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"A Visionary leader"  
  Donald Senior, CP (1940-2022)  
Mary G. Fox  

As a biblical scholar, Rev. Donald Senior, CP, guided scholars in their work and helped ordinary Catholics to see how the Word of God unfolds in their lives. As a brother to a sister with a disability, he annually sold candy on a street corner to support Misericordia Home. As a priest engaged in ecumenical and interreligious affairs, he served as a bridgebuilder among people of varied faiths. As a Scripture professor at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) for fifty years and its president for twenty-three years, he was the face of CTU.

With his death on November 8, 2022, Senior is being remembered for his wisdom, humility, gentleness, and scholarship.

“He was a deeply profound Christian and a consummate gentleman,” said Rev. Mark R. Francis, CSV, who first met Senior while a student at CTU and succeeded him as president in 2013.

As a youth, Senior was attracted to the Passionist Congregation, which served his parish in Louisville, Kentucky. Encountering seminarians there, he said in an interview, “I was struck by their dedication to what they were doing.” Some of the work of the Passionists was in far-off missionary lands, and Senior had imagined that after his ordination in 1967, he would be a missionary. The order, however, sent him to the University of Louvain, in Belgium, where he received his doctorate in New Testament studies in 1972. That same year he began teaching at CTU.

From there, it could be said, he set out on a different missionary path than he had intended, a path that included people from many backgrounds and walks of life. Senior’s name has been equated with biblical scholarship but also with making the Scriptures accessible to the average person. He was a coeditor of The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century (T&T Clark, 2022) and of the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2016), wrote scores of books on Scripture for both academic and popular audiences, edited The Bible Today and New Theology Review, and served three popes as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Drawing on the historical, literary, and geographical realities of biblical texts, Senior was able to allow people to “project themselves into the text,” said Michael Cameron, PhD. While with the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Catechesis, Cameron invited Senior to be the first presenter at the Chicago Catholic Scripture School in 1999. “You got the sense that he was glued to a calling to bring the Scriptures to people,” said Cameron, professor emeritus of historical theology at the University of Portland.

Patricia J. Hughes, DMin, recalled how Senior enabled students to relate the Scriptures to their lives. “Fr. Senior was quietly passionate when he led us to understand God's love of those who are disabled, using Luke-Acts as a lens. He provided a glimpse of his own gentle, pastoral nature, besides demonstrating with guest speakers—especially a faith-filled blind woman who fought for access in Chicago—that the inbreaking of God's love can correct our social attitudes and ethics. Years later, I learned of his constant love and care for his own sister, disabled from birth.”

Senior’s focus of bringing the Scriptures to people extended to tours of the Holy Land, Greece, Egypt, and Turkey, where he connected the cities, towns, and geography to the Scriptures. Recalling the May 2022 tour that traced the footsteps of St. Paul from Thessalonica to Philippi, Rick Mauney noted the priest’s depth of understanding and the biblical connections made. “He really knew how to bring you to the heart of the matter and to get the meaning of the Gospel message across.”

Not only did Senior talk extensively about St. Paul while in Ephesus and Church councils in Cappodocia but presided at Mass in a cave, by a river outside of Philippi, and on the grounds in Corinth, unperturbed as a dog slept at his feet. Through stops that included Athens, Antioch, Tarsus, and Istanbul, the eighty-two-year-old priest stayed energetic and attentive to the tour’s participants, said Mauney, director of educational technology at CTU. “They just really adored him for his humor, his kindness, his gentleness as a man, his sincerity. He deeply cares about people.”

Francis noted that Senior approached tour participants “as a priest—someone pastorally concerned with them and their spiritual life.” Francis added, “He wasn’t just giving information. It wasn’t just a question of reeling off places and things. It was how does this fold into your view of the events of Scripture and how are these events important today.”

Just as Senior was known for his scholarship, so also was he for his leadership as president of CTU during two periods (1987–1995 and 1997–2013). “What has always amazed me is that he combined first-class biblical scholarship with decades of effective administrative leadership of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago,” said Rev. Richard Clifford, SJ. Clifford, a fellow member of the Catholic Biblical Association, said others looked to Senior’s example while forming administrators. “The (originally) Protestant professional organization for overseeing seminary education often used him as a model administrator when they ran seminars preparing new deans and presidents of seminaries.”

During Senior’s two terms as CTU president, he evangelized as he connected people to the school, sought for CTU to respond to the needs of the Church, and provided a setting for interreligious dialogue to flourish through the Bernardin Center. CTU President Barbara Reid, OP, called Senior “a visionary leader who was passionately committed to the Second Vatican Council.” She added, “He really was for many years the face of CTU.”

As president of CTU, she said, he was always asking, “What does the Church need from us now?” One of the answers to that query was the Bernardin Center, where the program “In Good Faith” brings people of diverse faiths together to share a meal, converse, and form friendships. “I think he was very good at reading the signs of the times. He was keen on bridgebuilding and establishing dialogues across boundaries of difference,” Reid said.

That interest was apparent in Senior’s work with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago (CRLMC), where he helped members find common ground and words that resonated with all as statements were drafted. Daniel J. Olsen, director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said, “More than anything, I was appreciative of the model he offered to engage with others in interreligious dialogue.”

Serving on the executive committee of the council with Senior, Olsen witnessed an ability to reach consensus through carefully chosen words. “When you have thirty religious leaders in a room, it’s hard to find the right words that everyone could agree on. Don Senior was excellent at finding the right words.”

CRLMC Executive Director Nisan Chavkin said that Senior was “a constant source of wisdom, humor, and openness.” He added, “In the best sense, he was wise. He was a source of good counsel. For Don, it was always what are we trying to achieve and how can we do that together with respect for all.”

Colleagues would not hear from Senior of honors bestowed, such as the O’Connell-Douglas Award for his contribution to interreligious and ecumenical harmony, the Gutenberg Award for biblical scholarship, or the Order of Lincoln Award, Illinois’ highest honor for public service. “He was very humble. He put other people first,” Reid said.

That humility was apparent in the priest’s support for Misericordia Home, where his sister who was developmentally disabled lived. Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, former academic dean and professor at CTU, recalled, “Every year Don put on a Misericordia apron and took up his bucket of Tootsie Rolls, selling them to drivers at a busy intersection near CTU to raise money for the cause. He did this without the slightest embarrassment. Surely there were other ways he could have contributed, but participation in this annual fund-raising event was his choice. He did it for his sister of course, and perhaps also to make Misericordia and their work of compassionate care better known and supported on the south side of Chicago and beyond.”

Concluding his homily during a Mass of thanksgiving upon his retirement as CTU president in 2013, Senior said, “I’m very blessed. I’m very peaceful. I’m very happy.”

Francis said that he and others feel that the blessing is theirs. “Anyone who knew and worked with him professionally always felt blessed by the relationship.”

Mary G. Fox
is the Editor of Pastoral Liturgy®. Pastoral Liturgy® is published by Liturgy Training Publications.
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