Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: Interviewing Francis Sullivan and Everything Since

Wow. So much has happened and I've been so harried and hurried that I've not had time to think about half of it yet. Things to talk about:
• Interviewing my dissertation subject, Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., at Boston College.
• Spending real time with Innate Freek, Erik [last name deleted for psycho-prevention], for the first time in half a decade.
• Helping Erik prepare a week-long set of liturgies for a Jesuit gathering in Paris in June.
• The image of a "WB-Mass" celebrated by ACE-founder Sean McGraw, C.S.C., that Saturday night.
• Geneva (and Venice and Florence) on the schedule.
• The Wedding of Kari-Shane Davis to Ben Zimmerman in Minnesota on May 19th.
• Meeting with Fr. Fahey after my return.
• Helping out a bit with the work at Mike Harris' new place.
• After more last-minute cancellations than I can number, finally attending the exhibit of St. Peter and the Vatican: The Legacy of the Popes at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

From Thursday May 11th to Tuesday May 16th, I was out in Boston, having traveled there to head over to St. Mary's Hall at Boston College in order to interview my dissertation subject, the theologian Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., who has retired to the community at Boston College after serving as a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome from 1956 to 1992. Sullivan's work is some of our most solid, foundational and functional writing on the Church (we call that academic specialty in Theology "Ecclesiology") that has been done. Although it was another American ecclesiologist, Prof. Avery Dulles, S.J., who was honoured by being made a Cardinal, Sullivan's work has the same kind of "primacy." That is, his is the first generation of theologians attempting to articulate the understandings of the Church coming out of the milestone Second Vatican Council of the Church from 1962-1965.

I had communicated briefly with Fr. Sullivan via email, but this was my first chance to actually meet him. He turned 84 on May 21st, but still immediately surprised me Friday morning by being more physically imposing than I'd pictured from the one photograph I had seen of him. Even as we sat down in a sitting room off the entry hall, he was quietly kidding me about the daring and/or foolhardy decision to write on a still-living theologian. Given that my director, Fr. Fahey, is retiring to the same community next month, this is something I had meditated on more than a few times, myself. We then settled into a routine that would last until Tuesday. We would talk from 10am to 3:30 or 4:00pm, with a brief break for lunch. (The Jesuit dining room had fabulous soups: a rich and delicate Fish Chowder and a wholesomely sweet Corn Chowder particularly standing out in my mind. I do love soups.) I had bought a digital recorder for the event, and would periodically dump its contents into my laptop. I was delighted and greatly honoured by Fr. Sullivan giving me so much time, and impressed by his capacity to talk at length (and I say this as an Irish-American of no small gift of the gab). I got parched just listening to him. And was immmediately humbled by his rising to fetch me water.

So over the 16-20 hours of recorded conversation, we followed the arc of his career for the first few days, guided by his CV and bibliography of works published. He has a number of significant books, of course, but the list of his articles runs for pages, and he is still very productive on that score. I was particularly interested in such narrative aspects of his intellectual ministry as his experience of his calling to the vocations of the priesthood and theologian. While I can certainly tackle the specifics of his theological work directly from his written work, the interview was the chief opportunity for researching the biographical sketch with which the dissertation will open. The last few days got more topical, with some more specific, and occasionally technical, questions that I had prepared based on a couple of articles I was reading at the time. There was also plenty of time for digressions and follow-up questions to material we had covered earlier. Fr. Sullivan is soft-spoken and was easily given to chuckling to my frequent one-liners, which put me considerably more at ease. He was, of course, an absolute wealth of information in his field: I could see in him the long-established habit of taking the opportunity to teach lessons, almost reflexively. I received a considerable refresher in ecclesiology mixed in with the specifics of his own life and experiences.

The other great opportunity of this trip was to reconnect with Erik after all these years. We've kept in steady touch via phone and email, but other than a two-hour lunch in 2003, had not seen one another since his leaving South Bend for graduate work at Boston College in 2001. He had been unable to attend the main recording sessions of the Renaissance Men in Nashville that fall, which was a great disappointment to me, but Mark Lang filled in more than admirably on songs like "Begin To Be" where Erik had regularly been the lead guitarist when we'd play back in South Bend. Having guided me through the train system from Logan Airport, Erik picked me up and brought me back to a sweet and hearty vegetarian chili prepared by his girlfriend Erin. Also joining us was his roommate Jill. As both of these ladies were absolute gems, conversation into the night was an absolute delight, with me just laughing spontaneously at times for the sheer joy of being back in Erik's presence. I had been curious to see what the character of our connection might be now. Erik, along with my undergraduate roommate David, are the only two people with whom I've ever enjoyed a distinct kind of mutual understanding, verging on telepathy. Clear in my memory is the night that Erik and I, out to dinner with an older priest friend who needed to unload some burdens, were thrown by our friend's sudden exclamation that he was completely unnerved by suddenly realizing that Erik and I, quite unconsciously, were commenting to each other on the conversation as it went along, in full sentences, but without speaking. I didn't necessarily think that something like that could survive years apart, or even just years of individual growth, but it gave me a distinct standard with which to measure th current nature of our friendship.

