A Lamb with the heart of a lion: Fr. Matthew Lamb (1937-2018)

One week ago this morning, Father Matthew Lamb, a noble soul and indefatigable defender of Catholic education, passed from this vale of tears into the bosom of the Lord he had spent his life serving so well. Described by Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly as “a great friend of the Newman Society,” Fr. Lamb was a speaker at the Society’s national conference in 1999—just as the organization was taking off.

Fr. Lamb, the Cardinal Maida Chair of Theology at Ave Maria University, “died in the company of two graduate students, who were keeping a prayer vigil at his bedside,” according to Catholic News Agency.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1937, Lamb tried his vocation at the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., before his fifteenth birthday. He was ordained in the Abbey Church 10 years later but afterward became a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Commencing his graduate studies in 1964 at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, he earned a licentiate in sacred theology. In 1974, he earned a doctorate in theology summa cum laude at the Westfälsche Wilhelms University in Münster.

Returning to the United States, Fr. Lamb taught at Marquette University for 12 years and later at Boston College for almost 20 years, before being called in 2004 to head the newly founded graduate program in theology at Ave Maria University in Florida.

Having experienced at first hand the deterioration and decay of bona fide Catholic theology at Marquette University and Boston College, Fr. Lamb hoped that his pioneering role in Ave Maria’s new graduate program would help restore authentic theological discipline. He had written in 1997 that “there is no doctoral program in North America with a rigorous ratio studiorum that offers an integral formation in the doctrinal and theoretical traditions of Catholic teaching.” He was outspoken about the consequences of such a decay in academic and intellectual rigor—and of the consequences of allowing the teaching of theology to fall into the hands of those who were seeking to undermine Catholic orthodoxy.

In the Newman Society’s 2012 report, A Mandate for Fidelity, Fr. Lamb warned that theologians who reject the Magisterium’s teaching are “sowing the seeds of further scandals”:

Many of the pastoral problems bishops face find their roots in the failure of proper formation and education of the priests, religious, seminarians, and faithful in their dioceses as dissent spreads from theologians to the mass media and beyond.  The recent sexual abuse scandals that have damaged so many sprang from failures in moral and theological formation and proper oversight.  Those theologians now rejecting Magisterial teachings on the immorality of contraception, of abortion, of homosexual acts, and of euthanasia, as well as those rejecting Magisterial teachings on marriage, priesthood, and sacramental practice, are sowing the seeds of further scandals.

Fr. Lamb was a great supporter of the mandatum, the mandate that teachers of theology are meant to have from the Church authenticating that they adhere to Church teaching. He told the Newman Society that “students, as well as their families,” should be told who has the mandatum, and that Catholic institutions should not hire theologians who don’t have it.

As chairman of Ave Maria University’s department of theology for 10 years, his formidable presence and exemplary and extraordinary academic reputation helped attract highly respected theologians from around the world to join the faculty at AMU. For a while at least, until circumstances beyond his control began to militate against his work and vision, he built a flagship theology program, which other programs have since sought to emulate.

By any estimation, Fr. Lamb was a leading figure in the renewal of American Catholic universities which began to emerge following the publication of Pope St. John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae in 1990. Inspired by the pope’s vision, he was tireless in his encouragement of colleagues to respond positively and boldly to John Paul’s call for a restoration of true Catholic education.

As a postscript to this appreciation of Fr. Lamb’s life and achievement, it would be remiss of me if I did not conclude with a personal reminiscence of his part in my own life. As a member of the faculty at Ave Maria University in 2004 when Fr. Lamb came on board, I shared the excitement of everyone that a scholar of his standing should be heading the graduate theology program. As editor-in-chief of Sapientia Press, AMU’s publishing arm, I worked with my colleague and friend, Matthew Levering, to publish Fr. Lamb’s book, Eternity, Time and the Life of Wisdom, in 2007.

My most cherished memory of Fr. Lamb has nothing to do with his work as a scholar or teacher, however, and everything to do with his pure and simple ministry as a priest. In December 2004, late at night, my wife Susannah gave birth to a stillborn daughter, Giovanna Paolina, at our home on AMU’s campus. I knocked on the door of Fr. Lamb’s room, awakening him from sleep, and asked him to come to our home to pray with and for us, and to bless our stillborn baby.

His placing of his hands on the little girl, blessing her and praying for her, and his consoling of her distraught parents with his prayers, presence, and words of wisdom have left an indelible memory of, and an indissoluble sense of gratitude to, this gentle and holy priest, who had the meekness of a lamb and the heart of a lion.

Father Matthew Lamb, please pray for us as we pray for you that we may be united once again in the presence of the Lord.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant your peace to this Lamb of God.

Amen.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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