Don’t say that Passionist Father Don Senior is retiring as president of Catholic Theological Union.
Say rather that he is “stepping down” or “stepping aside” after 23 years of leading CTU through a period of growth and renewal. CTU, founded as a joint seminary for religious orders, is the largest Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry in the United States, and is on a stable financial footing.
Senior, 73, officially leaves office on July 1, to be replaced by Viatorian Father Mark Francis — whom Senior taught, once upon a time, when Francis was in seminary. Senior will teach in CTU’s Summer Institute, then take a sabbatical for a semester with plans to return to the classroom in the spring semester of 2014.
He chose to step down, he said, because CTU was in a state that would allow for “an orderly transition.” His time at the helm included the construction of the institution’s new academic building and the renewal of the rest of the campus, major growth in the endowment fund, a shift toward more lay students and the expansion of interreligious dialogue, especially with Muslim and Jewish communities.
When he told the board of his intention to leave the presidency, the school had just finished the reaccreditation process, something that must be done every 10 years.
At the same time, many of his contemporaries in leadership positions were retiring, and he thought it was time.
“I don’t want to be a dinosaur,” he said.
His resignation as president was announced in November, with the caveat that he would stay on until the board found a successor, and that he intended to remain on the faculty, teaching Scripture.
“It’s not like I was going to Timbuktu,” he said.
Senior began teaching New testament studies at CTU in 1972, four years after the school was founded. He was named acting president in 1987 — a position he took on the condition that he not be considered for the position permanently. He served until 1994, when he stepped aside and Holy Ghost Father Norman Bevans became president. Bevans left the post in 1997 and Senior was asked to return.
Over the years, CTU has evolved from its original inception as a joint seminary founded by three religious orders in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.
The orders closed their own seminaries— which were doing quite well, Senior noted — and threw their lots together in what had been the Aragon Hotel in Hyde Park, where their students could learn ministry in an urban environment and have the advantages of proximity to a major university and several seminaries of other religious traditions.
CTU is now sponsored by 24 religious congregations, and about 130 of its 500 students are seminarians from those congregations. More than 100 more are religious sisters and brothers or ordained priests, and about 200 are lay men and women.
The students hail from about 40 countries around the world and usually return to their home countries to minister.
The Tolton and Romero programs, which offer scholarships and formation for African-American and Hispanic lay men and women from the Archdiocese of Chicago have taken off, and the school is working to provide formation for other lay students.
In the meantime, he said, the relationship with the Archdiocese of Chicago remains good, with Cardinal George a frequent visitor.
“He knows higher education, so the relationship has been a good, healthy one, at least from CTU’s perspective,” Senior said.
He also started leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land for friends of CTU in 1988. He still leads such trips, with a pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey starting in late May, and he intends to continue for as long as he is able.
He’s also encouraged the incoming president to find ways to connect with CTU’s benefactors. Francis, who attended CTU and taught liturgy there before becoming superior general of the Viatorians, holds a doctorate in sacred liturgy, Senior said, so perhaps he could lead pilgrimages to Rome.
In any case, Senior said, he’s confident that CTU is in good hands going forward, and he is ready to take a step back.
“It felt basically peaceful,” he said of his decision. “It felt right.”