Today, for the first time in the 88 years since the Dominican friars founded Aquinas Institute of Theology, a scholar and priest who is not a Dominican becomes its president.
Father Seán Charles Martin is the new Aquinas president.
“It is a big step for us because in our long history we have always had a Dominican,” the Very Rev Charles Bouchard said. He's the Dominican provincial, its elected leader, over 14 states from Michigan to New Mexico, who made today’s announcement in Chicago.
“But in Seán Martin we have a man who is both a scholar and strong pastoral presence. He may not be a full-fledged Dominican, but his devotion to Scripture and teaching definitely make him part of our family.”
Martin, 60, is a diocesan priest from Dallas. Unlike Dominicans, Jesuits, Benedictines, Vincentians and other religious order priests, diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty and obedience. A diocesan priest promises to obey his bishop and to remain celibate. But, for example, he can own a car.
And he is no stranger to Aquinas or to the wider community.
For a dozen years, he has been an Aquinas associate professor of Biblical studies and a St. Louis resident. The clarity of Martin’s scripture stories and his self-deprecating wit have made him a popular teacher, retreat master and preacher far beyond the graduate school’s Grand Center doorway.
On weekends, Martin has filled in for sick and vacationing priests, given retreats and missions from St. Teresa’s Parish in Salem, Ill., to St. Peter and Paul in Collinsville to St. Cletus in St. Charles. He lives at Immacolata Parish in Richmond Heights.
“I have worked at Aquinas for 12 years, and I have loved every single minute of it,” Martin said in an interview. “It’s been both good for me and good to me. It is the best gig, I’ve ever had.”
Best Kind of Teacher
Martin is widely appreciated by his former students.
“He is the best kind of teacher, so easy to listen to, very intelligent and a fine story teller who never spoke from notes, and always sounded so fresh,” said Sister Maureen Glavin, who took Martin's scripture classes when he taught at St. Thomas University in Houston. The nun, a Religious of the Sacred Heart, now is "head of school" at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles where Martin serves as its board chairman.
“Whether his theology class was one hour or three hours it went like that,” Glavin said snapping her fingers.
Former students and those who hear his sermons regularly said that they relish the way he enlivens talks with ideas from contemporary life and his love of literature — he holds a master’s degree in English literature from Notre Dame University.
“In his preaching he makes the scriptures alive,” said Father Carl J. Scheble, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in St. Louis. “He has a great ability to synergize to take the best of different disciplines and weave them together: history, tradition, literature, scripture and background (of) the people of the time and the place. He does it with his incredible gift of language.
"He is one of the most brilliant, articulate and gifted men I have ever known.”
Martin regularly said Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in University when Scheble was its pastor and the sole priest there. Scheble observed Martin interact with parishioners.
“He’ll use those gifts to bring Aquinas students, faculty and different disparate groups at the school together and make them one,” Scheble said.
Many say he is generous with his time.
"He finds time for one-on-one encouragement and questions with his students always, always, always," said Susan Sanner of St. Louis, one of Martin's former Aquinas students.
Many who hear Martin teach or preach said that they are warmed by his affection for his family. As the fifth of seven children who were raised overseas when their father served in the U.S. military, Martin delights in his dozen nieces and nephews and his siblings. He treasures family gatherings on a Tennessee hilltop retreat and special occasions at their homes across the nation. Often he does the cooking.
In addition to his English lit master’s, he holds a masters in theology from the University of Dallas and two more advanced theological and scripture degrees from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The fit, dark-haired, youthful Irish-American was ordained in Dallas, and remains a priest of the Dallas diocese. He is fluent in French, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic and Texan.
Shining on School's Strengths
Martin is trying to envision Aquinas in the future.
“I hope to see Aquinas filled with students to ensure the school’s mission,” he said in a recent interview. The school mission statement is: “Impelled by the Catholic faith and the Dominican mission, Aquinas Institute of Theology educates men and women to preach, to teach, to minister and to lead.”
Martin aims to help strengthen the graduate school’s “distinctive national profile” with its emphasis on master’s and Ph.D. programs for preaching and "arts in health care."
