The founding father of the Catholic studies movement believed education was about spiritual formation and the mission of salvation
“God must know I am a coward,” Dr. Don J. Briel said in an interview shortly before his death Feb. 15 at the age of 71. Some of his stunning words in that interview — and the witness of his last days — tell quite a different story, however.
Briel is the founding father of Catholic studies as a field of study in the United States, founder and longtime director of the first program in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
Since 2014, he has been the Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Liberal Arts at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota (he taught hundreds of students on its Rome campus).
Shortly before his death, he gave an extraordinary interview to the Twin Cities archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit. Early this year, he had been diagnosed with untreatable leukemia. Rather than be devastated, Briel was all gratitude.
“I had hoped that I would have roughly a month to prepare for death, and that I could be conscious of it and order my life to that truth,” he said.
He talked about the family and friends who had been visiting him, the former students who had come by and the palliative care he was receiving, all of which he described as an “enormous consolation.”
And, he explained, “Finally, most astonishingly, it looks as if I will have very little pain as I move toward death, which God must know I am a coward. So it’s more than I could have hoped for.”
He saw it all as a gift — as he had clearly seen his life all these years.
“I think so many people are fearful of death largely because they don’t have any sense that there is anything other than the immediacy of the material world,” he said. “And for me, as for any Christian, of course, our confidence is not in this world but the world into which we are invited in Christ, and the great hope that gives us in the face of the prospect of death.”
“Catholic studies,” as Briel explained it in a 2014 speech at a conference celebrating his achievements in the field a few years ago, was born of his own experience of Catholic higher education changing, and not for the betterment of souls.
“The old assumption had been that the study of religion would promote an integration of life in which the claims of the intellect would find a complementary formation of virtue,” according to Briel.
“Now the Catholic university moved to focus its distinctive intellectual claims in the emerging field of academic theology and implicitly distanced itself from the task of spiritual formation of its students.” He sought to and would work to change this.
Asked about his advice before he left this world, Briel cited Cardinal John Henry Newman: “God is inviting us to take a role in the plan of salvation. I think the modern problem for Christians is not that they have an exalted sense of their importance, but they don’t have a deep enough sense of their importance.”
“If this is true that each of us as persons is responsible for the achievement of the plan of salvation,” Briel said, “then I hope that Catholic studies has inspired its students to realize that greatness in the lives they’re leading as well as the work they’re doing.” Finally, in that parting interview, Briel said:
“I have from my earliest childhood had a deep sense of God’s presence in my life. And I certainly have it now, but not in some new and unique way. God has accompanied every aspect of my experience. Again, go back to Newman, who said that we are made in God’s image, and that for him, it was impossible to think of himself without thinking of God and without thinking of himself. That at the heart of this is a relationship. You know we’re not autonomous beings, but we are beings in relation. “Cor ad cor loquitur” was his cardinatial motto: “Heart speaks to heart.” So all of my life I’ve understood myself in this relationship with God. And this is simply another development of that abiding sense.”
If a Catholic education did nothing but prepare a young person to have a relationship with God that is so core to his existence that it permeates everything he does, that would be no small thing.
In his 2014 speech, Briel also said, “At the heart of Catholic Studies has been the encounter not merely with a set of texts but with living Catholic minds who share in that ‘gaudium de veritate,’ that joy in the truth at the heart of the life of a university, properly understood.”
The last time I saw Briel, it was at a book event for Cardinal Francis George in New York after the cardinal had died. I ran into Briel in the hallway and his peace was striking.
In retrospect, it seems clear he didn’t need that month-or-so warning, because he was no coward. He tried to live always prepared to meet God. It’s why he did the work he did, out of love of God, for the sake of his eternal soul and that of others. It’s the most important lesson he taught. He dedicated his life to it. He lived and died to impart the message. That is, Gospel truth.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review, serves on the University of Mary’s Board of Regents and is a contributor to Angelus.