In memoriam

Here you’ll find, in the name of the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation, a In Memoriam by Erik Borgman and Robert Schreiter.

In Memoriam Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009)
Prof. dr. Erik Borgman, on behalf of the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation

Edward Cornelis Florent Alfons Schillebeeckx was the sixth of the fourteen children born to his father Constant and his mother Johanna Calis. He saw first light on 12 November 1914 in Antwerp, while his family was displaced due to the recently launched First World War. He grew up in Kortenberg, an old town in Flemish Brabant, between Louvain and Brussels, where his father worked as a chartered accountant for the Belgian government. Like many of his brothers he was sent to the Jesuit school in Turnhout. There he received a classically tinted education in French, in a regime he found too rigid. This dissuaded him from following an older brother into the Society of Jesus.
Edward chose to join the Dominicans and when he was nearly twenty years old, he was accepted into their house in Ghent. After a year’s novitiate, he spent three years in Ghent studying philosophy. During these years he was strongly influenced by Domien De Petter, the students’ spiritual director as well as their most prominent philosophy teacher, who had made a personal synthesis of traditional ideas from the thought of Thomas Aquinas and contemporary phenomenological and personalist philosophy. He encouraged Schillebeeckx to undertake philosophical research on his own account. His subsequent military service was for him, as a religious, mostly spent in study that passed smoothly over into his four years of theology in the Dominican house in Louvain, almost undisturbed by World War II. After the stimulating philosophy in Ghent, the formal and closed approach to theology presented in Louvain was a disappointment. Inspiration was provided by the reading of the work of `theologians of life’ such as Karl Adam.
In 1943 Schillebeeckx became temporary lecturer in theology in the Dominican study house in Louvain. As soon as conditions permitted, he was sent to Paris for specialised studies. He took courses both in the Dominican house of studies Le Saulchoir (with M.-Dominique Chenu and Yves Congar, among others) and at the Sorbonne, the École des Hautes Études and the Collège de France. Here he had a first-hand view of post-war existentialism, (Christian) Marxism and the Worker-Priest Movement in the French Church. On returning to Louvain, Schillebeeckx was assigned to teach the whole of dogmatic theology. This gave him the opportunity to develop a new approach, both historical and systematic, building on what he had learned from De Petter, Chenu and Congar. Apart from his extensive lecture notes, a small booklet on Mary and his thesis on the sacraments, Schillebeeckx wrote numerous articles at both scholarly and popular level and became rather well known both in Flanders and in the Netherlands.

From 1957 until 1983 Schillebeeckx’s life and theological development were closely connected with the Faculty of Theology in Nijmegen.
During his Louvain period, Schillebeeckx had made a name for himself as being a theologian who knew how to present the Catholic tradition – not as a rigid, indisputable doctrine, as was common at the time, but – as a reflective expression of a living faith in a living God, an expression that was related to the concrete history of human beings and their culture. Through his background and studies, Schillebeeckx had links with the fundamental renewals that took place in the post-war period, particularly in French theology. The challenge then was to establish a new connection between the Catholic faith and contemporary society and culture. Dutch Catholic theology had always been strongly focussed on church life and pastoral care in the Netherlands itself. Influential people in the Dutch Church and the University of Nijmegen saw the necessity to connect with broad and international developments within the Catholic Church, and made a successful effort to bring Schillebeeckx to Nijmegen from Louvain, where as a religious he could at the time not hold a professorship at the university. Indeed, Schillebeeckx managed to introduce a new element, namely the international debate that tried to make a theological contribution to the reflections on contemporary questions and dilemmas.
He was particularly appreciated for his groundbreaking vision of the sacraments, which he developed in his first major book, his doctoral thesis entitled De sacramentele heilseconomie (1952, ‘The Sacramental Economy of Salvation’, not published in English). In this book he explained that baptism, confirmation, ordination, marriage, extreme unction, confession, and the Eucharist in particular, were no mysterious, almost magical rituals, but celebrations, expressions and presentations of the Christian faith in all its fullness. Many saw in the 1950s the need for renewal of the Catholic liturgy, and Schillebeeckx’s study was considered an important theological contribution underpinning this renewal.
In 1958, against this background, Schillebeeckx began to lecture at the Faculty of Theology and other faculties in Nijmegen.

