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"You are welcome here!" An interview with Father Kenan Osborne, O.F.M..

Some photographs in the archives at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California are yellowing with age and curling at the edges. In one photo, a young Franciscan stands with a ceremonial, shovel in hand--clearly enjoying the attention of students, faculty, and friends gathered at the ground-breaking of an addition to the school. Anyone familiar with the Franciscan School would recognize that the figure is Fr. Kenan Osborne, O.F.M., assuming a familiar pose--front and center.

Perhaps the founders of the school did build it around him!

At the very least, Fr. Osborne has been at the center of the life of the Franciscan School since 1968 when the school moved to Berkeley from Santa Barbara. He was the school's second president and served in that position for 17 years. In his time at FST, Fr. Osborne has been instrumental in shaping the school's current mission and its particular sensitivity to the Church's changing multicultural face.

I met with Fr. Osborne in his office at the Franciscan School of Theology. There, surrounded by artifacts he has accumulated during scores of journeys around the world and by his substantial theological library, Fr. Osborne took time from his studies, writing, and teaching to talk about his work, his life, and the life of the school which he has come to embody.

SCHULZ: You are a figure that alumni and friends of the Franciscan School remember with gratitude and praise--without exception. How has this status developed?

OSBORNE: Slowly! When we began, of course, we were a community of Franciscan seminarians and we were a relatively small group. Soon after I became president, I went to the Board of Trustees and asked that we open our doors to seminarians from other religious orders and the Board agreed to this. Shortly after, I asked Board permission to enroll into the Franciscan School lay men and women who wanted to prepare for church ministry. Again, the Board said yes. I took that "yes" in a very wide way. I am not sure the Board members meant it in quite as wide a way!

SCHULZ: You took the opening ...

OSBORNE: Indeed! I took the opening and pushed it open as far as I could. Within a few years, we had a very large number of diverse students--not only religious seminarians from other male orders but also religious women and a burgeoning number of lay men and women. This occurred in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. All of these students, and many of them were young people, wanted to do something for and within the church. A school is more than classes and classrooms. Students need living quarters, so we scoured the neighborhood for an apartment building. The one we selected was directly across the street from the school, and it served as dormitory space. Obtaining that building and fixing it up for lay men and women sent a message--"You're welcome here!" This phrase, you're welcome here--set the tone for having a school that is a seminary and a graduate school for religious and lay men and women--all of whom would eventually be working for the church of the future.

SCHULZ: When you moved here, the Franciscans lived in this building. When I look back at photos from that time, I get a sense of the incredible life of the community and a very lively community at that. How did you establish this sense of joy and adventure?

OSBORNE: There was a sense of adventure--of doing something new. But we were doing it as a community. For example, we had a noon meal here every day for all of the students. This, of course, cost money. I would remind the students that if they could pay something, they should drop the money in the basket. If they were short of funds, they should eat anyway. At noon every weekday there was a crowd of people in the dining room. Moreover, a great deal of education went on over lunch. Students met people of different cultures, backgrounds and experience. For example, we had an older Franciscan who had been a missionary in Papua, New Guinea for many years. He would explain the different ways in which the church celebrated its liturgy and worked through its catechesis in New Guinea. The teaching aspect was this: in a different culture, you need to think differently. Stop thinking as an American! Think globally! The interchange that took place in the dining room was marvelous.

About the same time, we started to have an all-school liturgy that still goes on today. The school liturgy proved to be a time of prayer for all, and participation in the liturgy was maximal. A religious school is more than learning in the classroom; a religious school is also a time to grow in one's faith and to share one's faith. The liturgy was and remains key for this. The methodology of the educational process was also valuable. Seminarians had to learn to work with lay men and women. Lay men and women had to learn how to work with seminarians. At that time the official church was stressing cooperative ministry, and the very learning process included a methodology of cooperative learning and acting. In all of this, there was a sense that we were on the cutting edge of the church's post-conciliar life. I also encouraged the opportunities to invite recognized theologians to teach and lecture at FST. Joachim Jeremias spent a semester at FST, teaching a course on the parables. Etienne Gilson, while at the University at California at Berkeley took time to present a lecture on Bonaventure and Scotus. Paul Ricoeur also presented a lecture, as did Zachary Hayes, Lawrence Landini, Gil Ostdiek and Robert Karris.

