Father Donald Senior reflects on 60 years of religious life

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Passionist Father Donald Senior seen in this file photo is celebrating 60 years of religious life. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Chicago Catholic Scripture columnist Passionist Father Donald Senior is celebrating his 60th anniversary of religious life this year, and what a full 60 years it has been.

He was finishing his novitiate at the same time John F. Kennedy was making a run for the White House. He was a newly ordained priest when the Second Vatican Council took place and many religious communities had made changes to how they lived out religious life. He spent many years in the classroom teaching Scripture and then leading Catholic Theological Union in Hyde Park. And now he is living through a pandemic. 

“It’s been quite a ride,” Senior said.

He has spent his life living as a Passionist, a community whose full name is the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Senior first encountered the community in his parish during high school. Passionists staffed the parish and it was located near a Passionist monastery and theology program.

“I got to know them and was intrigued by them,” Senior said.

He was around young seminarians who were filled with a sense of mission and excitement for taking the Gospel out into the world.

“That attracted me very much,” he said.

While he thought about becoming a priest off and on in his life, before meeting men in the Passionist community it was nothing serious.

“But seeing them sort of planted the idea. Then I went to college for a few years and it was still nagging at me so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I give it a try?’”

He did his novitiate in the small town of St. Paul, Kansas.

“People would always ask where that is and we would always answer: It’s 109 miles south of Kansas City and 60 miles west of Joplin, Missouri. We had to give the coordinates,” he said, laughing.

When he first entered the community, it had a more ascetical, formal way of life, Senior recalled.

“Then we went through the council and there were a lot of changes in our original inspiration. Our founder had more of a missionary type approach,” he said.

That missionary spirit was attractive to Senior, so much so that he wanted to serve at one of the community’s missions in South Korea. He recalls asking his provincial for permission to do that once he was ordained.

“He listened but then later said, ‘We decided we are going to send you for graduate studies in Scripture in Europe,’” Senior said. “I’ve thought of it since like an arranged marriage. You have one thing in mind but you don’t have the freedom to choose it. Somebody else chooses it for you. Then hopefully you fall in love with your spouse. That’s sort of what happened to me. The study of the Scriptures have sustained my life.”

The community sent him to the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. During his five years there he also ministered to U.S. troops stationed on bases, which increased his appreciation for the role of the laity in the church.

“Any of us who were priests at Louvain or other places would go to the bases on the weekends. The chaplaincy didn’t have enough chaplains,” Senior recalled.

He started teaching at Catholic Theological Union in 1972. Sixteen years later, he was elected president.

“I was reluctant to do it. I didn’t seek it,” Senior said of becoming president. “I was sort of drafted.”

After serving as president for 23 years, Senior has returned to the faculty as president emeritus and helps with fundraising.

Being immersed in Scripture has been life-giving, he said.

“It just has shaped my life in so many ways,” he explained. “For me that’s the biggest thread that’s run through my life.”

Senior specializes in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. His expertise in Scripture earned him an appointment to two 10-year terms on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Even while serving as president of CTU, Senior taught courses on Scripture and led many workshops, retreats and pilgrimages, all focused on the word of God.

“I’ve found people respond to the Scriptures. They find it life-giving also,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until after the Second Vatican Council that the laity really started discovering the Scriptures.

“There are beautiful devotions in the church and they can be a source of a person’s spirituality, but the Scriptures themselves always remain the sort of lodestar,” he said.

So, after 60 years of religious life, what would Senior say to someone discerning a vocation? He recommends looking for a mission that draws the person over a community of people.

“My own sense is that the thing that is most important is a sense of mission. Community follows mission, not the other way around,” he said. “You’re called because you want to live an intense Christian life in service to the church, trying to reach out. If you have that, then you can find companionship with people who are thinking along the same lines. But if you’re just looking for kind of more secure community, religious life, I don’t think, will do it.”

He cited founders of religious communities who were called to a certain way of life and then were joined by others who felt the same call.

“You need something bigger than yourself,” he said.



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