The Second Vatican Council, which was so unexpectedly announced by Pope John XXIII on 25 January 1959, was to have a significant effect on Schillebeeckx’s career. He soon became intensively involved in the preparations for this Council and was to be the most important advisor to the Dutch bishops. In 1960, he drafted a pastoral letter for them on the meaning of the Council, causing quite a stir internationally and establishing the reputation of the Dutch Church as being `progressive’.
The lectures that Schillebeeckx gave in Rome between 1963 and 1965, the period in which the Council actually took place, won him international fame. Because of his close relationship with the Dutch episcopate and his appearances on Dutch television, he was considered the theological mouthpiece of Dutch Catholicism. It was largely thanks to him that the Netherlands in general and the Faculty of Theology in Nijmegen in particular became internationally known as a place where theology was practised in an innovative and open manner and at a high level.
Like other theologians striving for renewal, Schillebeeckx initially considered the Council primarily an opportunity finally to draw the obvious, practical conclusions from previous theological developments. Actually, the Council proved to be much more than that. According to Schillebeeckx, it posed quite penetrating questions concerning the relationship between the Catholic Church and the contemporary world. No longer was the Church presenting itself as separate from, or in contrast to, the world. From then on it would be closely involved with the world’s ‘joy and hope, sadness and anxieties’. Schillebeeckx spent the rest of his life developing a theology that would fit such Catholicism, even when the optimism of those Council years had long disappeared.
Schillebeeckx has worked all his life for a theology that would have meaning for a larger public. In 1960, in the start-up phase of the Council, he had taken the initiative for Tijdschrift voor Theologie, a journal that aimed to relate contemporary questions to scholarly theological reflection. In 1965, on the initiative of the publisher Paul Brand, Schillebeeckx and a number of other prominent Council theologians – Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz and Karl Rahner – set up Concilium, an international theological journal, in order to continue the Universal Church-wide debate and focus on contemporary issues that had characterized the Council. Both journals still exist today.

The relation between faith and culture, the Church and the world, has always been the central theme in Schillebeeckx’s theology. In the period following the Council he sought ‘with a feverish urge’ (met koortsachtige aandrang), as he wrote himself, for a theology in view of a church that was inextricably connected to the world. However, the world confronted the Church with rapidly increasing secularisation and other radical social and cultural changes.
In the 1970s, Schillebeeckx wrote his two ground-breaking studies on Jesus and his significance: Jezus, het verhaal van een levende (`Jesus: An Experiment in Christology’, 1974) and Gerechtigheid en liefde, genade en bevrijding (`Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World’, 1977). These books showed that scientific and religious views about New Testament writings and early church history do not contradict one another. Furthermore, they showed that the Christian faith might have fundamental meaning for contemporary people committed to changing the world.
Schillebeeckx was very much engaged in various forms of Critical Theory. He had an affinity with what is called the `political theology’ of Johann Baptist Metz and also, from its very inception, with Latin American liberation theology. In 1979, the University of Nijmegen awarded an honorary doctorate to the Peruvian theologian of liberation Gustavo Gutiérrez, on the occasion of which Schillebeeckx delivered the official promotion address.
Schillebeeckx also remained involved in more internal church developments. He wrote penetrating and controversial theological works on the organization of the Church and especially on the interpretation of the priestly ministry, in Kerkelijk ambt (`Ministry: A Case for Change’, 1980) and Pleidooi voor mensen in de kerk (`The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry’, 1985). As an advisor to the episcopate in the 1960s and 1970s, he also became involved in the conflicts that the developments within the Church and, more particularly, within Dutch Catholicism caused both nationally and at the level of the Universal Church. Three times the Roman authorities summoned him to justify his theological ideas during the post-Council period. None of his views were actually condemned, but many who recognized themselves in his views were outraged by the aura of suspicion that had thus been created around his work. Schillebeeckx himself felt misunderstood, but this never led to hostility towards the institutional Church.
Numerous honorary doctorates and other awards counterbalanced the criticism from within the Church. In 1982, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands presented Schillebeeckx with the prestigious Erasmus Prize.

From his retirement in 1983 until shortly before his death, Schillebeeckx remained theologically active. After the publication of Mensen als verhaal van God (`Church: The Human Story of God’, 1989), with which he completed the planned trilogy on Jesus 15 years after the first part had appeared, he made plans to rewrite the major study on the theological meaning of the liturgy and sacraments that was his doctoral dissertation. In 2000, he surprised everyone with an article in Tijdschrift voor Theologie, in which he addressed recent developments in anthropology and ritual studies. The text and the reading which accompanied it were coloured by the happy sense of anticipation of someone on the verge of discovering new and important things. That he was able to maintain this sense in such an old age, is characteristic for this theologian who published book-sized interviews with such titles as God is ieder ogenblik nieuw (‘God is New Each Moment’, 1982) and ‘I Am a Happy Theologian’, 1994). His illness and death prevented Schillebeeckx from finishing the panned book on ritual and sacraments
Illness and death remain what Schillebeeckx himself called a `contrast experience’, an experience which clarifies that the reality promised in the Biblical texts and the ‘Kingdom of God’ as hoped for in the Christian tradition, may be anticipated, but has not yet been fully realized.

