May 26, 1937 - September 14, 1995
May 26, 1937 - September 14, 1995
JAMES DUNNING (1937-1995) was a multi-talented Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle. He is best known for his leadership in the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). He was founding director of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate.
On May 26, 1937 in Arlington, Washington James Burke Dunning was born to George Dewey Dunning and Agnes Gertrude Burke. George and Agnes were transplants from Montana where they had homesteaded. After settling in Arlington, Washington George Dunning traded his career as a rancher to become owner of Western Auto Hardware. George was not a Catholic but as "every pastor we had said, 'there is no better man than Dewey Dunning'" (Personal communication with Mary Lou Dunning Callero, April 22, 2008). He was hardworking, conscientious, and generous and responded quickly to areas of need. The woman of the household, Agnes Dunning, went about the domestic tasks of sewing and cooking and outside the home demonstrated a loving kindness in her volunteer work.
When Jim was five years old, the Dunnings gave birth to a daughter, Mary Lou. The two children were a special joy to the Dunning household as they were born to parents later in life. Agnes was 37 when she was married. Life was fairly normal in the Dunning household and Agnes was deeply involved in the lives of both children. What made life different was that Arlington was a small community of about 2000 persons. "It was a wonderful town to grow up in although everyone knew everything. I guess you can say we were brought up by a village" said Mary Lou Dunning-Callero (Personal communication, April 22, 2008). Daily mass was part of Agnes' schedule; eventually her young son accompanied her and served as an altar boy. Roger O'Brien, a lifelong friend of Jim, describes her as he remembered her in her later years as "an institution: urbane, sharp, energetic, outgoing, able to think critically and endowed with a grand sense of humor". (Personal Communication, February 28, 2008). After Jim was ordained, although she took great Irish pride in her priest son, she did not refrain from keeping him grounded in reality. Kemp (1996, p. 9) relates stories of her sharp tongue. "Imagine people paying money to listen to you? How can anyone honestly take royalties from those overpriced pamphlets you call books?" She was a jolly and feisty Irish woman, whose son undoubtedly mirrored these same characteristics.
Jim attended the public schools of Arlington throughout grade and secondary school years and held a record of all A's except for one B in physical education. The dramatic flair which Dunning later manifested in both his verbal and written material was identifiable in his school years. He was active in drama, skilled at the piano and already was gaining a reputation as an entertainer. Jim graduated as valedictorian of his class. Gradually a deeper and more spiritual side of Jim began to emerge. Life for him came to include a concern for the poor and oppressed and for other issues of social justice. During Dunning's adolescent years both a religious propensity and a social justice bent in concerns for the poor and oppressed were already discernible.
His brother in law, Gary Callero attests to the early signs of a vocation to the priesthood (Beers, 1995). The next move in Dunning's life would be predictable. In 1956 he entered St. Edward Seminary, and later the theologate at St. Thomas Seminary in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. However, before entering the seminary, at his father's request Jim attended one year at Seattle University. George Dunning was concerned that Jim's world was too small and wanted him to experience the larger world first. It was during Jim's seminary days that George Dewey Dunning became a member of the Catholic Church.
Roger O'Brien who attended the seminary with Jim attests to his inquisitive mind and insightful imagination. Dunning read more than was ever required; he devoured theological journals. He was quite serious in those days; yet he was known for "his roaring contagious laughter" according to O'Brien (Personal communication, February 28, 2008). Dunning's literary interest served him well in later years. Both his writings and speeches were punctuated by numerous quotes from contemporary and classical writers. The editor who worked with Dunning on his book, Echoing God's Word, comments on the extraordinary number of quotes he used as "a footnote nightmare, but it spoke to the breadth of his reading" (V. Tufano, Personal communication, March 27, 2008). His monthly columns in Catechumenate further reflect this breadth; from Jesus to Camus, Karl Rahner to John Shea, Dunning drew from his well of interminable sources to emphasize a point.
On May 25, 1963 Bishop Thomas Connolly, Archbishop of Seattle ordained James Burke Dunning to the priesthood. His ordination was a time of special celebration for "the village that raised him" and through the years had helped Jim by their prayers and monetary support. To accommodate all those who wished to come to his first Mass, the school gym was converted into a "temporary church".
Dunning's first assignment took him to St. John Church in Seattle where he ministered for three years. This was the period of the Second Vatican Council and Dunning was on fire with its proceedings; his parochial work reflected the theology and liturgical practice emanating from the Council. Post Vatican II reactions from the people in the pews varied; he was loved by some for the challenges he presented and resented by others who found his Vatican II ideas far removed far from their comfort zone. His sister, Mary Lou, remembers Jim's time there as a period of deep formation for Jim. He knew their stories and never forgot them. With good reason, this was the church that Jim's family designated as the place for his funeral mass almost forty years later.
