Fr. Barnabas Ahern,
Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
Impelled by the Word of God
With hair like Albert Einstein, a lanky body like Ichabod Crane, the skill of a Protestant biblical exegete, the zeal of a Jewish rabbi, and the enthusiasm of a revivalist, Chicago-born Barnabas Ahern was a twentieth century Scripture scholar who brought the Bible to life for Catholics.
During the first half of the twentieth century the Bible was the domain of Protestants. Mass and devotions anchored the faith of American Catholics and those throughout the world. Barnabas Ahern was a pivotal figure in encouraging Catholics to understand the intellectual and pastoral implications of modern Biblical scholarship.
His name became synonymous with new opportunities for understanding Catholic Scripture. Ahern's ability to promote modern biblical scholarship during the mid-twentieth century represents the dynamic tension and inescapable union of Scripture and Tradition.
Formed in a Church suspicious of modern Scriptural interpretation, Ahern used his piety, influence, and persuasive knowledge of Scripture in the service of the Catholic Church, to make the Bible a part of American Catholic consciousness. It was precisely this ability to inspire those in his native Chicago that allowed him to go beyond American boundaries at a time when the Catholic Church was becoming more world-wide in outreach. Scripture scholar Barnabas Ahern serves as a model to study the development of an American Catholic scholar in relationship to wider religious ideas.
Scholar and Popularizer
He was born February 18, 1915 in southside Chicago. A Passionist parish mission motivated him to enter the Passionist seminary. Ordained in 1941, he received an S.T.L. in Theology in 1943 at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and studied Scripture at the L'Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem 1947. In 1947 he received a perfect score on his Bacculaureate exam before the Biblical Commission in Rome. The following year, he received his Licentiate there. In 1958 he obtained a doctorate from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
But Barnabas Ahern was more than a scholar. Dressed in his long, black, religious garb, with the Passionist heart and rosaries, he taught Passionist seminarians in Chicago during the mid-forties and early fifties. Scripture came alive in his classroom. Students learned the modern biblical scholarship of the 1943 encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu."
A popularizer, Ahern applied preaching, personal holiness, devotion, and intellect to help create the post-World War II religious workshop culture of the 1950s. With Fr. Myles Bourke, he worked on the New American Bible translation sponsored by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. (That's where he met Thomas Merton.) Priests, sisters, and educators throughout the United States learned from Barnabas that Scripture offered the opportunity for a personal relationship with God.
Vatican II: Bishops Go to School
In 1959 Ahern was teaching Scripture to Passionist Seminarians in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1962, he was appointed peritus at Vatican II (1962-1965), serving on the Theological Commission, Secretariat of Christian Unity. During the council, he prepared interventions for Cardinal Albert Meyer of Chicago.
"No individual, perhaps," writes Vatican II journalist Fr. Vincent Yzemans, "did more to promote biblical scholarship among the American hierarchy at Vatican II than Father Barnabas Ahern."
His tactful handling of a 1962 confrontation over modern Scriptural tendencies with conservative U.S. Apostolic Delegate Egidio Vagnozzi assured the acceptance of modern Catholic biblical scholarship by many U.S. bishops:
Vagnozzi rose after an Ahern presentation and asked Barnabas, "Is it not true that the words of the Gospel were the exact words of Jesus?"
Fellow Scripture scholar Fr. Eugene Maly recalled that Ahern "oozed unction," neatly educating Vagnozzi while tempering the anti-progressive stance which could undermine the Council. Fr. Barnabas wasn't aware until a vote was taken that he had succeeded.
Between Council sessions, Ahern, to the point of exhaustion, engaged in a world-wide promotion of the Council's message: Catholics ought to study and to pray the Bible. He lectured in the United States, England, Ireland, Canada and Africa. He helped found "The Bible Today" - a popular Catholic Scripture journal.
In 1964, Ahern received the Cardinal Spellman Award for theological achievement from the Catholic Theological Society of America and served as president of the American Catholic Biblical Association.
Travels After the Council
From 1966 until his death in 1995, Barnabas never doubted the importance of Vatican II nor the power of Catholic Scripture as a spiritual guide for all Catholics. Scripture, was in fact, an optimistic revelation of God's love. In retrospect, his life offers us a way to appreciate present day questions about the ongoing meaning of Vatican II.
Barnabas was a busy man after the Council. Constant travel made it difficult for him to adjust to changes in the U.S. Church and to the sixties. It became a contributing factor to his uneasiness in teaching Scripture at St. Meinrad's Seminary in Indiana (1966-1968) and at newly established Catholic Theological Union in Chicago (1968-1969).
Still, he had successes. His 1966 address before the Association of Chicago Priests at McCormick Place in Chicago validated that organization. During the Passionist Chapter of Renewal(1968-1970), Barnabas advocated change in religious life without a loss of tradition.
In 1966, through workshops in Ireland, he was a breath of fresh interpretive air concerning the power of Scripture for the relatively conservative Irish Catholic Church.
But Ahern was questioning the implementation of Vatican II and his role in that process as he experienced the hope and upheaval of the immediate post-Conciliar era. He was less at home in the United States. In some respects, his 1969 move to Rome to serve on the newly established International Theological Commission seemed to serve as an escape.
Back to Rome
During the 70s in Rome, Barnabas Ahern was the first non-Jesuit to teach at the Gregorian University. He taught Scripture at the Apostolic Religious Communities Program (ARC). He lectured at Regina Mundi and the North American College. He was consultor to the International Theological Commission (1970-1983), a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Pontifical Vulgate Commission (1966-1973), and a consultor to the Congregation of Saints (1981-1988).
In 1971, the U.S. Bishops Conference appointed Barnabas to be one of two U.S. priests representing them at the Synod on the Priesthood in Rome.
In 1981, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury bestowed on him the Order of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Queen Elizabeth had approved the honor, recognizing Barnabas as an original member and only Scripture scholar of the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue (1969-1975).
From 1983 to 1987 Barnabas resided at St. Mary's House of Prayer, a Passionist contemplative community in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Then, he surprised many by accepting a call to teach Scripture in Nairobi, Kenya. He was there from 1987 until 1989.
Finally, in 1989, afflicted with Alzheimers, he was forced to return to the Passionist nursing facility in Chicago. Barnabas Ahern died there on January 9, 1995.
The life of Fr. Barnabas exhibits the often-experienced tension of holding faithfully to religious tradition during a period of rapid change in the Church. He combined modern biblical scholarship with personal piety, and by popularizing biblical spirituality, he helped make the Bible become an integral part of Catholic life today.Fr. Robert Carbonneau, C.P. received his doctorate in American and East Asian history from Georgetown University in 1992 and is Historian for the Passionist U.S. eastern province.
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