Norris, Father Frank Birkett, S.S.
2000, January 7
Date of Birth: 1925, July 29
One evening in the fall of 1992 a Vietnamese seminarian new to St. Patrick’s was walking with Father Frank Norris on the seminary grounds. The student’s eye was caught by the bumper sticker on Frank’s car. “That is a good message”, he said. The sticker read, “Think globally, act locally.” “Bo Gia, (Old Daddy, as the Vietnamese seminarians called Frank)”, the seminarian writes, “quickly turned the topic into an hour of ecclesiological discourse.” This small moment recalls many aspects of Frank’s long and productive life as a Sulpician.
Born in Marin County he went to grade school at Lagunitas School in Marin County and at St. Agnes in San Francisco. He finished High School and Junior College at St. Joseph’s in Mountain View. As he later praised the excellent English courses with Fathers Rock and Taylor at St. Joseph’s, he also prized his theology classes with Father Ed Wagner in Menlo Park. After ordination he was sent back to St. Joseph’s where he taught English and speech (plus Latin and religion) for two years. One of his students from those years remembers that Frank taught him to speak in “clear, cogent, and hopefully handsome English.” Solitude in 1952-53 was followed by appointment to the Angelicum in Rome to earn a doctorate in systematics. Returning to the States he taught at St. Mary’s in Baltimore for three years. Then his own Ordinary, Archbishop Mitty, requested that he be assigned to teach at the theologate in Menlo Park. Here he spent most of his teaching career: 1958-1973 and 1981-1991, when he retired for health reasons. He remained on at Menlo in retirement, giving spiritual direction and counseling, especially to the Vietnamese and Latino seminarians, until his death on January 7, 2000.
Assigned to St. Mary’s, Roland Park, on his return from Rome, he taught apologetics and ecclesiology, as well supervised the student plays. During those years teaching at St. Mary’s he enjoyed working with Father Larry Dannemiller, with whom he had studied in Rome. Despite a large number of penitents, he continued to read on in his field. Less than ten years later he published his book on the Church, God’s Own People. A reviewer described this as “an excellent example of Scriptural theology. The phrase he chose for this title, “God’s own people”, was to be the principal name the Council Fathers would use for their own document on the Church. The Dominican, Yves Congar, who wrote the preface to Frank’s book, was one of the architects of the Council’s teaching.
“The finest experience I ever had in a classroom” was the accolade of one of his first students in eucharist. During those years of the Council Frank sparked the enthusiasm of his students by giving them the latest updates on the progress of the Council Fathers. He had been asked to work as a translator for the Congregation for Christian Unity during the third session of the Council. After his return he brought the Council discussions on ecumenism into his classroom. A student from those days remembers his “crystal clarity…deep wisdom, and marvelous sense of humor.” Another writes, “He wanted to share more than to teach.” Still later the final class of the year on eucharist brought not just clapping but a standing ovation from his grateful students. His influence carried over into their years of priestly ministry.
From the beginning of his Sulpician career Frank was open to change. His first assignment took him back to St. Joseph’s. Here, he often recalled, he had learned well how to write. Now he was assigned to share that knowledge with a new generation. Though the large size of some of his first students put him off, he went to work. After Solitude he was sent to Rome to study Dogma at the University of St. Thomas, the Angelicum. As he was completing his dissertation and preparing for his comprehensives, he asked the Provincial for a special favor. What he wanted was another year to complete his preparation for teaching. He asked for the year to study scripture and positive theology, possibly in Paris. Fr. McDonald wrote that the pressures on the council were too great to allow him further time. There were too few priests and too many slots to be filled. It is good to recall that when his book, “God’s Own People,” was published less than ten years later, it was praised as an excellent example of biblical theology. Though he did not get the formal training he asked for, he ordered his reading in the direction he saw as so important. That practice continued throughout his career. When he was given a sabbatical in 1987, he chose to go to England, to the University of Cambridge. Under the guidance of Fr. John Coventry, S.J., an expert in ecumenism, he read in the Fathers of the Church on ecclesiology and eucharist, and in the history of the papacy.