In all of this, we began looking outward at the wider world and not simply inward to our smaller school. The very existence of the Graduate Theological Union also moved us beyond the Roman Catholic World, and faculty and students worked with and studied under major professors from the Protestant schools at GTU. Likewise the presence of the Jesuit School and the Dominican School allowed FST faculty and student body to experience the depth and breadth of the Roman Catholic traditions.

SCHULZ: And there was something in the air at that time ...

OSBORNE: Yes! The world was opened up for both professors and students in ways that were new.

SCHULZ: Is there any of that excitement left in FST, in Berkeley, and in the Catholic Church?

OSBORNE: I believe that the religious communities have maintained that excitement in theological education. What do we have today that is exciting at FST and in theology? I'd say the first thing is in addressing the multicultural church and we're a leader in that here at FST. At first it was Hispanic and then since the early 90s we began to bring Asian theology into the curriculum and that's still very exciting. Second, witnessing the effect of the presence of the women on our faculty and in our student body and going out of our way to encompass the feminine dimension in the church has been very exciting. A third kind of excitement is that we are a graduate school that, in conjunction with GTU, offers doctoral courses. If the doctoral is your top, it draws all other courses up with it and makes the entire curriculum more challenging and rigorous.

SCHULZ: What would you say distinguishes that Franciscan School today?

OSBORNE: When the GTU as a union of nine schools and a consortial doctoral program went through one of its accreditation visits--in this case all the schools and the doctoral program were being accredited at one and the same time--there were some 20 people who had been appointed as the accreditation committee. When one of these members realized that he had been chosen to head the FST accreditation, he said, "I'm going to a school that prays." I have always considered that as a major compliment. There was and is a prayerfulness about the FST. The emphasis on spiritual life is one of the qualities which draws students to FST. Another quality is the emphasis on the pastoral dimension. FST sees theology, spirituality and pastoral ministry as a unity. Yet another quality which draws student to FST is centering on the Franciscan tradition. St. Francis of Assisi and also St. Clare have been major figures in world history. The Franciscan concern for the poor, for social justice, for ecology and for peace has contributed in no small way to the ethos of FST.

SCHULZ: When you look back at your time here at FST, are there certain classes that stand out for you?

OSBORNE: I've taught Christology every year since 1968. At one time I called it new horizons in Christology so that every time I taught it, I would bring in a new horizon. It has never been something that I would simply pull out of my briefcase year after year. That's the way that I've taught christology down to the present--always adding something that is current. Personally, that continued reflection on Christ has been, spiritually and intellectually, the most important aspect of my teaching and a most important aspect of my spiritual life. Often I find when talking to men and women, lay and ordained, that the church is their center. Conversation becomes very church-oriented. At times, I have interrupted and asked about Christ who is the center, since the church is certainly not the center of our faith. The church has no meaning if it does not reflect Christ.

SCHULZ: It reminds me of a quote from Karl Rahner--, "A dogma must always be interpreted anew to remain alive, and this always permits even diverse interpretive possibilities in the contemporary situation."

OSBORNE: Karl Rahner was one of my teachers in Munich. I was there two years and I attended all of his classes. And what I noticed about his teaching was this: he would take a dogma of the church and would at first indicate what the dogma clearly stated, but then he would begin to analyze its implications, pointing out things that were in the dogma but which one might not have realized. I was amazed at how he could do this again and again. It was marvelous. I learned much from Rahner's methodology.

SCHULZ: Your students say much the same thing about you--that you can take the simplest thing and open them up to something profound. Did you take some of your teaching from him?

