Remembrances for our Deceased Brothers
Rev Dr Paul (Ronan) Lennon, O.Carm. (1936-2003)
Given by C. O’Donnell, O.Carm., at the Requiem Mass in Terenure College on February 12, 2003.
Paul died on Saturday last at what he would write as 1730h. I was with him at the time; he just slipped away. I came home and sat in my room. I didn’t feel much like praying—after the past few days in St Luke’s Hospital, I felt I had done enough praying for all of Lent and enough Rosaries for the whole of May. I took out the Saturday Office of Readings, and what did I find? The second reading was Paul’s own translation of Vatican II, Constitution on the Modern World, Gaudium et spes 35-36. The passage was telling and very close to Paul’s deepest convictions:
Just as human activity proceeds from man, so it is ordered to him. When he works, not only does he transform material things and society, but he develops himself as well. He learns, he develops his faculties, and he emerges from and transcends himself. Rightly understood, this kind of growth is more precious than any kind of wealth that can be amassed. It is what a man is, rather than what he has, that counts.
He had made the translation for Dominican Publications in the late 1960s. His English style and ability to deconstruct Latin periods was all there. The reading concludes with:
Without a creator there can be no creature. In any case, believers, no matter what their religion, have always recognised the voice and the revelation of God in the language of creatures. Besides, once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well.
We have here an astonishing coincidence in the fact that the Church throughout the English-speaking world was reading Paul’s translation the day he died. Moreover, the first reading for this Funeral Mass, which he selected himself, is Romans 1:18-25. The Apostle Paul there speaks of the foolishness of those who do not believe and the consequences for themselves and the world of unbelief. And we can see why his namesake would choose this severe text. We can all surely see where the suppression of truth, unbelief and the manipulation of faith ideologies are bringing our society and our world.
There are many sides to Paul’s complex personality. He turns up in the Prayer of the Church; he a philosopher dedicated to truth. People from all kinds and places have been sharing tributes with us these days. This morning I had an e-mail from the American Carmelite theologian, Jack Welch, recalling his courage and fidelity at last Summer’s Carmelite retreat. Again, it is so like him that he did not smooth away the hardness of the first reading; he could, for example, have omitted the first verse. But no, he left in the serious warning about the consequences of unbelief. Paul’s faith was at times stern, but profoundly authentic. He valued rationality very highly, and found the imperfections of the world and of people at times hard to take. He was particularly impatient with any fall from rationality on his own part. As a philosopher he taught for many years the metaphysics of God—what can we learn about God from reason. I think he was personally very attracted by the beauty of Anselm’s ontological argument, God as id quo nihil maius cogitari possit. In the Louvain system a person doing their viva for a doctorate has to offer an area of philosophy so that, should a doubt remain, the examiners can satisfy themselves about the philosophical credentials of the candidate. Paul offered the ontological argument; but the examiners were already convinced by the thesis. The ontological argument of Anselm has great beauty and invites the spirit to soar; but the hard-nosed philosopher side of Paul did not allow him to accept its classical formulation.
We will all have our own treasured memories of him. How does one avoid a sort of panegyric on such occasions? I think Paul has given us a way out in the first lesson that he chose. The Apostle Paul notes the sin of not giving God thanks. So we look at Paul’s life, not in a sense of earthly praise, but as evidence of God’s power at work in Paul and the divine grace that shone through Paul’s human frailty. So rather than a focus on praising Paul, we look on his life so that we can find a profound motive for giving thanks to God.
I first met him at Gort Muire in 1955. Though some months younger, he belonged to the novitiate before me, 1954-1955. He was from Louth, from no mean village, Omeath. From there he travelled on the Greenore train to school in Newry each day. As a Carmelite he pursued a B.A. in Latin and English at University College Dublin. He then did his M.A. with a thesis on Marian religious lyrics, under the Vincentian medievalist, Fr Tom Dunning. Then he went to Rome where first did a Licence in Philosophy at the Gregorian University, and later acquired a B.D. from the Lateran University. By 1965 he had had enough of Rome and decided that Louvain was the place for philosophy. Nothing but the intellectually best and most challenging for Paul! At Louvain he intended doing a doctorate in the area of aesthetics or philosophy and literature, but in 1968 the distinguished philosopher, Professor van Riet, said to him, “Why don’t you try something worthwhile, Fichte, for example.” Paul would later write in the introduction to his thesis “From that moment I was committed to studying the philosophy of Fichte.” He headed off on a journey that would take him thirty-two years. Johann Gottlieb Fichte meant learning German well, it also meant studying with the world authority on Fichte at Munich, Professor Reinhard Lauth, who was bringing out the critical edition of Fichte at a steady pace. By occasionally taking a semester off here and there, he kept at Fichte until eventually he finished it with a summa cum laude from the Catholic University of Louvain in 1998. His massive thesis was “Realism and Idealism: The Genesis of the Wissenschaftslehre in the Early Writings of Johann Gottlieb Fichte.”
It was a thesis of extraordinary difficulty as it meant catching the development of Fichte’s thought from a variety of lectures, notebooks and jottings. I worked with him in the technical preparation of the thesis—footnotes, proof-reading, etc. Fichte’s German is strange and wonderful. If Paul’s eye slipped in transcribing a quotation, a line or two of Fichte could often be missing without it being immediately terribly obvious. He kept at the revisions until it was, well…perfect.