Schillebeeckx’s theology is studied intensively at various places in the world in view of renewing faith and church in relation to the contemporary world. This will undoubtedly continue after his death. There is a Chair established at the Faculty of Theology at Radboud University in order to preserve his legacy under the title ‘Theology and Culture’. Nobody holds the Chair at the moment, but the search for a new chair holder is underway. The Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation collects, organizes, and preserves his body of work and tries to make it accessible to interested parties. But above all, many people in Dutch theology are in fact co-holder of Schillebeeckx’s legacy. In the midst of all that is changed in the Church, in academia and in theology, the combination of openness and sensitivity to cultural and social developments, on which he based theological reflection, and the focus on the eternal mystery as a source and purpose of reality the Christian tradition calls ‘God’, as advocated by Schillebeeckx, remain at the background of their work.

In Memoriam Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009)
Prof. dr. Robert Schreiter, former professor on the Edward Schillebeeckx Foundation chair

As you no doubt have heard, Professor Edward Schillebeeckx passed away peacefully at home on December 23. I was able to attend the funeral and burial in Nijmegen on the 31st. What follows here is an account of his final days and of the funeral, for the benefit of those of you who were not able to attend.

His Final Days
I was last able to visit with Edward in early December of 2008. He had declined some physically since my last visit a year earlier, but he was still mobile and completely alert. We spent several hours talking about a wide range of things, as was his wont.

This past summer, he suffered a mild cardial incident, and then in September a more serious TIA. (He had had numerous TIAs in the last few years.) After that time he began to weaken considerably. Some feared that he would not live to celebrate his 95th birthday on November 12. However, he rallied, and was able to receive guests throughout that day. The decline became more noticeable again in the days thereafter.

In those final days, he made the remark that, for him, the best image of God that human beings could muster was God as light.

He had taken to sleeping more. On the evening of the 21st, he asked Hadewych (Sister Hadewych Snijdewind, O.P., his caregiver for the past ten years), for a “little drink.” By that he meant a sip of wine. He wanted it from his favorite glass. He drank this, and fell back asleep. On the 22nd, he would awake from time to time. That afternoon, he said: “I feel myself being called.”

In the late morning on the 23rd, he said “I see so much light!” Hadewych was then joined by her niece Claire (who helped with caregiving from time to time and was close to Edward as well) and Ben Vocking, O.P., the Provincial of the Dutch Dominicans, for what were clearly Edward’s final hours.

Around two in the afternoon, Edward said: “God is calling me!” These were his last words. Around 5:15, he uttered a gentle sigh, and he was gone.

He died a grace-filled death, after a life of proclaiming a God who is so near to us. A theme that recurred in the coming days was “rakelings nabij” –which might be translated as “so near that you can touch it.” This was the title of a Festschrift that the Dominican Studies Center had offered him for his ninetieth birthday—that God was always that close to us.

The Funeral
I got word of Edward’s death from Ton Sison on the 24th, who telephoned me from Chicago (I was in Nebraska with family at the time). An e-mail from Ted Schoof came shortly after that. I had already booked a ticket to be in the Netherlands in early January (with an appointment to see Edward on the 11th) for some business with Cordaid, the Dutch Catholic Relief and Development agency. Thankfully I was able to change the ticket so as to be able to be present for the funeral on December 31st.

On the evening of the 30th, there was a wake service for Edward in the Dominicuskerk in Nijmegen, a church near the old Albertinum and long staffed by the Dominicans (although no longer so). Some three hundred people were in attendance. I was only able to arrive in the Netherlands on the day of the funeral itself, the 31st, and was indeed about ten minutes late for the service (a flight delay coming into Schiphol Airport).

The funeral was at noon in the Dominicuskerk, with more than seven hundred people attending. The Mass of Christian Burial was presided over by the Dutch and Flemish Dominican provincials, Ben Vocking and Domien Evangée. The tone was warm and full of thanksgiving, with hymns and Eucharistic prayer with texts of Huub Oosterhuis (who was also in attendance). The service was not a celebration of Edward’s fame or academic achievement, but rather of his warm humanity and his deep faith in God, as a family member, a good friend, and as a Dominican. The whole service had a distinctively Dominican cast, as well it should have (the Dominicans had been preparing for this for some time). Domien Vanagée gave an overview of Edward’s life at the beginning of the service, using the metaphor of a Brueghel painting to sketch his ninety-five years.