After spending a summer at the University of San Francisco Dunning was assigned as faculty to Blanchet High school in Seattle and resided at St. Luke parish. Since Dunning was free from school responsibilities during the summer vacation, placement at Camp Blanchet, a youth camp, for the summer months was a reasonable option for him. The following summer, Dunning relocated to Washington, DC where for the next five years (1968-1973) he engaged in doctoral work in the Religion and Religious Studies Department at the Catholic University of America.
The topic of Dunning's doctoral thesis might have been anticipated: Human Creativity: A Symbol of Transcendence in Contemporary Psychology and the Theology of Karl Rahner; Implications for Religious Education. The content of this research describes what engaged Dunning's time and energy for the next twenty years. In fact, one might say it became his passion, spreading the word of God in the most dramatic and creative mode possible.
His first opportunity after graduation in 1973 came as a six-year teaching assignment on the faculty of St. Thomas Seminary in Kenmore. During this time he also assumed responsibilities as Director of Continuing Education for Priests in the Archdiocese of Seattle. His responsibilities were not enviable for "he had to blaze a trail where few had gone and where not many were eager to follow. " (D. Bader, Personal communication, March 11, 2008).
Within a short time Dunning's talents were recognized on the national level; Seattle's Archbishop Hunthausen, realizing the value of Dunning's ability to serve the larger church, and believing strongly that it was the duty of every diocese to assist the mission of the church beyond its own boundaries, agreed to release Dunning for work in the National Office of Continuing Education for Roman Catholic Clergy (NCERCC). (C. Lassek, Personal communication, April 2, 2008). As in the parish post Vatican II days, Dunning's work was welcomed by some and resisted by others. Roger O' Brien relates, "He was a highly energetic person and a man of vision. He could alienate people and institutions. But he had a brilliant mind and an enormous sense of humor" (Beers, 1995).
His sister, Mary Lou Callero adds the redeeming quality of his remarks, "He always made you think" (Beers, 1995). Dunning himself would recount a confrontation he once had with a woman who said to him "If Jesus knew what you were doing in this parish, he would turn over in his grave" (Coffey, 1966). The intensity of Dunning's beliefs well appeared to be a threat to some but a source of life to others. One of his former co-workers credits Dunning along with Hunthausen "as the one responsible for awakening me to issues of justice and peace which were not too popular with our Boeing economy here. I remember one time when he was preaching in our parish someone dropped a note in the collection addressed to him that read: if you like the Russians so much why don't you go and live there?" (M. Main, Personal communication, April 4, 2008).
Although this multitalented man served successfully in a variety of positions he is best remembered for his work in the North American Forum on the Catechumenate where he served for some fourteen years. The story of Dunning's movement into the North American Catechumenate is one that needs to be told. It involves one of the actions of the Second Vatican Council and the work of God's spirit and providence among us. Among other liturgical practices, the council restored the ancient rite of the catechumenate for adults desiring to become members of the Catholic Christian Community. In 1972 the Catholic Church received the provisional rite and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops granted permission for its use. At the University of Louvain the enthusiasm of a young woman professor for the restoration of the rite, Christiane Brusselmans, touched many of the students as well as Dunning's friend, Roger O'Brien (a priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle in doctoral studies there) whom Dr. Brusselsman came to know as a consultant for her publications and as a friend. After his Louvain studies O'Brien taught for twelve years with the Suplicians in the United States.
One summer in his home diocese O'Brien held a party for Dr. Christiane Brusselmans. Among the guests present was James Dunning. He and Christiane hit it off immediately. As they came to know each other, they discovered common ground in their ministerial endeavors. Brusselmans was Dunning's counterpart in terms of enthusiasm, creativity and energy. Among the dreams she shared with Dunning was the dream of gathering persons together to discuss the Catechumenate and to share her passion for it. "Gathering she did, in 1978 and because of that gathering she changed my life … ." (Forum Newsletter, Fall 2005). The dream took the form of an initial meeting, a symposium held in an eleventh century Cisterian Abbey at Senanque, France. Here leading persons in various fields lent their expertise to a deepening understanding of the catechumenate and its meaning for the universal church. Dunning was one of the presenters. His inability to speak French was no deterrent to his involvement. The symposium was endorsed by a number of organizations, among them the National (USA) Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy, the organization of which Dunning was the executive director.
The proceedings of this symposium were published later that year under the title, Becoming A Catholic Christian. One anonymous reflection in the forward of that book (p. 7) reads, "Senanque was kind of a Tabor experience, a revelation of the Lord that could never be fully shared". The same reflection ends "the same waters of Baptism … are pouring forth over the entire world the new and challenging visions of what we are as Church and what we can become". One can only assume that the Spirit that moved among the participants offered a momentum equal to few other experiences. For three years after that significant meeting, Jim Dunning and Christiane Brusselmans conducted institutes throughout the United States, passing on their fire and enthusiasm for the Catechumenate.
