The past several days, I have been transferring tapes to digital files. Two days ago I came upon one that was unique. It was the Inaugural Lecture of my old friend, Charles Kannengiesser, at Notre Dame as he was inducted into an endowed professorship. It was an event that I remembered well. Fr. Ted Hesburgh, the famed president of the college gave the introduction. Then Charles approached the lectern and launched into an hour long analysis of the current state of the discipline of Historical Theology.
Analytic, insightful and profoundly personal, Charles took us on a journey through the twentieth century and forward into the future as he explored the subject. He touched upon his own initial training as a Jesuit in the underground seminaries of France during the last months of the Nazi occupation, through to his ordination and academic development. (Once he showed me some of his first class notes in theology – they were written on the back of a German Gauleiter’s stationary that had been “liberated” from the city hall!) He touched upon his friendship with Karl Rahner and his brother and his admiration of Cardinal Jean Danielou, whom he succeeded at the Institut Catholique in Paris. As the lecture drew to an end, he shared the news that he was almost finished with editing the first critical text of Athanasius’ Apology Against the Arians to be completed since the seventeenth century. Then, of course, we retired for a glass of wine.
Tuesday morning, I learned that my friend Charles has died at the age of 91 in Montreal.
I first met Charles in 1980. He was delivering a lecture at Concordia, Ft. Wayne. I offered to drive him back to Notre Dame where he was a visiting professor. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. We were both devoted to the study of Athanasius. Through the course of almost forty years, we studied together, lectured together, cooked together, laughed together and supported each other in good times and in bad. When he left the Jesuits to marry his beloved Pamela, he asked me to conduct the service in New York City where I was serving at St. Thomas Church Fifth Ave. When I told him that he would need dispensations from the Father General of the Jesuits, as well as the Papal Offices, everything was delivered in a matter of weeks… it turned out that he knew them all as friends and some had been his students. It was “typical Charles”.
Together, we attended conferences traveling across America and Europe to Chicago, Oxford and Paris (he refused to let me read my paper in French, insisting “I will translate so they do not laugh at you”!). At Notre Dame, weekends at his house were the stuff of legend. Food, drink and patristic scholars from round the world were in evidence. In my home outside of Detroit, he once came on a “special errand”, spending two days reading my doctoral thesis… not saying a word. Finally, at the end of the second day, he set the 450 pages on the floor and said, “It is good, it is correct and I will ask Notre Dame to publish it… Now, let us open the wine and see what are we having for supper!” Not another word needed to be said. Scholarship and the good things of life were one and the same.
For Charles, life was to be lived… often with reckless abandon… and always with a smile.
What more can I say about him? Charles had three earned doctorates including the highest one offered by the Sorbonne. He taught at the Institut Catholique, Paris, the University of Notre Dame, and Concordia University (Montreal), as well as numerous other institutions around the world. He was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, and of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago. A prolific writer, Charles authored several monographs, edited a number of other volumes, and published well over one hundred scholarly articles. When the French government awarded him l’Ordre des Palmes Academique, we all rejoiced as the French Counsel slipped it on his lapel at the end of a conference on St. Augustine.
I’ve lost a dear friend and the world has lost a great scholar.
Yet, his death seems to me to be more than the mere turning of a page. It feels as though, for me at least, it is the ending of an era. There was a time when scholarship (and a life in scholarship) was respected and given due regard. There was a time when men and women of talent and ability were given the opportunity for real study and reflection. A decade, or even two, spent in the editing of a critical text was once considered meaningful and worthwhile as a crucial building stone for the next generation of scholars. Research was more than grabbing snippets from an internet article. In the world of faith, denominational lines meant less than the knowledge that was being shared across those lines. Most of all, there was a time when scholarship, research and study brought joy.
I hope that it is not the ending of an era and that I am wrong in my feelings. I hope that others will follow in his path. Not merely as scholars, but as men and women suffused in the joy of learning… and in the joy of life.
Charles, my friend, my mentor… rest in peace. You fulfilled the patristic vision…
“For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God.”
Irenaeus of Lyon