His change to Menlo Park in 1958 brought a loss. In Baltimore he had had contact with other professors of dogma and scripture outside the seminary. This contact he did not find in Menlo Park. So, early in his years on the Menlo faculty he encouraged the gathering of teachers from other seminaries in the Bay area. Seventeen men, Jesuits from Los Gatos, Dominicans from Oakland, and Salesians from Santa Cruz came to St. Patrick’s for a first evening of discussions. In later years the meetings took place on the other campuses with different individuals presenting papers they were working on.
Early in his teaching career at Menlo, and even before he went to the Council in Rome as a translator for Protestant observers, he was becoming known. In 1962 he was on the board of the Liturgical Conference and on the Advisory Board for Worship magazine. In the summer of 1964, he wrote to the provincial for a series of permissions. He had been asked to give two talks on catechetics at the Catholic University Summer School. Five other lectures at the Chicago Biblical Institute for Priests were approved. A talk at a Symposium at Maryknoll sponsored by Fr. Keller and a talk at the Liturgical Week in St. Louis the provincial also approved. He was not allowed to accept an invitation to be one of 200 invited participants at an International Study Week on Mission Catechetics near Munich. Not only did he write faithfully for permission to talk and to publish but also he accepted refusals gracefully.
Earlier he had gathered professors of theology in the early 60s at St. Patrick’s. Now after the Council he exploited the contacts he had made with the Ecumenical Observers at
the Council. Some of these he brought to the Seminary as guest lecturers. He in turn spoke in neighboring Christian pulpits and in local synagogues. The Jewish creed, the “Shema,” Frank kept in a mezuzah attached to the wall at the entrance to his rooms. God’s first Chosen People had played a central role, the first five chapters, in his book. One of his students recalls that he described Christian contempt for the Jews as “the world’s oldest hatred.” His main efforts were to build bridges among Christian churches. At the same time, he sought for unity with those Jews with whom we share “the faith of our Father Abraham.”
In the summer of 1973 he and his fellow Sulpician, Father Patrick McCormick, moved from St. Patrick’s to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. After Father McCormick had visited other continuing formation programs across the country, they devised a totally new program of on-going formation for ministry. Under the aegis of the Jesuit School, the Institute for Continuing Education, or ICE, began sending teachers into whichever archdioceses and dioceses invited them. Frank went to teach in some areas of the Southwest but also he was an adjunct professor at the Jesuit School in Berkeley.
Especially in the later part of his Sulpician life his horizons broadened to embrace both the Hispanic and Vietnamese students who came to study at St. Patrick’s Seminary. With the latter he called on the writing skills he had learned early on at St. Joseph’s to aid these students for whom English was a second language. His door was always open especially to the Vietnamese seminarians. More importantly, he opened his heart to them and they replied in kind.
His own English ancestry was a cause for pride. The year at Cambridge University in England was a happy time. When he returned to St. Patrick’s, he decorated his rooms with many pictures of the royals, particularly the “queen mum.”
The Lord loved Frank very much. Over his life the Lord asked much of Frank and Frank responded well. He lost his father at an early age. Then his younger brother, David, a high school seminarian at St. Joseph’s College, died while in second year high. During his ministry as a Sulpician, he said in his latter years, he felt he was not trusted by those in authority. In the later 60s his first sabbatical gave him time to recover from a breakdown. From his by-pass surgery in 1987 till his death he was in almost constant pain. Through all of these trials he kept his sense of humor, his concern for others, and his commitment to his life as a Sulpician. He was not a complainer.
A memorial Mass was held at St. Patrick’s Seminary on January 11, 2000 attended by several hundred family, friends, former students, Sulpician confreres, and seven bishops. Archbishop William J. Levada, Archbishop of San Francisco, was the principal concelebrant. Father Gerald D. Coleman, S.S., rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary, served as homilist for the Mass. The provincial, Father Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., spoke after communion on behalf of the U.S. province of Sulpicians.
As per Frank’s directions, his earthly remains were given to Stanford Medical Center to promote medical research, after which they were cremated and buried next to his mother in the family plot.
At his death a friend prayed, “May God give him a thoroughly royal welcome worthy of the most illustrious British monarch.” A former student wrote, “He was born to build bridges.” He succeeded admirably. May he rest in peace.