Passionist Father Donald Senior, president emeritus and chancellor of Catholic Theological Union and an internationally known biblical scholar, died Nov. 8 following a stroke. He was 82.
He also wrote dozens of books and articles that are used widely in Scripture study, and served as Chicago Catholic’s Scripture columnist since 2016.
Widely honored for his work on biblical studies and promoting interreligious dialogue, Father Senior was eagerly sought as a speaker on biblical topics, especially the New Testament, his area of expertise.
“He brought to the service of the church and humanity a dedicated scholarship, a commitment to life-long learning and an unswerving witness to the Gospel in his personal life,” Cardinal Cupich said in a statement.
“His writings, teaching and priestly ministry have been a source of encouragement for many, including myself,” the cardinal said. “I will miss his friendship, his wit and his gentle spirit. May he be welcomed into the fullness of life, made possible through the passion of Christ.”
Officials at Catholic Theological Union, where Father Senior served as president for 23 years in two stints, also mourned the priest’s death.
“With immense gratitude, we celebrate Father Don’s life and the extraordinary gifts he embodied as a world-renowned biblical scholar, prolific writer and extraordinary pastoral leader,” Dominican Sister Barbara Reid and Thomas Brown, Catholic Theological Union president and chair of the board of trustees, respectively, said in a statement.
“Father Don’s devotion to his family, to the Passionist order and to the extensive CTU community was unmatched,” they added.
Born Jan. 1, 1940, to Vincent and Margaret Senior in Philadelphia, he grew up with two sisters.
He was ordained a priest in the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ in 1967. He was introduced to the order after his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, when he was a high school junior. Passionist priests from Sacred Heart Monastery staffed the parish the family joined.
In a 2020 interview with Chicago Catholic, Father Senior recalled becoming “intrigued” by young seminarians he met because they were filled with a sense of mission and excitement for taking the Gospel into the world.
Although he had 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,” he said. “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 rural St. Paul, Kansas.
After ordination, he wanted to serve as a Passionist missionary in Korea. The provincial superior had another idea, however, telling the young priest he was being sent to Europe for graduate studies in Scripture.
“I’ve thought of it since like an arranged marriage,” Father Senior said. “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 has sustained my life.”
Completing a doctorate in New Testament studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium in 1972, Father Senior joined the faculty at the Catholic Theological Union. He became its president first from 1987 to 1994 and then from 1997 to 2013. He then was named president emeritus and chancellor and also was a professor of the New Testament.
Several professional associations honored Father Senior for his work in biblical scholarship and interreligious and ecumenical relations.
“Father Don Senior will be dearly missed by all of us who learned so much from his passionate engagement in ecumenical and interreligious relations in Chicago,” said Daniel J. Olsen, director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago in a statement.
“Beyond his leadership with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, Father Don was a founding and highly respected member of our local Muslim-Catholic Scholars Dialogue. He was the rare person who combined brilliant scholarship with a keen pastoral sensitivity.”
That combination is precisely what led Chicago Catholic to invite Father Senior to take over the newspaper’s Scripture column in 2016.
“As soon as I learned we would need a new Scripture columnist, I knew we had to ask Father Don,” recalled Grant Gallicho, the newspaper’s associate publisher. After Father Senior quickly accepted, “I think I smiled for the rest of the day, or possibly month,” Gallicho continued. “His copy was always clean, its insights rich and often moving — and never late. What an honor and a blessing it’s been to offer our readers his surpassing wisdom every two weeks for the better part of a decade.”
Father Senior’s awards include the Jerome Award for Outstanding Scholarship from the National Catholic Library Association in 1994; the Bishop Loras Lane Award for outstanding service to Catholic education from the National Catholic Educational Association in 1996; and the O’Connell-Douglas Award for contributions to interreligious relations and the Gutenberg Award for biblical scholarship in 2013.
In 2014, the state of Illinois presented him the Order of Lincoln Award, the state’s highest honor for public service.
Father Senior also served as president of the American Biblical Association of America (1997-1998), the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada (2007-2009), and the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago (2012-2014).
St. John Paul II appointed Father Senior to the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 2001. He was reappointed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and by Pope Francis in 2013.
Pope Francis sent his condolences through a message conveyed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, remarks that were read aloud near the end of Father Senior’s Nov. 15 funeral Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church: “To those present at the Mass of Christian Burial and to all who mourn Father Senior in the sure hope of the Resurrection, the Holy Father cordially imparts his blessing as a pledge of peace and consolation in the Lord.”
- - -
Contributing to this story was Catholic News Service
YONKERS, N.Y. — A funeral Mass was celebrated Oct. 22 at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers for Msgr. John P. Meier, a Scripture scholar, professor and an indefatigable writer whose book “A Marginal Jew” hit bestseller lists in the 1990s.
James A. Serritella, an attorney who served as principal outside counsel and legal adviser to the Archdiocese of Chicago for nearly 50 years, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital April 23 from complications of heart disease. He was 78.