An Interview with Timothy P. O’Malley

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: What initially interested you in teaching?

Timothy: Like most educators, I suspect that my interest in teaching began in encountering teachers who mattered to me. I was the first person in my immediate family to attend a 4-year institution. So, I had little sense of what undergraduate teaching in particular involved. As a first year student at Notre Dame, I encountered teachers who changed my life. My current boss, Dr. John Cavadini, showed me that you could engage the totality of the intellect and be a believer. Throughout my time at Notre Dame and later Boston College, I learned what it means to be a teacher. And therefore, when I came back to Notre Dame and began teaching, I used those guides as inspiration.

Gordon: Where did you earn your doctorate and what was your favorite course?

Timothy: My doctoral degree was from Boston College, a PhD in theology and education. Boston College’s degree is unique in that it considers educational theory, at the same time that you get a degree in theology. My goal was to look at ancient and medieval homiletics, discerning the pedagogical wisdom in such preaching. The course that pushed me in this direction was a class that focused on Augustine of Hippo. Paul Kolbet, an Augustinian, pushed me to see the brilliance of Augustine’s liturgical pedagogy in particular, especially in his sermons. There are classes that change your life, and that was one for me.

Gordon: What courses are you currently teaching at the University of Notre Dame?

Timothy: At Notre Dame, I teach mainly undergraduate students. I teach a supersection of a course on the theology of the sacrament of marriage, where we also read a good deal of sociological literature on love and dating. I teach a graduate course on catechesis, as well as a class on liturgy, theology, and aesthetics. In the past, I’ve taught courses on the Eucharist, a history of Christian theology through preaching, and our introductory course for students, called Foundations of Theology.

Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon your classes?

Timothy: It’s an interesting question. Ironically, when COVID-19 hit, I was already teaching an online class. In fact, part of my work at Notre Dame is related to digital learning. So, believe it or not, I was well prepared for the move toward digital instruction. During the 2020-2021 academic year, we had in-person instruction at Notre Dame with masks. In the fall of 2020, I taught 250 students in a concert hall that held 900 persons. It was strange. In the spring, I taught an online class and an in-person class in a hotel ballroom. I think what was revealed, in the process, was how difficult it is to teach with masks. There is an encounter that takes place in the classroom that masks make nearly impossible. You can’t see the faces of your students. This year, we have been without masks, because we had a vaccination requirement for students, faculty, and staff. It’s been night and day. And it has led me to appreciate the act of in-person teaching.

Gordon: I understand that you are working on a multi-volume work in liturgical format. What will the planned volumes include?

Timothy: The plan is to move through several major eras, beginning with Augustine and ending with the turn toward liturgy in French continental philosophy in the 20th century. I am interested in the way that Christian existence has been offered as primarily a liturgical activity. What do I mean? I mean the way that human beings have been formed to make of their lives a sacrificial offering through engagement with the liturgical rites of the Church. This is not reducible to “understanding meaning” in the abstract. It means a re-formation of the faculty of the imagination, to learn a new way of perceiving existence through the liturgy. Christian history is suffused with such moments from Augustine’s preaching, the spiritual exercises of Gertrude the Great of Helfta, the preaching of John Henry Newman, and the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel.

Gordon: What are some of your most memorable experiences that you have had in teaching?

Timothy: I once taught a class on monastic exegesis while staying at a monastery. I’d say this was transformative for me and helped me realize how space and place matter so much. A classroom doesn’t need to be an anemic space. The monastic context allowed students to read texts in a different kind of way. And it also changed the way that I taught the material. We should all teach once in our lives at monasteries.