Of course, friendship was put to the test quite quickly. I am most decidedly not a morning person, and having been back in graduate school and not having a morning job has exacerbated that tendency. So Erik's decision to wake me up by cranking the stereo (with one speaker right next to my head were I was sleeping on the couch) and playing repeatedly the opening rooster cry from the Beatles' "Good Morning, Good Morning" before letting the song go, well, that was a painful decision. It didn't help that he'd turned in before I did, but insisted that I read the Alexander Hamilton v. Aaron Burr duel chapter from Jospeh J. Ellis' Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation as go-to-bed reading, which kept me up longer than I'd intended. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning book was fabulous, by the way: I read the entire thing, taking it home with me. Just the type of thing I'd wanted to read more of after reading McCullough's John Adams the other year during my surgical recovery. I hated being in Boston and having no time to take in the historical sights.) But in truth, while wiped out, my humour was intact enough to survive the assault. Of course, the fact that he saw fit to do this every day was more of a trial. (And he's not one of those people who would actually think that that was really funny or clever of himself, which is what made it more funny.)

Seeing Boston College for the first time – the beauty of which rivals Notre Dame – was a particular delight, particularly after four years of the urban lack of beauty that is Marquette (although it does have some exquisite bits). Boston was swamped (literally, in parts) with a major amount of rain through my visit, but that ended up not disrupting my own stay. In fact, that first Friday on BC's campus, walking up the hill from Erik's Psychology stomping grounds toward the mist-shrouded tower of Gasson Hall was a dream.

One task that came as a bit of a surprise was Erik asking me to help him a little with a set of liturgies he was preparing. Erik's effective apprenticeship under Steve Warner back in Notre Dame Folk Choir during his undergraduate and his M.Div. has made him a particularly talented liturgical music leader. I knew he was regularly handling four liturgies at BC and in the area, so I expected to enjoy some of his music in this venue. I also knew that he'd been asked to design and lead a week's worth of liturgies (Morning Prayer services, and afternoon Masses) in Paris for an upcoming Jesuit conference on "The Vocation of the Teacher in the Ignatian Tradition." Erik had been collecting distinctly Jesuit readings and meditation, taken from the work of the three grad school friends and founding Jesuits whose jubilees are being celebrated this year: the 500th anniversary of the birth of Francis Xavier, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Peter Faber, and the 450th anniversary of the death of Ignatius of Loyola. I was really impressed with Erik's tasteful, careful appropriation of these men and their hugely influential spiritualities. But I was surprised when Erik asked me to do a full-scale read-through of his work and suggest any editing I thought appropriate. In fact, I was rather flattered, given that I would naturally defer to him on these matters. That ended up being several hours' work after finishing with Fr. Sullivan most days, but was pleasant work to be able to share, and which provoked more than its fair share of good conversations. It was a huge project, and was being held to exacting standards, so it was a great relief for Erik to finish it and to be able to get back to his five projects that needed to be finished for the Spring semester's work.

Another delightful side of the visit was the unexpected number of parties I had to attend. Erik was actually apologetic that he had to attend a number of already-scheduled gatherings and did I mind? Me, I thought this was likely going to be frosting on an already-rich cake, and I was quite right. The first gathering was a rite-of-passage celebration for another doctoral student (hard to explain, but akin to passing doctoral exams) who turned out to be a Domer (Notre Dame alum) named Dawn Overstreet who is now also the Assistant Director for The Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. As it turned out, Dawn was also an old friend of Kevin Fleming and Steve Camilleri's who perhaps looked familiar to me because she had been present at no lesser an august occasion from my past than the Austin Powers/Summer of Love Christmas Party that I had thrown with those guys. This famous or infamous event featured the punching out of our drunken Santa Claus by one of the triumvirate of hosts, after said fellow took to harassing some of the younger women at the party (St. Mary's freshmen, mostly Folk Choir people) and then spit in Stevie's face when taken into a back room and confronted on the behaviour. So recalling this memorable narrative let me "place" Dawn loosely in my past and so served as a way to not be quite so much the random stranger who showed up at her party. Also at the party were former Folkheads Andy and Carolyn Herman. These two came in just at the end of my time with the Folk Choir, so I didn't know them well, but we had an interesting time catching up, particularly in finding that Carolyn has been working on a doctorate as well, and has begun focusing on ecclesiology, too. She had studied with Sullivan, who has continued to teach a graduate seminar pretty much each semester of his retirement in the BC community. So it was startling to realize that she might be a significant colleague in this field in the future, presuming I still do a lot of ecclesiological research after the dissertation. Another person at the party was Father Sean McGraw, C.S.C., who had founded the Alliance for Catholic Education at the end of his undergrad at ND. We had only met in passing before, but now talked at length for the first time, partially about his doctoral work in Political Science at Harvard, for which he was now heading to University College Dublin on a Fulbright for a year's research.

