An Interview with Father Donald Senior

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



Dr. Knight: Could you tell us about your call to priesthood? How did your academic work inform your priesthood?


Father Senior: When I was in seventh grade, my family moved from Philadelphia to Louisville, Kentucky and into a parish run by the Passionists religious community. Over the years I got to know many of the Passionists and admired them greatly. Eventually I decided to join them and entered the novitiate in 1960 in St. Paul, Kansas. As ordination approached, my dream was to join our mission in Korea and especially to work among the lepers in Sorokdo—where one of our Passionists missionaries worked. But it was not to be. My superior told me that I was being sent on for post-graduate studies in Europe to prepare for a ministry of teaching Scripture. While disappointed at first, over time I realized this was a great blessing that has guided my whole life as a priest.


Dr. Knight: As a Scripture scholar you seem to really enjoy your ministry. What sustains and supports you in this challenging task?


Father Senior: You are right—I do find joy in studying and teaching the Scriptures—and writing about them, too. I know people can find joy in a lot of professions—but for me studying the Scriptures is not work but a constant discovery and inspiration.


Dr. Knight: You tell some great stories that help us all in our relationship with Jesus and His Church. Is it reading other people’s work, study and prayer that gives you the insight into the Scriptures?


Father Senior: Interpreting the Scriptures does not mean simply knowing about the biblical language or the history background of a particular biblical book or passage. The Scriptures are not just historical artifacts, but from the vantage point of faith, they are the Word of God. So genuine biblical interpretation means bringing the biblical text into dialogue with human experience—it is that interconnection that gives meaning to our faith and our lives. That is why I like to think of particular human experiences or stories to bring into dialogue with the biblical text itself—how do the Scriptures throw light on my experience, and how does my (or “our”) experience open up the meaning of the Scriptures?


Dr. Knight: Have you worked in other dioceses? Tell us what was significant about other assignments.


Father Senior: While I have served in a number of parishes over the years on weekends and given hundreds of retreats and workshops in different locations, my primary ministry has been at Catholic Theological Union for more than 40 years. I have been a professor of New Testament there and for 23 years served as President of CTU. This has been my “base” and I am very grateful to be part of CTU which I think has a great mission. CTU has an international study body so in some ways being here at CTU gives me a window on the worldwide church. I also have had the privilege over the years of bringing hundreds of groups to visit the Bible lands in the Middle East. Enabling people to experience the beauty and wonder of the land in which the Bible was formed has been a great joy for me.


Dr. Knight: As an Administrator at Catholic Theological Union what is the mission of the school?


Father Senior: CTU is a Catholic graduate school of theology—one of the largest in the country. Our mission is to prepare men and women for ministry in the church. That includes seminarians from 24 religious communities, and increasing numbers of lay men and women and religious seeking to serve the Church in a variety of ways: teachers, pastors, chaplains, social service workers, missionaries, etc.

Dr. Knight: I am part of the RCIA program and I often reflect on how we can assist the next generation in being good Catholics. How does your work engage the young adults of your university?


Father Senior: That is really an important question facing the church. How to respect and engage young Catholics. A conviction I have is to try to introduce young men and women to the beauty of the church and its spirituality and traditions. Dorothy Day’s favorite quote was: “The world will be saved by beauty”—a quotation from the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. I think that is right on target. Many young Catholics unfortunately experience the church as legalistic or rigid or corrective. How can we engage young (and older) Catholics in the beauty and inspiration of the gospels and the great saints, and wonderful works of mercy and justice that have characterized the church? I am very hopeful about the future of the church. After all, the Spirit is at work today as much as in any age. In fact, I am always inspired by the young men and women who come to CTU ready to serve. Their eyes are wide-open—they realize the flaws in the church but they still want to serve. One young student told me, “I think of myself as a first responder—while some are fleeing the church, I am going into the church to make a difference.”


Dr. Knight: What are your hopes for the future of the Church in light of the abuse scandal? The virus?


Father Senior: Well, this pandemic seems to have changed everything and most of us were not prepared for it. I like to think that, along with some of the strife we are encountering about “re-entry,” that there is also a lot of re-thinking about our lives and what counts. Being isolated makes a lot of people realize how important their relationships are. Forced to slow down and reflect can make us more thoughtful. And all of this is making us move on from “business as usual” in our work and in our church and in our families. How will we live into our future? I think that is a very powerful and challenging question for all of us.


Dr. Knight: As a University professor what was a class that you loved to teach? Brought you joy?


Father Senior: I teach courses on the Gospels and on Paul—I love all of them. But, strangely, my favorite is teaching “Introduction to New Testament” to our incoming students. It is a chance at the outset of their graduate studies to share with them the beauty of the Scriptures and, hopefully, to kindle their love for the Bible.


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