This Senanque momentum and the success of the institutes conducted by Brusselmans and Dunning led to a second formal gathering in the United States in 1981 at Estes Park, Colorado. The desire of promoting the Catechumenate further reached a new level as enthusiastic participants endorsed an organization that would support, encourage, and educate persons working with the catechumenate; it was named the North American Forum on the Catechumenate and James B. Dunning became the first director. The website of the Forum today notes that since 1981 the Forum, an international network of pastoral ministers, liturgists, catechists and theologians has supported pastoral ministers in the U.S, Canada and beyond. Even in its earliest stages the work of the Forum demanded a full time commitment and Dunning did that and more. Soon he was working with other team members who shared "the vision of a Christian Initiation whose goal was a church reborn so that it might carry out the mission of Jesus" (Tufano, 1995). It was with no small dose of humility that when the vision exceeded Dunning's organizational and administrative abilities he gave over those reins and marched onward using his many other gifts, especially teaching, preaching and writing. Tufano (1995) notes: "But Jim was always the Forum's heart".
To advance the work of the Catechumenate the Office for Divine Worship of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Illinois in 1978 had begun publishing a newsletter which eventually grew into a journal called simply A Journal of Christian Initiation: Catechumenate. Beginning in 1989 Dunning wrote a column for most issues of the Catechumenate under the aegis of "Diary". His contribution was described in the January 1989 (p.35) issue: "In each issue of the Catechumenate we are happy to bring to you a kind of summary of what is going on about catechumenal facts, hopes, regulations, opinion, regrets, observations or pastoral visions in the restless, fertile and marvelously caring mind of James B. Dunning".
The sudden death of Christiane Brusselmans in 1991 was very difficult for Dunning. He flew to Belgium to join her family and friends in their grief and to celebrate her funeral liturgy. Brusselmans was a kindred spirit whose inspiration, enthusiasm and vision of church, liturgy and catechesis paralleled Dunning's own. He had lost a soul mate but continued on their mutual quest.
Dunning became a world traveler, a prolific writer, a man of endless energy. A co-worker recalls a habit, not unusual, of working through a twenty-four hour shift in attempts to complete a task. (D. Bader, Personal communication, March 11, 2008). Complaining was not in Dunning's vocabulary; in fact, he seemed to be energized by the many involvements that came his way. A woman who worked with Dunning on the Forum workshops describes his energy: "He loved to stay up late in the night when he was on a Forum Institute, solving the problems of the world and the church with his fellow team members. He was exhausting to us, even those of us who were considerably younger" (V. Tufano, Personal communication, March 27, 2008). He tirelessly pushed on for those things in which he believed.
Dunning broke through all geographical boundaries in his zeal for the work of God through the catechumenate. Over the years this peripatetic priest crisscrossed the United States innumerable times in Forum workshops; he came to know the cultures of South Africa, Kenya, Thailand, Zambia, Paris, New Zealand, Japan, India and many other countries. Linkages were created with each trip and commitments multiplied after each workshop. Jim was especially moved by his African experience according to his sister, Mary Lou (Personal communication, April 22, 2008). Had he lived, she predicted, Africa would have been the continent of his next home.
Dunning was a great storyteller; his monthly columns in the Catechumenate are punctuated by stories as were his homilies and teaching. With the drama and flair evident in his adolescence, and honed through his years of experience Dunning was the storyteller, par excellence. "It was Jim's stories and his capacity to listen to our stories and to revel in the irony, the humor, the insistence of a God for us to take charge" (Kemp, 1996). It did not take the persons of Johannesburg, South Africa long to recognize this talent; after his workshop there they named him Indabaye Nkosi, God's story. And God's story is what his life was and continues to be for all persons whose paths he crossed and all those who know him only through those footprints he left in this world - his writings and speeches and the words of his friends.
Jim Dunning left this world on September 14, 1995. His quiet death alone in his apartment was a total contradiction to the robust manner with which Dunning lived every moment of his life, his gregarious disposition, his exciting love of stories, and his engagement with life and people. James Dunning had died of an apparent heart attack and was found there by his friend and co-worker Thomas Morris several days later. Jim's life came full circle as his ashes were returned to the land of his younger days. The same contagious energy that so much defined Jim's life filled the church of St. John the Evangelist in Seattle, his first assignment as a priest, as his family and friends gathered to celebrate that full, engaging life that was his.
His demise deprived the Catholic world of his indefatigable energy, fascinating creativity, and totally committed ministry. As his heritage and spirit live on in his friends, and all the persons influenced by his work and writings, the world is offered a glimpse into the meaning of life eternal.
Tribute prepared by Mary Lou Putrow.