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A born teacher loved by his students

The first anniversary of the death of renowned Jesuit theologian Fr. Finbarr Clancy SJ was on 15 July. The following is an extract of a personal tribute paid to Fr. Finbarr by Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, a colleague of Finbarr’s in patristic studies, at the end of Finbarr’s funeral Mass on 18 July 2015. Finbarr died following a short illness and is fondly remembered by his fellow Jesuits as well as his many colleagues and friends. He had lectured at St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and was formerly Professor of Theology at the Milltown Institute.        

I got to know Fr Finbarr, when he and his confrère, Fr Ray Moloney, joined the Maynooth Patristic Symposium in 1994, two years after Finbarr had completed his DPhil in Oxford. He was teaching at the time in Milltown. Later I invited him to teach the seminarians in Maynooth. His first paper to the symposium was an introduction to his thesis on St Augustine’s understanding of Church. Over the course of the following twenty-one years, he never missed a meeting and delivered several scholarly papers either at the ordinary meetings of the symposium during each academic year or at our triennial international conferences.

What strikes me is how his earlier life-experiences all coloured his scholarship and enabled him to discover treasures that others had failed to notice. His training as a scientist enriched the way he researched his topics and the care he took in his presentation. His erudition, which he wore lightly, was evident in all he wrote. He was familiar not only with Scripture and with the Greek and Latin thinkers, pagan and Christian, who formed Western civilization, but also the Syriac and the early Irish Christian writers, who are often neglected. And he could illuminate one or other point with a reference to some literary classic. Typical was a paper he wrote for the last Maynooth International Patristic Conference in 2012 on ‘The pearl of great beauty and the mysteries of the faith’. Patristic studies, to which Fr Finbarr devoted all his free time, when he was not involved in teaching or administration in Milltown, is not concerned with what is passé, but with what is ever new. The excitement of discovering such pearls, such richness, expressed itself in Fr Finbarr’s teaching, when he offered his students the results of his own labour of love. He was a born teacher. His students loved him. One former seminarian wrote to me on hearing of his untimely death: he was a gentleman both in his lectures and outside them – and he never forgot his students.

His life-long concern for the poor and marginalised was reflected in a major paper on the Cappadocian Fathers, who are generally studied primarily for their profound theology of the Holy Trinity. By way of contrast, Fr Finbarr highlighted their care for the poor. His last public lecture, on 5 May in Maynooth under the auspices of the St John Paul II Theological Society, was, fittingly, devoted to the topic: ‘St John Chrysostom on Care for the Poor’.

His love of gardening, which he inherited from his father, and his interest in botany can be seen in the quite extraordinarily rich paper read at the International Conference held in conjunction with Queen’s University, Belfast and devoted to the topic of Salvation. Fr Finbarr spoke on ‘Christ the scented apple and the fragrance of the world’s salvation: a theme in St Ambrose’s Commentary on Ps 118’. In his paper, he showed how, in contrast with the fruit from the tree of life in the garden of Eden, good to eat and pleasing to the eye but bringing death and decay, Ambrose ‘teaches that the story of salvation concerns the gracious invitation to inhale the fragrance of the world’s redemption emanating from the scented apple, Christ, the fruit that hangs on the cross, the tree of life. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 33:9)’.

Perhaps his most spiritually inspiring paper was that read to the Oxford Patristic Conference commemorating the outbreak of Diocletian’s so-called Great Persecution in AD 303. It was entitled: ‘The mind of the persecuted: “Imitating the Mysteries you celebrate”’. Here his own priestly spirituality found eloquent expression as he showed how martyrdom – bearing witness to Christ, even to the point of death – was not only made possible by sharing in the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar but that the martyrs themselves were existential realizations of the mystery of the Eucharist. The liturgy was Fr Finbarr’s passion. At the end of April last, he invited me to join in the Clongowes liturgy, involving some 450 pupils and some fifty parents in the new Sports Hall, which. I gathered later, bore the distinct imprint of his own theology and aesthetics. It was quite magnificent. He told me, not without a sense of justified pride and genuine pleasure, that he and his colleague and friend Mr Cyril Murphy, Director of Liturgy in Clongowes, gave weekly talks on the liturgy to as many as 100 students each Thursday from 9.00 to 10.00 and that, what’s more, the students seemed to enjoy them. They too will greatly miss him.

The Eucharist was at the heart of Fr Finbarr’s life and theology, as it was for his first scholarly love, St Augustine, because it is at the heart of the Church. Likewise, as a Companion of Jesus, Scripture was his deepest inspiration, which he read through the eyes of the Church Fathers. He once gave a paper on the apt topic: ‘Tasting the food and the inebriating cup of Scriptures: a heme in St Ambrose’s Psalm Commentaries’.

When Fr Finbarr hosted a special meeting of the Maynooth Patristic Symposium in Clongowes on the 2 May last, he drew our attention to the motto of the school over the entrance: Aeterna non caduca. These sentiments, he informed us, were echoed by St Columbanus, as he himself would demonstrate that morning in his paper to the Symposium, in effect a trial-run for the Oxford Patristic Conference which he had hoped to attend in August. According to him, ‘Columbanus loved to contrast the transience of things temporal and earthly with the permanence of things eternal. The thirsting human soul, like a pilgrim in a desert land, longs to be dissolved and be with Christ. The reward of the soul’s pilgrimage is the vision of things heavenly face to face’. I conclude with what seems a fitting quotation from St Columbanus’s song De mundi transitu, which Fr Finbarr once quoted: ‘Joyful after crossing Death / They shall see their joyful King: / With him reigning they shall reign, / with him rejoicing they shall rejoice …’ May he rest in peace.