"In Münster I learnt about the priesthood"
It was at the invitation of the Center for German-American Educational History, headed by Prof. Jürgen Overhoff, that Prof. Leo J. O’Donovan, 81, returned to Münster University for a few days. Norbert Robers took the opportunity to talk to O’Donovan, a priest and the former rector of Georgetown University in Washington DC, about the time he spent as a student in Münster, about Pope Francis, and about the differences between German and American universities.
You were a student at Münster University more than 40 years ago. What do you still recall today about that time?
It was a very important phase in my life. It was a time in which I matured. But it was also an outstanding time theologically speaking. It was during these years that I began my development towards becoming a theologian and priest. It was during this time that I grew up, however funny that may sound.
How did you like the city at that time?
I liked it a lot. I felt very comfortable living here. At the time I lived in Sentmaring House, a Jesuit residence. Although there were only two Germans living there – but several Americans, Japanese, Belgians and Canadians – we all spoke nothing but German to one another. In the evenings we liked going to Pinkus Müller, but of course I was also familiar with the big and the small Kiepenkerl. In those days people used to say that Münster had a pub for each of the 365 days in the year. Our aim – not meant entirely seriously, though – was to get to know all these pubs. One evening we spent so much time discussing Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan with several students that in the end we were talking about Lahner and Ronergan …
What was the reason that you studied in Münster?
The reason had a name: Karl Rahner, who taught in Münster from 1967 until he retired in 1971. I had read some things he had written, including some sentences that the Swiss Hans Urs von Balthasar liked to quote. I was deeply impressed right from the start.
Coming back to Münster today – do you still recognize the city?
Oh, certainly. The basic features of the city centre haven’t changed much – the Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Prinzipalmarkt, the Promenade. I finally had time now to take a look round the new Landesmuseum – which is a real architectural gem.
You’re familiar with many theological faculties around the world. What reputation does Münster have?
A very good one – as much now as in the old days. Karl Rahner and his students Johann Baptist Metz and Walter Kardinal Kasper are just three of the truly outstanding people who have taught here.
What are the most important differences between American and German universities?
Competition between American universities is very strong, with all of them trying as hard as they can to get the best professors. This has certainly had a great influence on quality over the past few decades. But one thing is indisputable: it’s only possible with a strong financial basis.
So do American professors tend to look at Europe or Germany more with a feeling of pity?
No, certainly not. Many European universities, including German ones, have a good reputation in America. And there’s one thing you mustn’t forget: over there, you study or work primarily at a faculty and not at a university as a whole. An individual faculty’s reputation is the decisive thing. If a faculty achieves the reputation of being one of the best in the country, the best professors go there too, without looking primarily at the pay involved, because they are guided more by where the top people in their field are working.
Are professors in America also guided by rankings?
No, most professors are sceptical about these lists. While I was rector I never met any other rector who took rankings seriously. Fifth place this year, second place next year – the only explanation for these moves up or down is that the magazines reporting on them depend on having something they can really write about.
As a priest, you will be watching Pope Francis’ pontificate with a great deal of interest. What is your assessment of what he has done so far?
I have a very high opinion of him, both as a pope and as a person. What he exudes is an incredible amount of lightness, affection and nearness – just like Jesus, who always preached the nearness of God and not of the church. It’s actually downright infectious, and it’s a true blessing for the church as a whole.
Have you always seen him that way?
There are some people who say that he was changed by his intensive contact with the poor while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. I’m one of those who believe that he has always had this profoundly Christian love of other people.
What do you think is Pope Francis’ most important reform project?
Without a doubt the way that he sees the Catholic Church: his conviction that it is more collegial than anything else and that this is the direction he wants to take it in. The papacy is a special office in the Catholic Church, and the pope stands for the unity of the church. On the other hand, Francis is convinced that it is only one office among many, and he wants to strengthen the episcopacy. And something else he wants is renewal. And where is this renewal supposed to come from? From the world as a whole! But Rome just so happens to be not where the whole world is.
Among the many offices you hold, one stands out: you were on the Walt Disney board of directors. Rather an unusual job for a priest …
… but one I was happy to do. When the then chairman of the board asked me, at the time when I was university rector, I replied that I wasn't a businessman. But he still wanted me to take the job because he said I understood young people and their parents, I knew the American ideals, and I managed a large organization – a university. It was a fascinating period, and one in which I learnt a lot. By the way, talking of learning – do you know where I learnt about the priesthood?
Do tell me!
In Münster! For three years I lived in the rectory of St Antonius church, because the priest there at the time, Joseph Tömmers, invited me to come and help him out with his duties. Tömmers and his cousin took me in like an adopted son. He was an outstanding priest – no intellectual, but a very wise man who encouraged others. For that reason alone I have the very best memories of Münster. Even though all the children in the parish always had difficulties with my name and therefore called me Father Donnerwetter (“Father Ohmygosh!”) …
References (in German): "wissen|leben" No. 1, February 3rd