Erik Borgman, a former student of Edward’s and his intellectual biographer, and now professor at the University of Tilburg (and a lay Dominican), gave the eulogy. He took as his theme “God is New Each Moment” to speak of Edward’s faith and passion for God. Within that framework he spoke of his warmth as a human being, his commitment to theology as mediating the experience of God to ordinary believers, his incapacity to organize things (this drew a lot of knowing chuckles), and his unstinting generosity to others. There were a lot of tears shed at this point, but tears of happy memories and of endearment (mine included).

After Communion, a few others rose to speak a few words of memory, representing the different branches of the Dominican family. The final speaker was a young man in his late twenties, a Muslim, whose family had been close to Edward for many years. The young man now lives and works in San Francisco. He spoke in English (the rest of the service and testimonies were, of course, in Dutch). He spoke of “Uncle Ed” who had always been part of his family, even before the young man was born.

There were a number of bishops in attendance, who took their places in the pews with everyone else (this is the Netherlands, after all). Bishop Ad van Luyn of Rotterdam, a former student of Edward’s and the sole voice in the Bishops’ Conference who would say positive things about Edward, had attended the evening wake. At the service itself was the Bishop of Groningen, the retired Bishop of Antwerp, and Bishop Jan Bluyssen, retired Bishop of Den Bosch, who had always been very public in his support of Edward.

The Burial
When the Dominicans sold the Albertinum, they kept the burial ground in the garden behind the building. It was there that Edward was laid to rest. It is a short distance from the Dominicuskerk, so all present were able to form a cortege to accompany Edward to his final resting place. Prayers were said, and the “Salve Regina” was sung, a custom that many religious orders have. We all had an opportunity to throw a handful of soil into the grave, as is the custom there. I thought of so many of you when I was able to do so.

There was a reception at the Hotel Erika in Berg en Dal after the burial. That, and the walk to and from the burial site, was something of a reunion for many of us. For those of you who had contact with Edward and with Nijmegen through the years, I would like to note those who I had a chance to greet and talk to, to give you some idea of who was all there.

Most of those who were teaching in the faculty during Edward’s time are now gone, but among those who were present for the service from that time were Ted Schoof, Wilhelm Dupré, Knut Walf, Catharina Halkes, Ad Willems, Kees Waaijman, Jacques van Nieuwenhoven, Marinus Houdijk, and Hermann Haering.

Among those still active in the university and with the Schillebeeckx Foundation were Nico Schreurs, Wil Derkse, Hans van de Ven, Toine van den Hoogen, Jean Pierre Wils, Pamyre oomen, Maaike De Haardt, Gerrit Steunebrink, Erik Borgman, Stefan van Erp, Carl Sterkens, and Joop Vernooij.

Lieven Boeve was there from Leuven, as were Anton Houtepen and Anton van Harskamp from Amsterdam. Thomas Eggensperger and Ulrich Engel came from the Congar Institute in Berlin, as did Dietmar Mieth from Tuebingen. Johann Baptist Metz had planned to be there, but the trains were not running in most of Germany due to the bad weather.

There were of course many others, including his three surviving sisters and the extended Schillebeeckx family from Belgium. Edward had a brother in the United States; none of that part of the family was able to attend because of lack of places on flights from the U.S.

Further News
Photos from the funeral and the text of Erik Borgman’s reflections are on the Dominican website (, as well as obituaries. Testimonials can also be found on the website of the Schillebeeckx Foundation ( An obituary from L’Osservatore romano caused some stir, since it could give the impression that the author was saying that Schillebeeckx had not been heard from since the Church book in 1989 and that his era had passed. A good number of people took umbrage at it. My own take was that the author (who had written his dissertation on Schillebeeckx in the 1980s) was critical, but relatively even-handed, especially considering where it was being published.

The University issued press releases at Edward’s death, but purposely stayed in the background for the funeral services itself. There will be a formal academic convocation in Schillebeeckx’s memory at the University in the Aula on February 2, at which time the University will duly remember him.

I was able to visit on Tuesday morning with Ted Schoof, Schillebeeckx’s secretary of more than twenty years, and on Tuesday afternoon with Hadewych. (It should be noted that Hadewych was duly recognized at the funeral service for her care for Edward over the past ten years). It was a time of sharing memories not only of one of the great theologians of our time, but also of a dear friend. In the words on the Dominican website, Edward was “blijmoedig en vrijmoedig”—good-natured and also willing to stand up for what he believed in. A good way to remember someone who was such an influence on and blessing for so many of us.