The next night featured this cast of characters gathering again, for dinner and a Mass in the living room of an area rectory. In this rambling New England brick pile, a bunch of folks – most with some ACE or Notre Dame connection – were coming together for their monthly or semi-monthly gathering to eat, worship, and discuss. In fact, that night was focused on the service work that they had been considering undertaking together, particularly at an under-resourced area Catholic school over which one of the young ACE-alums was now principal. She and another young man who taught there spoke of some of the specific needs of the school and the crew brainstormed on ideas on how to fulfill some of these needs. Before that, though, we had the Mass. We sat in a circle on chairs and couches around the living room, perhaps 15 of us. Erin to my left and Carolyn to my right. I took the second reading and then passed on the book to Carolyn who read the Gospel lesson. Then Sean spoke a brief homily and asked us to contribute any thoughts the readings had raised. Later, as we celebrated the Eucharist, we passed the vessels around the circle to each other, all of us acting as ministers of the Eucharist. It was a kind of low-key worship that I had missed, and probably not really experienced since working at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center in college. I was also struck by how different a Mass experience this was (as are the university Masses I usually attend) than the Masses one sees in the movies: there the subtext or underlying message seems to be that the Mass is a boring old loser-persons' affair. Instead, I found myself resonating with this experience, which was so much more characteristic of my experience. Here I was, seated in a circle of young, talented, energetic and gifted people in their 20s or 30s, all of whom shone with a kind of beauty in the moment. Suddenly, I realized, this was a "WB" Mass, if the WB could ever have such a thing. I found myself grinning at the thought, somewhere inappropriate to the night, I'm sure, and mercifully no one saw and asked me what I was thinking about.

The chief surprise of the entire trip came when Erik was telling me of his summer plans, which include an internship with the World Health Organization at their headquarters in Geneva. The Geneva. The surprise of that was his asking me to come out in July and to spend a week with him then, which would include a weekend train run featuring a day in Venice and a day in Florence. Visions of our adventures in Rome and in Tunisia started running through my head, and a long debate began on which was the better thing: more college loans and great life stories to tell, or less loans and a debt-free bottom line to brag about. Suffice it to say, I think my summer has gotten more complicated.

I made it back to Milwaukee just in time to start packing for another journey. This one featured jamming into an SUV with classmates Shawnee, Tony, Pam, along with Gale who runs our department for the Chair. All this to then drive some five hours or more in order to attend the wedding of former-classmate-now-turned-Professor Kari-Shane Davis to Ben Zimmerman. This was done just under the wire, with us pulling up to the church just as KSD was entering the building with her bridesmaids, after we'd quickly changed at our hotel. The wedding was particularly charming just in the emotion Kari-Shane was obviously feeling. The light-hearted fun of all Ben's relatives was also a big part of the mood, and the reception continued with that, in forms such as replacing ringing glasses for a kiss with a Kari-Shane/Ben trivia game with cards on all the tables. Going up to the mic and correctly answering a question earned the couple a kiss, instead. As in Boston, the party here gave me a chance to catch up with old friends and acquaintances. Jen and Steve Baxa were there, and I hadn't seen them since their wedding a few years ago, shortly after Jen graduated from here with her Master's in Philosophy. I was wondering if they'd show up, since they were in the area. (I had sung Rich Mullin's "If I Stand" at their wedding in Minneapolis.) We had a lot to catch up on -- like their baby boy -- and I made a point of introducing Jen to Shawnee as a fellow bioethicist, in case Jen was thinking of doctoral work. Steve still looks outrageously boyish and was carded at the bar during dinner. I also got to catch up with Martin Connell, who I had not seen in ten years. Martin was a doctoral student at ND while I did my Masters. We weren't close, but we were regular dining partners at the old Oak Room Wednesday night $3 all-you-can-eat spaghetti night. (This is where I blinked and realized one night, after several months of attending, that I was the only straight member of an unofficial gay dinner club.) Martin and I caught up on career/life news, and I'm now looking forward to his 800 page forthcoming book on Christianity's conception of time, both in liturgy (his speciality) and systematics in general. Good stuff.

The next day we drove down the highway on the banks of the Mississippi instead of heading back out to the interstate. Gorgeous. Tony and I had a lot of time to talk throughout this, and the setting of the drive -- with taking the wheel of Gale's SUV in the sunshine and the glowing green of spring on the river -- was just the place for it.

Alright. This has taken me two days to squeeze out. I'll finish the rest later.
Tags: books, dissertation, dulles, food, francis a. sullivan s.j., friends-marquette era, friends-notre dame era, george and the freeks, historical, liturgical, magisterium, musical, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame, personal, teachers, theological notebook, travel, writing

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