OSBORNE: I did. For instance, he taught that Jesus is the basic or primordial sacrament and that church is a sacrament. Or again, I have tried to utilize his ability to take something and look at it from ways one never thought of looking at it, until it finally reveals something new.

Several other professors influenced me as well. One of them was Hans Kung. After completing my doctorate, I stayed in Germany and attended the lectures at Tubingen, but as a scholar in residence. Hans Kung's lectures were very powerful. He outlined his lectures in a Swiss-German way--one, two, three, and one just followed how his mind was working. He would take something and say, now what does this imply? Another characteristic of Hans Kung which struck me was his concern for foreign students. He had something which he called his English circle. Every two weeks, those of us from basically English-speaking countries would go out for beer at a local cafe. Often, a visiting professor of major standing would be Kung's guest at this informal gathering. I came to know several of these major theologians in this way. It was also a time to speak with Hans Kung in a very informal way. These evening gatherings would last three to four hours. He took time to be with students so I learned from him how Important this was.

The third mall that I admired very much was Joseph Ratzinger. He too was a professor at the University of Tubingen when I was there. First of all, I noticed the elegance of his German writing and speaking. It was a strong contrast to the way that most of the professors put together their lectures and the way they read them. When one listened to the German lectures, one could easily say: the lecture is not the same as hearing Shakespeare! But Ratzinger had a wonderful way with German and he brought into his lectures example from music, art and novels. He would make connections to European culture in its entire splendor. I would sit there, thinking, I never would have thought of putting these things together. I'd go back to my rented room after the lecture and I couldn't get to sleep I was so excited. His lectures were at times magnificent. He was a renaissance individual drawing together a lot of disparate things in new ways. Ratzinger has publicly, of course, noted that his theology has changed from these early days at Tubingen, and this must be respected.

SCHULZ: When you mentioned returning to your room, I was thinking of a term a poet once used to describe such experiences--eine Lichtung, a clearing, like coming out the woods into the light. Do you have experiences like that?

OSBORNE: Well, you don't have them every day! But Lichtung is such a wonderful Heideggerian way of speaking. I've seen this in myself and in students. One hears this and then one hears that. Then at some other time you hear a professor and the light goes on. It is a Lichtung experience. Lichtung means a clearing, such as one finds here and there in a dense forest. The trees thin out and a meadow appears. Light comes in. A Lichtung! A clearing. I had this student who had had five classes with me; then, he took a class from the Jesuits and he came back and said, "It all comes together! The Jesuit put it together!" But we all need the pieces before we can put them together. The same Lichtung experience happens to me when I'm reading a book that I've read many times. Sometimes a Lichtung takes place in the classroom when a student asks a question and I've never thought of it that way. Eine Lichtung! Those are wonderful moments. And they are important for education and spirituality. You can know all of what happened in theology between 500 and 700. So what? If it does not speak to you and to others today, so what? Maybe we should start a new movement: Licthungstheologie.

SCHULZ: It's almost that we accept that God is unknowable and mysterious and yet every once in a while there is another way of knowing to explore.

OSBORNE: That's it. And the knowing is not just intellectual. This is very Franciscan. It also involves the drive, which is the will. Bonaventure and Scotus both say that the will outruns the intellect.

SCHULZ: It reminds me of Francis himself. Thomas of Celano, in his first life of St. Francis, tells us that when Francis came back from jail in Perugia, those things that once filled his senses no longer pleased him. It's almost that they had to be replaced with a whole new group of senses.

OSBORNE: And that brings us back to what the Franciscan School of Theology needs to be doing in this day and age with its multicultural church, with its spirituality and with its liturgy. In all of these, FST is trying to say: we belong to the 21st century. It is a globalized and globalizing century. In these other dimensions of a globalized world today, do we see the Lichtung taking place? The faculty and staff at FST are here to help students in that process and to show why Jesus, himself a Lichtung, is important in the 21st century.

Bill Schulz ( is the Recruitment and Communications Director for the Franciscan School of Theology.
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Author:Schulz, Bill
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Oct 28, 2005
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