Eugene LaVerdiere, SSS, is being remembered for his humility, gracious manner, and ability to make scripture scholarship accessible to all.
The Blessed Sacrament priest died at 11:45 am, Thursday, November 20, in a nursing home in Cleveland, Ohio, with his sister, Sister Claudette LaVerdiere, MM, and brother, Brother Gary LaVerdiere, SSS, at his bedside. He had suffered for a decade from Primary Progressive Aphasia, a disease that first affected his speech and finally left him unable to communicate. The Mass of the Resurrection was celebrated on November 24 at St. Paschal Baylon Church in Highland Heights, Ohio.
The popular scripture scholar, on both the lecture circuit and the classroom, edited Emmanuel, a publication of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and wrote many articles and more than 20 books. Among his books were those published by Liturgy Training Publications: Dining in the Kingdom of God, The Breaking of the Bread, The Annunciation to Mary: A Story of Faith, and The Firstborn of God: The Birth of Mary's Son, Jesus, Luke 2:1 - 21, written with his friend, Rev. Paul Bernier, SSS. He had been an adjunct professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union, and also had taught at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio, and Fordham University.
"His life's work," Sister Claudette said, "was opening up the Gospel and making it understandable for us. At a conference, people invariably came out, saying, 'I understood everything he said.'"
Sister Claudette first saw the impact her brother had while she took his classes at CTU. "They flocked to his classes," she said of the students. She explained that LaVerdiere tried to get others "to befriend the scriptures, to make them a part of their own lives."
CTU President Don Senior, CP, described LaVerdiere as "a real communicator of the word. It was deep within his heart and spirit." Students and workshop participants around the world, Senior said, noted a radiance in LaVerdiere. "There was a certain joyful outgoing spirit." That spirit, Senior said, will be missed in the pastoral field. "His impact was on how he has brought a love of the scripture and knowledge of the scripture, to people engaged in the pastoral mission of the Church."
Dianne Bergant, CSA, CTU professor of Old Testament Studies, was impressed with LaVerdiere's gracious manner when, as a young scholar, she was a respondent at a conference at which LaVerdiere spoke. "Here he was an educated biblical theologian, and he treated me like a colleague. He was always so gracious. As a teacher, he was well-loved, because his insights were grounded but very creative."
That creative scholarship still attracted people, Bergant said, when LaVerdiere began to lose his speech. She recalled participants arriving at a workshop at the University of Notre Dame, aware that the lecturer's speech was impaired. "They were willing to wait through his struggle for words, because they had such great respect for him as a biblical theologian."
She added, "He had a reputation for being among the most creative of his time. A major focus was doing critical scholarship for the broader Church. His audience was educated but not necessarily with a scholarly education. His primary focus was taking the fruits of his scholarship and bringing it to the broader Church, because the religious tradition belongs to everyone."
The death of LaVerdiere, Bergant said, is "a terrible loss to biblical scholarship. But the other side of that is that his work continues in publications." Dining with the Kingdom of God, she noted, is "so well-grounded but the average person with a little education can understand it."
Abbot Clement Zeleznik, osb, was among those who looked to LaVerdiere's espertise to enlighten others, even when the scholar's speech was impaired. Zeleznik remembered the monks at Saint Andrew's Abbey in Cleveland benefitting from LaVerdiere's retreat about five years ago. The abbot said that LaVerdiere made a difference in how scripture is viewed, especially the Gospel of Luke. "He showed the beginning of St. Luke's Gospel was like an orchestration of the whole Gospel. It's absolutely rich in all the themes of the Gospel and filled with prayer and contemplation."
Dominican University Theology Professor Catherine Dooley, OP, saw within LaVerdiere's work a response to people's hunger for the Eucharist. "All of Fr. LaVerdiere's writings manifested the depth of his scholarship, but in his studies of the Eucharist, one also saw his vocation. His clarity of expression and his focus on the unity of assembly, Eucharist, and Church certainly offered the human family the riches of God's love manifest in the Eucharist." She added, "I loved his books, and I am grateful for the insights that I received from them."
In the homily at the funeral Mass for LaVerdiere, Bernier explained that the word of God and the Eucharist were at the center of his friend's life. "He once told me that the scriptures were the mainstay of his life. The scriptures were his prayer, and his prayer was the word of God. They were what accompanied him on his life's journey, helping him to see his life in the light of Christ. That was surely why he was able to have such deep insight into God's word, and why he was able to unlock for so many the beauty of God's revelation of himself to us."
Ending the homily, Bernier drew on a much loved LaVerdiere book. "Gene, at last you are finally dining in the kingdom of God. You have closed your life as you closed your book: 'Blessed is the one who lives in the kingdom of God.'"