BY BILL SKOWRONSKI
Director of Communication and Marketing Central Province, USA
In the letter to the Ephesians, we read we are not aliens and strangers to one another. We all belong to the household of God. Though Fr. Seán Charles Martin is the first non-Dominican chosen to lead the Aquinas Institute of Theology in its rich 89-year history, he is hardly a stranger to the Order of Preachers. In his 13th year as a professor of Biblical Studies at the Dominican graduate school in St. Louis, Fr. Martin is often considered part of the Dominican family and its household—perhaps a brother-in-law.
A priest from the diocese of Dallas and an educator for 34 years, Fr. Martin was hired in September as president of Aquinas Institute. While not a friar, his Dominican roots reach back to the 1970s, when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Dallas, where Fr. Damian Fandal, O.P. was the dean, and who, as Provincial of the Dominican Province of Saint Albert the Great, would later be responsible for moving Aquinas Institute from Dubuque, Iowa to St. Louis in 1981.
“My association with the Order of Preachers has been pretty constant over the years, “Fr. Martin said. “I’ve counted Dominicans as some of my closest friends and indeed, mentors. This is the logical culmination of a series of relationships that have been important to me for almost 50 years.
“Aquinas has been good to me and it has been good for me,” Fr. Martin added. “It really is a remarkable place with a compelling mission.”
Fr. Martin understands the need for Aquinas Institute to respond through its mission to twin forces, such as that of God’s call balanced against the needs of His people.
“We have this mission that comes to us from God, through Dominic and Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena and all these great figures who have brought us to this point in history, but at the same time we’ve got to be responsive to the needs of the Church,” Fr. Martin said. “That requires a complementary set of fidelities. One is faithful to one’s tradition, but you are also faithful to the circumstances in which you find yourself. You cannot have one without the other.”
In addition to the ever-evolving public perception of the Catholic Church, recharged by the “Pope Francis Effect”, Aquinas Institute faces its own share of internal challenges, similar to those facing any institution of higher learning, particularly theological schools caught in the economic downturn, and that is finding the resources that support the school’s mission.
“In every institution I’ve worked, we’ve had to look at every dime twice before spending it, and that’s a good thing,” Fr. Martin said. “We’re spending other people’s money, so we want to be very prudent. We owe that to our supporters and benefactors. As the economy begins to turn around, we see people taking another look at supporting institutions like ours, whereas a few years ago such support wasn’t possible.”
In spite of the uphill economic battle, Aquinas Institute has produced an outsized impact on the life of the Catholic Church in the United States by forming a distinct niche in theological education, preaching education, and healthcare mission. The school can claim 70 percent of the teachers of homiletics in the United States as graduates of its doctoral program in preaching. And its healthcare mission degree programs and certificate programs were some of the first to prepare people to become mission leaders in Catholic healthcare—primarily in Catholic hospitals — providing an unlikely and remarkable opportunity.
This national, and even international impact on the Church excites Fr. Martin as he prepares to accelerate Aquinas Institute into the next generation. As he does so, he still defines himself as a priest and a teacher, carrying with him the story of the school in a rehabbed redbrick factory with students and alumni rippling far beyond St. Louis.
By retaining his faculty rank as professor of Biblical Studies, Fr. Martin continues the great tradition of scholar-presidents that has notably included Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., Fr. Rick Peddicord, O.P., and current Provincial, the Very Rev. Charles Bouchard, O.P. Maintaining close proximity to the faculty makes Fr. Martin intimately aware of the need to restock its ranks for the future.
“One of the great opportunities the school faces over the next couple years is recruiting new members of our faculty,” Fr. Martin added. “We will be alert to recruit faculty members who can build upon the school’s historic strengths.”
Founded in 1926 in River Forest, Illinois, Aquinas Institute welcomed lay students in 1968 and inaugurated the first Catholic doctoral program in preaching (Doctor of Ministry in Preaching) in the United States in 1993. The school’s renowned faculty has long been one of its strengths, and will be charged with continuing the Aquinas tradition.
The faculty will be responsible for the education and formation of future Dominican Friars from the Central Province and Southern Province, ministers of the Gospel who will work anywhere from Miami to Minneapolis, and Indiana to Denver. Admittedly, the task requires very highly regarded professors, well-versed in Dominican theology, which Aquinas Institute’s new president is fully aware.
“The classic Dominican emphasis on the complementarity of faith and reason is exciting,” Fr. Martin said. “When one embarks upon theological study, it’s not as if one abandons one’s rationality—it’s actually quite the contrary. This rigorous, precise way of thinking requires the use of one’s mind. We believe in the complementarity of faith and reason, that reason can be in the service of faith, and that faith builds upon reason, and in some respects, takes it to the next level. That is theoretical, but it has very practical and ministerial consequences which can affect the way people live their lives and imagine their relationship with God. I find that part to be very compelling.”
Just a few months into his role, Fr. Martin has already acknowledged the challenges ahead and begun working to live up to them.
“I’ve always had great jobs within the Church, but this is the best place I’ve ever been,” Fr. Martin said. “We have terrific students, a beautiful facility, a good faculty, and a compelling mission. The only thing left is to find and secure those resources that enable us to discharge that compelling mission, pay that good faculty to teach those terrific students, and to maintain this beautiful facility.”
For information regarding ways to support Aquinas Institute of Theology
Contact Stacey Krieg, Director of Institutional Advancement (314.256.8858 or firstname.lastname@example.org). To become an Aquinas student, please contact Dave Werthmann, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid (314.256.8806 or email@example.com).