Theologians gather to honor O'Meara, discuss ecclesiology

Catholic theologians working in the field of ecclesiology gathered Sept. 5-7 in Dover, Mass., to honor one of their own and discuss the future of Catholic ecclesiology.

Over 40 theologians and graduate students came from across the United States and Canada to celebrate the theological achievements of Dominican Fr. Thomas O'Meara. Organized by four of O'Meara's former students -- Fr. Stephen Bevans of the Society of the Divine Word, Richard Gaillardetz, Edward Hahnenberg, and Vincent Miller -- the symposium was held at Boston College's Connors Family Retreat Center.

Gaillardetz said the choice to honor O'Meara with such a symposium was both a tribute to the the Dominican's work in the field and an opportunity to reflect on the study of the church in light of the first 18 months of Francis' papacy.

"Tom O'Meara is one of his generation's most distinguished theologians. He has written extensively on a wide range of issues in theology," he said. "Ultimately, the four of us who planned the symposium decided to focus on the state of Catholic ecclesiology today, first because Tom has made important contributions to the field; second, because the four of us had done a lot of work in ecclesiology; and finally, because the pontificate of Pope Francis represents in many ways a new kairos for Catholic ecclesiology."

The conference brought together both emerging scholars with some of North America's most prominent ecclesiologists, including Catherine Clifford, Jesuit Fr. Michael Fahey, Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight, Fr. Joseph Komonchak, Paul Lakeland, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Rausch, and Charity Sr. Susan Wood.

Over the course of the symposium, the participants discussed nine papers written by their colleagues. Each paper explored the changing nature of the study of the church in the 21st century. Topics discussed included the missionary nature of discipleship, the need for the whole church to listen to those populations who are marginalized both in the church and society as a whole, and the roles narrative and social scientific work play in ecclesiology.

Nancy Pineda-Madrid is an associate professor at Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry. After the symposium, she spoke of the importance of such a gathering amid the changing cultural landscapes of both the U.S. and global church.

"I found this ecclesiology symposium to be a graced, liminal moment in time," she said. "Liminal not only in terms of those gathered in the room -- leading theologians who have shaped Catholic ecclesiology over the past several decades and those who will do so in the decades to come -- but also in terms of our theological conversations. Our lively exchanges zeroed in on the shifting cultural tide of the U.S. context, and importantly, how this compels new ecclesial visions in which mission, discipleship and the symbolic figure more prominently."

To facilitate such conversation, the organizers departed from the traditional format of an academic conference. Rather than asking presenters to deliver their papers in a formal, spoken address, they asked each participant to read the papers in their entirety before the start of the conference. This allowed conference participants to ask for clarification from and make suggestions to the authors before engaging in large group discussions of the themes that emerged in each paper. The authors will revise the papers, incorporating the insights that emerged from the weekend's discussions, and Liturgical Press will publish the revisions in a festschrift dedicated to O'Meara.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee of Manhattan College, one of the presenters at the symposium, began the weekend's events with a public lecture on the role of the marginalized in ecclesial reform. She and several other participants said the symposium's design created a collegial and collaborative atmosphere throughout the weekend.

"I think the event was remarkable for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly because it gathered some of the most influential thinkers on the subject of ecclesiology and allowed them to interact on the issues most important to them, including dialogue, collegiality, the sense of the faithful, and collaboration between and among bishops and theologians," Imperatori-Lee said.

"It was awe-inspiring to see the generosity of these scholars and really a testament to Tom O'Meara, whose generosity and insight we were there to celebrate," she said.

O'Meara is the William K. Warren Professor of Theology Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. A native of Des Moines, Iowa, he completed his doctoral studies at the University of Munich under Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner. Upon returning to the United States, he taught at the Aquinas Institute from 1966 to 1979. In 1981, he began teaching at the University of Notre Dame, where he remained until his retirement in 2002.

The author of more than 200 publications, O'Meara has written or edited 15 books on topics as diverse as the theology of Thomas Aquinas, ecclesiology, the theology of Paul Tillich, and Christian revelation in light of the possible existence of extraterrestrials. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and in 1991 received its highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award.

[B. Kevin Brown is a doctoral student studying systematic theology at Boston College.]

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