Tribute to Michael J. G. Pahls (1971–2019)

Michaels Pahls

IN HIS 2015 ADDRESS to the Second International Congress of Theology held in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis spoke passionately of the need to overcome the opposition between theology and pastoral ministry. Occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's conclusion, the pope outlined three marks of the theologian that are crucial to fulfilling this aim.

First and foremost, the theologian is filiated. He or she intimately knows the people of the church, their language and customs, their histories and traditions, their roots. Secondly, the theologian is a believer. Nourished by a source experience of Christ's love, he or she shares in Christ's own filiation with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, the theologian is a prophet. Alert to the ways tradition can become obscured, misdirected, or alienating for persons within and beyond the church, the theologian exercises a prophetic role by engaging in loving critique so that the tradition may be vivified by God's surprising future. In this way, the theologian responds to the eschatological hope to which the entire church is called.

In offering this tribute to Michael J. G. Pahls (1971–2019), I can think of no better way to summarize his life and work than by highlighting these characteristics of the theologian. Readers of the Newman Studies Journal will know (or will come to know) of Michael's significant contributions to the study of John Henry Newman, whose recent canonization reminds us of the exemplary degree to which these characteristics were exhibited in him. Like his theological hero, Michael richly embodied the vocation of an ecclesial theologian, one whose scholarly acumen and pastoral sensibility were drawn together in closest unity for the ongoing conversion of the church.

Conversion is a strong theme in Michael's scholarship because it was a strong theme in his life. Born in Anderson, Indiana to a Catholic household, Michael became involved in a Pentecostal worshiping community as a young adult and eventually studied theology and ministry at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri (now Evangel University). Intellectually restless and electrified by his wide-ranging reading in philosophy, biblical hermeneutics, and church history, Michael found himself drawn to the Reformed tradition where he could more thoroughly integrate pastoral practice with his growing theological learning. After obtaining a Master's of Divinity at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, where he studied with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael served as a pastor-theologian in the Reformed Church of America for several years in the Chicago area.

Greatly enriched by his pastoral work, Michael still felt ecclesially restless on account of his growing liturgical sensibilities. Already quite active in local ecumenical dialogue, Michael's adventurous reading in church history, systematic theology, and sacramental theology drew him closer to the wellsprings of the Christian liturgical tradition, leading him to seek ordination in the Anglican Communion. Around this time Michael also began doctoral studies in historical theology at Saint Louis University, where he would write his dissertation under the supervision of Dr. Kenneth Parker. With a strong affinity for Newman's account of doctrinal development, as well as the future saint's public journey of conversion, Michael would eventually write on Newman's account of the theologian's prophetic role in a dissertation entitled, School of the Prophets: John Henry Newman's Anglican Schola and the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.

Just as Newman's conversion to Catholicism displays an intimate relation between theological reflection, pastoral practice, and collegial debate—all of which are hallmarks of the schola theologorum as conceived and promoted by Newman—so too would Michael's breadth of inquiry, his extensive ministerial experience, and his years-long conversations with friends and colleagues lead him to reclaim the Catholicism of his youth. Unsure of when (or whether) he would be able to resume his work in ordained ministry, Michael, along with this family, would be confirmed in the Catholic Church and there find an ecclesial home. While suspending his abilities to serve in ordained ministry was personally very difficult—a deferment he explicitly understood in eschatological terms—Michael was able to teach and research in various capacities during the last few years of his life, including as Adjunct Professor at Christian Brothers University and as an Instructor at Saint Agnes Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

Michael's theological learning was profound. A meticulous scholar, his facility with a broad range of biblical, historical, philosophical, and doctrinal materials regularly astonished his friends, colleagues, students, and parishioners. An elegant writer and speaker—skills he honed as a scholar-pastor—Michael also understood that theology is fundamentally conversational. The most embracing forms of dialogue, theological conversation draws its participants into the surprise of discovery, the joy of mutual understanding, the challenge of self-critique, the impulse for ongoing conversion, and ultimately friendship with one another and with God. It was no doubt this vision of theology that drew him so strongly to Newman.

With particular expertise in the Oxford Movement, Michael published a diverse array of articles, books chapters, and reviews dedicated to themes of ecclesial authority, doctrinal development, liturgy, and culture. Already before his untimely death, Michael was making good on the enormous promise of his gifts and abilities. But it is his impressive (and soon-to-be published) dissertation that will undoubtedly mark his most important contribution to the field. Focused on the prophetic role of the theologian, Michael's dissertation draws his readers into the innermost workings of Newman's developing understanding of the schola theologorum, which, while having its fullest formulation after Newman's conversion, gained its seminal form and earliest momentum during his Anglican period. With remarkable detail and scholarly range, Michael demonstrates the fundamental continuities between Newman's Anglican and Catholic thought while offering a compelling portrait of Newman's vision for ecclesial unity in the midst of differences. Above all, Michael highlights the prophetic office of the theologian, which for Newman meant critically challenging various misdirections and misapplications of the tradition with creative fidelity to the tradition. Like the three marks of the theologian outlined by Pope Francis, this prophetic office can only really be for the church if the theologian engages in this task as a son or daughter of the church. Authentic critique arises out of prior belonging, and such belonging is itself ultimately rooted in filiation with the living God.

It is to this living God we ultimately commend Michael in hope, and it is to the broader theological community we commend Michael's body of work, which was ever oriented towards integrating scholarly and pastoral practice in the spirit of deepest friendship.

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