ACU celebrates the life and work of our colleague Professor Denis Edwards, who passed away unexpectedly last week.
Written by Reverend Dr James McEvoy
Denis Edwards was a priest, a teacher, a prolific author, and a theologian with an international profile in several key areas of theological inquiry. Yet he was, first, a disciple: his fundamental and ongoing concern was attentiveness to the drawing of God’s Spirit, both of him personally and of the church community. His gentle, humble and unassuming presence gave expression to that concern.
Denis was born in 1943 in Port Pirie, South Australia, and ordained a priest in Adelaide in 1966. After a few years of parish ministry and chaplaincy to the Young Christian Students Movement, he worked with catechists in the Archdiocese of Adelaide. To facilitate that work, he enrolled in an MA at Fordham University and later completed a doctoral thesis at Catholic University of America under the direction of Avery Dulles on the dynamics of faith in Karl Rahner and John of the Cross. On returning from study, Denis was a founding member of the Theology Institute, a centre for adult education, along with Mr David Shinnick, Sr Christine Burke, Sr Pam Patterson, and Br Gerry Faulkner. This proved to be a lively and profoundly transformative institute.
Denis was an insightful and instructive teacher. Skilled in the art of understanding issues from a student’s perspective, he could spell out clearly to beginners, step by step, even the most sophisticated line of thought, and show students how it mattered to their lives. His books were written with that same insight and enlightenment —aimed at the “average lay reader” yet informed by research and writing of the world’s leading theologians.
Denis’s first book, Human Experience of God (1983), explores the connection between the experience of mystery and the Christian gospel. It remains in print thirty-six years later and retains a significant place on reading lists for university courses around the world.
From the mid-1980s, Denis’s abiding concern for the life of faith led him to focus on two sets of related questions: the relationship between science and theology, and a theological response to the ecological crisis. He addressed these two sets of questions in a further fourteen books. Rather than proposing a “new Christian story” to a scientific and ecologically-challenged world, Denis argued consistently that the theological tradition has rich resources to bring to bear on these two challenges. In that context he developed a Christology in: Jesus and the Cosmos (1991), Jesus: The Wisdom of God (1995), and Jesus and the Natural World (2012). He developed a trinitarian theology in: The God of Evolution (1999), Ecology at the Heart of Faith (2006), and Partaking of God (2014). He developed a theology of the Holy Spirit in: Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit (2004), and in a highly acclaimed work he tackled the question of divine action: How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action (2010). Most recently he has published Christian Understandings of Creation (2017) and still to come, later this year, Deep Incarnation: God’s Redemptive Suffering with Creatures (2019). Besides the above, he is also the author of: What are They Saying about Salvation (1986), Called to be Church in Australia (1987), and Made from Stardust (1992). He edited a number of volumes of collected essays and is the author of a very large number of journal articles and book chapters, the most significant of which are collected in The Natural World and God: Theological Explorations (2017).
Denis taught theology firstly at St Francis Xavier Seminary, then from 2000-2013 at Catholic Theological College, the Adelaide College of Divinity, and Flinders University, and from 2014 was Professorial Fellow at ACU.
Ecumenism was another of Denis’s lasting commitments. He was the longest-serving member of the Australian Lutheran–Roman Catholic Dialogue (1983–2016), a member of the Australian Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue (until 2019), and most recently a member of the Joint International Commission for Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. For five years, he chaired the Adelaide Catholic Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission.
Denis has had important roles in Archdiocesan leadership, particularly in the various renewal movements through the decades. He was a key member of the Diocesan Pastoral Renewal Program initiated by Archbishop James Gleeson in 1981. He was theological advisor to Archbishop Len Faulkner for the period of his leadership, 1986–2001. While committed to the Catholic church’s profoundly sacramental view of ordained ministry and church leadership, he was deeply committed to fostering lay leadership in the church, and to urging the church to find new practices which uphold and embody the equal dignity of women.
Denis was a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2012, an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and, was appointed a monsignor by Pope Francis in 2015.
Perhaps the final words from his upcoming book, Deep Incarnation, which cite Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, could point toward the eternal joy that we hope for Denis:
'At the end, we will find ourselves face to face with the infinite beauty of God (cf. 1 Cor 13:12) and be able to read with admiration and happiness the mystery of the universe, which with us will share in unending plenitude.… Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.'
Denis Edwards, Deep Incarnation, 130-31.
In memory and celebration of the life of Denis Edwards, the following services took place this week:
Vigil on Monday 11 March at the Queen of Angels Church, Thebarton
Funeral mass on Tuesday 12 March at St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Adelaide
Memorial masses will also be offered next Wednesday, 20 March in all ACU Campus chapels.