“We’d like to build on those strengths that already make Aquinas stand out nationally,” Martin said.
He faces challenges. Enrollment slumped over the past few years among lay people. The school’s full time equivalent enrollment is around 200. Currently 26 traditional Dominican seminarians are enrolled full time. These seminarians live in a friary the former Loretto Academy near I-44 and Grand, which was rehabbed a year ago. Bouchard, whose province is one of four Dominican Provinces in the U.S., said 26 was the highest number of Dominican vocations in his province in years.
Where enrollment numbers dropped is among lay scholars, who are mostly part-time students over 30. Aquinas lay grad students study to enhance their work in health care, hospital chaplaincies, parish work, as spiritual directors, with social justice projects and to focus their own spiritual growth.
Most graduate students work full time sometimes have two jobs and family responsibilities. They scramble schedules to take one course a year in hopes of getting a master’s degree in five to seven years, Martin said. The slow recovery from the Great Recession accounts for some of the lay enrollment drop. With so many lay people taking just one course at a time it blurs counting heads, Martin said.
Non-traditional students “bring intellectual strength, and experience in their dialogue with full time students,” Martin said. “Some our younger students — traditional 22- or 23-year-old students come right out of Catholic universities and a few come from Truman State other others colleges,” he said.
Except for traditional Catholic seminaries, most Christian theological graduate schools don’t draw the majority of their students directly from college. Studies by The Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary in New York City have found that, since the 1990s, the median age of most theological students is in the low to mid-30s.
“The study of theology is a contemplative exercise when we begin to ask deeper questions of God about life and yourself,” Martin said.
For approximately 800 years, the Dominican order, officially called the Order of Preachers, has been teaching Catholic theology and preaching. In 1926, Dominicans founded the school that has become Aquinas as a clerical preparation seminary in downtown Chicago. A decade later, it moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where it eventually opened its doors to lay people including nuns. In part, because of Saint Louis University’s strong collection of theological books, Aquinas moved to St. Louis in 1987. It used space at SLU’s O’Neil Hall on Lindell Boulevard. Now, it owns its building, just south of the university, on Forest Park Boulevard. It's an award-winning rehab of a 1903, red brick, former adding machine factory.
Aquinas students can take courses toward their graduate degree at Saint Louis University and at a consortium of four area seminaries: Kenrick-Glennon in Shrewsbury, Covenant in Town and Country, Eden in Webster Groves and Concordia Lutheran in Clayton.
The majority of Aquinas students are Catholics. However, scripture classes draw at least one or two Protestants, typically Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian, Martin said.
“The scripture belongs to every Christian, so I see more (Protestants) because Scripture is what I teach,” Martin said. Over the years, he has made many friends in ecumenical circles.
Martin is teaching this semester and preparing a course on Luke’s Gospels for the spring semester. He intends to continue teaching at least one course a semester as president. Continuing his own research is in Martin’s DNA and fires up his considerable exuberance.
“My specific interest in (Paul’s) Pastoral Epistles has also led me to explore the historical setting of the Christian community in Ephesus,” he said. “Much of what is now part of the New Testament we owe to those early Ephesian Christians. The Gospel of John, the Letters of John, the Book of Revelation, not to mention the Letter to the Ephesians, the three Pastoral Epistles and perhaps Romans 16 were either written for one or another community of Christians in Ephesus, or preserved by the Christians of that ancient city.”
Aquinas’ months-long process leading up to today’s appointment included balloting by the school’s board, faculty and two tiers of regional Dominican friars and consultation with students. Martin said that the long process mirrors a saying he loves: “Democracy is at the heart of the church.” Father Carlos Aspiroz, the former Dominican order world leader used those words frequently, he said.
“The Dominicans don’t just talk democracy,” Martin said. “They walk the walk with real respect for the dignity of the human person.”
The ebullient Martin may well become a civic presence, commentator and conscience the way that moral theologian Bouchard was when he led Aquinas at the turn of the century, Sanner and some board members said they hope.