There were interruptions, for which many of us can be thankful. God used Paul for cultivating a little corner of his vineyard, the Milltown Institute. He lectured there, taking a special interest in the philosophy of God and later in Kantian studies. He had a livelier style of presentation than many of his colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s. One friend of mine, who had not the slightest interest in the philosophy of God, attended his lectures just to enjoy the performance.
He became President at a crucial time in the life of the Milltown Institute (1989-1995), the first non-Jesuit to hold this office. Just after his appointment the Archbishop of Dublin informed him that the restrictions on Milltown degrees would be lifted. Even though from that time the number of seminarians was dropping there was a huge increase in lay students. His time as President also saw Milltown granted designated status by the National Council for Education Awards (NCEA), so that we were able to confer a whole range of civil and pontifical degrees up to and including doctorates. These new developments showed Paul as an able administrator and led to increased secretarial staff. The new courses and the NCEA recognition forced developments in organisational and academic structures. These were largely the achievement of Paul, with the help of the Deans of Theology and Philosophy at the time, and vice-Chancellors, and the Trustees who were encouraged to become more involved in their Institute. Milltown has since moved on, but on Paul’s foundations.
When his time of President was up he took a brief rest and then pursued Fichte to the end. But within fifteen months of his doctorate in August 1999 he suffered a serious stroke, which handicapped him in movement and speech. He never fully recovered. Though he later returned to lecture in Milltown, the old sparkle and energy were gone. We then saw four years of struggle with ill-health. When he had recovered reasonably well from the stroke, he was struck down with severe cancer. He found illness difficult. At first he thought that will power and determination, and above all the power of reason, would bring him through. Many of us asked over these years, what is God up to? But the answer was silence. Paul lived with this divine silence, seeking to penetrate it in the years of ill-health. He fought each inch of the way. He set goals for himself. He was in Croke Park for last year's All-Irelands. He got particular pleasure from visiting President McAleese at Áras an Uachtaráin at the end of last year.
The academic side was only one side of Paul’s activity and gifts. He valued friendship highly and placed great store by loyalty. When my own sister was a novice in Waterford in 1960, he went to see her from Cork, travelling by train from Cork to Limerick Junction and then to Waterford and back to Cork via Limerick Junction. It was a day of travelling. Being allowed a grudging thirty minutes of a visit did not please him.
Loyalty was indeed a passion. And there was another virtue, which confused an elderly sister in Milltown who complained about Paul always talking about Emmanuel Kant’s wife, Julie. Paul was, of course, waxing eloquently about duty. This dedication to duty was perhaps a Northern trait, which served his Carmelite Order and the Milltown Institute well.
He loved Carmelite life. Fr. Martin Kilmurray has already referred to his contribution to the Order, and last night his prior Fr. Langan spoke of his commitment to community.
He has a great delight in the G.A.A., football, more than hurling. He cultivated a rather specialised infatuation, which never lasted too long, which was seeing how far Louth would progress in the All-Ireland championship. Each year he embraced a short-lived hope that they might repeat the championship win of 1957 or being finalists in 1950. Those who knew his commitment to excellence in academic work will not be surprised to know that he was a very competitive footballer at school, at Gort Muire, in Rome and later in Milltown. In practice games he wore of course the Louth jersey. He played for the Milltown soccer team in defence. As he came to his forties he found that his speed was gone, so he took up goalkeeping. After one particular match, I think perhaps against a Marist side, he finally hung up his boots. He claimed that the Milltown defence players were poor and did not do their duty; six goals had passed him by.
Martin Kilmurray, our vicar provincial, has already spoken of his contribution to the Carmelite Order at Provincial level. He was also highly esteemed at the universal level, holding an important brief of delegato per la cultura, though poor health did not allow him to leave his mark on it. He was also a member for several years of the diocesan priests’ council and of numerous academic committees.
At his request I saw him each day during the past week. Ten days ago he told me that he was dying, that he was reconciled, and that it had taken him a year to come that far. It had been a long journey as he gradually came to realise that our highest faculty, reason, is not the whole of our being. During the week he appreciated my telling him the story about the American theologian, Avery Dulles. When Dulles was asked what he felt like when he was appointed cardinal, he replied, “Felt? Shucks! I have not had a feeling for twenty-five years.” Paul did not reveal his deeper feelings very easily. In the final days he was helped by the thought that whatever indignities his body was suffering, his own dignity as a person transcended it all. He was enormously grateful for all the care he received.
I have not forgotten his choice for a gospel reading. The text of the parable of the talents can be cut off at various points. Paul wanted us to hear the full text. This is surely saying to us that he leaves the judgement of his own performance to God. But he wanted us all to use the gifts that God has given us.
We can look at his great gifts and give thanks for them. He was an intellectual, a sportsman, a sparkling and witty companion, a Carmelite faithful to the finest traditions of the Order, whose aim is that of being a contemplative fraternity in service. In an inadequate way I would finally highlight two of his qualities: his loyalty and his great gift of encouraging others. Most of us here will have been recipients of both his loyalty and his encouragement. Thank you, Paul. Thank you Most Holy Trinity for your gift to us of Paul.