A Lamb with the Heart of a Lion: Remembering Fr. Matthew Lamb
Today, on the first anniversary of his death, I’d like to pay my personal tribute to this great theologian.
On the morning of Friday, Jan. 12 last year, Fr. Matthew Lamb, a noble soul and indefatigable defender of Catholic education, passed from this vale of tears into the bosom of the Lord he had spent his life serving so well. Today, on the first anniversary of his death, I’d like to pay my personal tribute to this great theologian.
Fr. Lamb, the Cardinal Maida Chair of Theology at Ave Maria University, died in the company of two graduate students, who were keeping a prayer vigil at his bedside, a fitting conclusion to a life dedicated to Catholic education and a teaching career spanning 45 years.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1937, Lamb tried his vocation at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, entering the religious life in May, 1952, shortly before his fifteenth birthday. He was ordained in the Abbey Church ten years later. Later he would become a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Commencing his graduate studies in 1964 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he earned a licentiate in sacred theology two years later. Between 1967 and 1971 he pursued Doctoral studies at the Universities of Tübingen and Münster, completing a doctorate in theology summa cum laude at the Westfälsche Wilhelms University in Münster in 1974.
Returning to the United States, Fr. Lamb taught at Marquette University for 12 years, and later at Boston College for almost 20 years, before being called in 2004 to head the newly-founded graduate program in theology at Ave Maria University in Florida.
Having experienced at first hand the deterioration and decay of bona fide Catholic theology at Marquette University and Boston College, Fr. Lamb hoped that his pioneering role in Ave Maria’s new graduate program would help restore authentic theological discipline. As an advocate for the development of rigorous and faithful centers of theological study, rooted in Catholic methodologies and practices, he had written in 1997 that “there is no doctoral program in North America with a rigorous ratio studiorum that offers an integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching.” He was outspoken about the consequences of such a decay in academic and intellectual rigor, and of the consequences of allowing the teaching of theology to fall into the hands of those who were seeking to undermine Catholic orthodoxy, warning that theologians who reject the Magisterium’s teaching are “sowing the seeds of further scandals”:
Many of the pastoral problems bishops face find their roots in the failure of proper formation and education of the priests, religious, seminarians, and faithful in their dioceses as dissent spreads from theologians to the mass media and beyond. The recent sexual abuse scandals that have damaged so many sprang from failures in moral and theological formation and proper oversight. Those theologians now rejecting Magisterial teachings on the immorality of contraception, of abortion, of homosexual acts, and of euthanasia, as well as those rejecting Magisterial teachings on marriage, priesthood, and sacramental practice, are sowing the seeds of further scandals.
A great supporter of the mandatum, the mandate that teachers of theology are meant to have from the Church authenticating that they adhere to Church teaching, Father Lamb insisted that “students, as well as their families,” should be told who has the mandatum, and that Catholic institutions should not hire theologians who don’t have it.
Fr. Lamb had high hopes that Ave Maria University’s graduate program could fulfil the need for a truly rigorous doctoral program offering the “integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching” which was sorely lacking elsewhere in the Catholic academy in the United States. As chairman of the university’s department of theology for 10 years, his formidable presence and exemplary and extraordinary academic reputation helped to attract highly respected theologians from around the world to join the faculty at AMU. For a while at least, until circumstances beyond his control began to militate against his work and vision, he built a flagship theology program, which other programs have since sought to emulate.
Apart from his pioneering work at Ave Maria, Fr. Lamb also co-founded the Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995, and the Academy for Catholic Theology in 2007. He served as a board member of the American Academy of Religion, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Archdiocese of Denver Theological Institute, and the John XXIII National Seminary. He was the author of 12 books and hundreds of scholarly articles and papers. Last but indubitably not least, he was a member of the editorial board of Communio, a theological journal cofounded by Fr. Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
By any estimation, Fr. Lamb was a leading figure in the renewal of American Catholic universities which began to emerge following the publication of Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex corde ecclesiae in 1990. Inspired by the pope’s vision, he was tireless in his encouragement of colleagues to respond positively and boldly to John Paul II’s call for a restoration of true Catholic education. His work in this regard has been honored with an honorary doctorate from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the Robert Bellarmine Award from the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Veritas Medals from Ave Maria University, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Maritain Association.
In 2014, the late Michael Novak wrote that Fr. Lamb “has passed along to others his own contemplation in the presence of the Love of the Holy Trinity, where all theology begins.”
As a post script to this appreciation of the life and achievement of Fr. Lamb, it would be remiss of me if I did not conclude with a personal reminiscence of his part in my own life. As a member of the faculty of Ave Maria University in 2004, when Fr. Lamb came on board, I shared the excitement of everyone that a scholar of his standing should be heading the graduate theology program. As editor in chief of Sapientia Press, the publishing arm of AMU, I worked with my colleague and friend, Matthew Levering, to publish Fr. Lamb’s book, Eternity, Time and the Life of Wisdom in 2007. My most cherished memory of Fr. Lamb has nothing to do with his work as a scholar or teacher, however, and everything to do with his pure and simple ministry as a priest. In December 2004, late at night, my wife Susannah gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Giovanna Paolina, at our home on AMU’s campus. I knocked on the door of Fr. Lamb’s room, awakening him from sleep, and asked him to come to our home to pray with and for us, and to bless our stillborn baby. His placing of his hands on the little girl, blessing her and praying for her, and his consoling of her distraught parents with his prayers, presence and words of wisdom have left an indelible memory of, and an indissoluble sense of gratitude to, this gentle and holy priest, who had the meekness of a lamb and the heart of a lion.
Father Matthew Lamb, please pray for us as we pray for you that we may be united once again in the presence of the Lord.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant your peace to this Lamb of God.