He taught New Testament at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) for 50 years, serving as president of CTU for 23 of those years. For Senior, teaching and working in the theological and spiritual formation of future church ministers was a lifetime mission and commitment.
In 2001, St. Pope John Paul II appointed Senior to serve as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, a group of biblical scholars from around the world that advises the Vatican on matters of biblical interpretation. Pope Benedict XVI reappointed him for a second term on the commission in 2006. He was a general editor of The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press) and The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century (Bloomsbury).
He also served in many ecumenical and interfaith capacities, including a term as president of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. In 2014, Senior received the Order of Lincoln, the highest award given by the State of Illinois, in recognition of professional achievement and public service. His weekly commentaries in Chicago Catholic illumined the Sunday scripture readings for laypeople and clergy alike.
One of Senior’s first publications was the book Jesus: A Gospel Portrait (Paulist Press). Many professors of scripture and theology, including me, still recommend this book to their students. At the beginning of Chapter 1, Senior writes these words:
Great numbers of people know about Jesus of Nazareth. . . . It is not really part of the Christian program that people should simply “know about” Jesus. Genuine Christianity is based on knowing Jesus. The urgency of the Christian mission since its beginning has been that people should come to know Jesus personally and, because of that relationship, to transform their lives. To know someone in this sense presumes an intimate interlocking of lives and fate. . . . The language of a relationship like this is not curiosity or exploitation but love.
Senior had a deep love for Jesus Christ. Because of that love, he spent long hours studying the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Because of that love, he taught countless numbers of students to love scripture and in that to love Christ. Because of that love, he authored innumerable articles, essays, lectures, and books in which he endeavored to instill knowledge and love of Christ in a wide variety of audiences. And because of that love, he led many pilgrims to the lands of the Bible, especially Israel, the land where Jesus walked.
A few weeks before his death, I visited Senior at the rehabilitation center where he was trying to recover from a severe heart attack. I was preparing to teach a class in my ecclesiology course on what the Christian scriptures tell us about the church. During our conversation, I asked Senior his opinion about the author of the letter to the Ephesians. Although traditionally attributed to Paul the apostle, some New Testament scholars argue that this letter may have been written by a student of Paul some years after Paul’s death. I wanted to get Senior’s brief take on the matter.
In response to my query, confined to his bed and in a very weakened condition, Senior went on for about 20 minutes. He quoted passages in Ephesians from memory, and he delineated for me the various scholarly opinions about the authorship of the letter. After about 10 minutes, I started to interrupt and say, “Don, this may be more than I need to know.” But he kept going anyway. Scripture was just part of him.
In recent years, Senior gave a weekend scripture retreat each February at the Passionist retreat center in North Palm Beach, Florida. These retreats were very well attended. A friend of mine who lives in Florida and who participated in many of those retreats called me when she heard that Senior was ill. She remarked that he knew how to break open a passage or even just a verse from scripture and reflect on its meaning in a most illuminating way. And, she said, he could do this for fellow scripture scholars as well as for ordinary people of faith like her.
Senior was a vowed member of the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. He was committed to living the charism of St. Paul of the Cross (1694–1775), the founder of the Passionists. This charism is the gift of keeping in mind and heart, and instilling in the minds and hearts of others, the memoria passionis—the living memory of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That commitment was manifest in Senior’s personal life and professional work as a scholar and teacher. He wrote four commentaries, one on each of the gospel passion narratives, helping others to keep the memory of the Lord’s passion in their minds and hearts. One highlight of my own time as a professor at CTU was the opportunity to team-teach with Senior a course on the cross in scripture and theology. Listening to him reflect on the meaning of the cross in the Christian scripture was enlightening and inspiring for the students, as it also was for me.
Senior understood his vocation not just in the sense of knowing about the historical passion of Jesus but also as a summons to active concern for the crucified of today. He heard the call to solidarity with the many people around the globe who are in need of compassion, justice, and liberation. He was committed to the “dangerous” memory of the passion, which is dangerous because it lifts up the lives of the marginalized and forgotten of our world. One way in which this commitment was lived out in Senior’s life was his work in helping organize and lead trips to the Holy Land for persons with disabilities.
A touching personal note about Senior was his care for his youngest sister, Miriam, who had Down syndrome. Miriam lived the final years of her life in Chicago at Misericordia, a marvelous home for persons with disabilities founded by the Sisters of Mercy. During weekend home visits for Miriam at our Passionist residence, I would often watch as the siblings headed out the front door, hand in hand, on their way to a local restaurant for a Saturday lunch. The only time I ever saw Senior nearly lose his composure in public was while he was celebrating Miriam’s funeral Mass at Misericordia.
Senior loved Jesus Christ. Because of that love he immersed himself in scripture, the word of God. His life enfleshed many values of the Christian life, especially the importance of coming to know Jesus Christ in a personal way. One way in which we do that is to spend time studying and praying with scripture, through which Christ continues to speak to us in ever new and inspiring ways.
Read about more Wise Guides:
- Eileen Egan challenged church hierarchy behind the scenes
- Rachel Held Evans, a pilgrim in pursuit of truth
- Blessed James Miller inspires a life of activism
This article also appears in the October 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 10, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Catholic Theological Union