Walsh, Father Eugene A.
1989, August 15
Date of Birth: 1911, January 24
The death of Father Eugene A. Walsh, S.S., was a loss mourned far beyond the seminary world within which he lived most of his life. Deeply committed to the Sulpician mission of priestly formation, he did not fit at times the popular image of men working quietly and without recognition behind an institution’s walls.
Father Walsh’s Sulpician assignments were in only two places, Baltimore and Washington, DC, and yet his impact, especially on liturgical worship throughout the English-speaking world was enormous. He was also a highly successful teacher who, until the day of his sudden death, never stopped challenging and prodding his hearers to stretch themselves to become better life-giving members of the Christian community.
Born in Baltimore on January 24, 1911, the first of three sons of Aloysius John and Mary Agnes (nee Hanley) Walsh. Eugene, who was called “Gene” or “Geno” by all his family and friends, grew up in St. Ann’s parish with its reputation for an active church life and a goodly number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, including Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, Bishop John J. Russell, Father John P. McCormick, S.S., and the homilist of the funeral liturgy, Father Joseph J. Gallagher. On completing his elementary education at the parish school, Gene entered St. Charles College to study for the priesthood. Upon graduating, he was awarded a Basselin scholarship for three years at The Catholic University of America to study philosophy, earned the M.A. degree, and then completed his preparation for ordination at the Sulpician Seminary in Washington. He was ordained a priest on June 7, 1938, in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
While still at St. Charles, Gene had received permission from Archbishop Michael J. Curley to apply for membership in the Society of St. Sulpice. His interest in liturgical music was early evident. A student of the violin, he also studied voice and directed the choir as a seminarian in Washington. Another of his early interests was preaching, with a special attraction to the Catholic Evidence Guild’s street-corner preaching, which he did frequently before and after ordination.
Gene’s success with choir direction especially recommended him to the new president of St. Charles College, George A. Gleason, S.S., himself a masterful organist and choir director. At St. Charles, Gene also taught Latin and English as well as Gregorian chant. He quickly developed a reputation as a spiritual director and involved faculty member. Few students, however, or faculty members, were ever neutral in their feelings about Father Walsh; their opinions were either strongly favorable or strongly unfavorable.
His formal admission to the Society was delayed for five years because of his essential work at St. Charles with church music. But in 1941, with seven other candidates, he took the year of Sulpician formation at St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street, the first both under the direction of the seminary rector, Lloyd P. McDonald, S.S., and at that site. He used the year well to read seriously in the spiritual life and re-affirmed his reputation as a priest totally faithful to the seminary schedule, actively involved in community life, and yet often critical of the status quo within and outside the seminary. He also expressed a strong preference for minor seminary work. He was admitted to the Society in 1942.
His success with the choir, coupled with a graduate degree in philosophy, led to his appointment to the Paca Street faculty, where he would remain until 1968, except for a period of further graduate study. In that time his interests deepened and widened in the philosophy of education, theology, ascetics, and contemporary composers. His spiritual counseling widened to include military service people and women religious, priests and laypersons. He became aware of the liturgical ferment in Europe that was barely recognized in the United States. His participation in the first seminarians’ study week in 1946 at the University of Notre Dame on the lay apostolate at which Canon Joseph Cardijn, founder of the Jocist movement in Belgium, was the featured speaker, had a lasting influence on Gene’s concern for social questions and the role of the laity in addressing them.
These multiple strains in his intellectual and spiritual growth were greatly nourished by Gene’s return to the Catholic University in 1945, where he earned a doctorate in theology with his ground-breaking dissertation on The Priesthood in the Writings of the French School: Berulle, DeCondren, and Olier, published in 1949. The work opened the eyes of many younger Sulpicians to their spiritual heritage and its connection with new thinking about Sacred Scripture, liturgy, and the spiritual life.
Reassigned to the Paca Street seminary in 1947, Gene increasingly gave his classroom attention to the philosophy of education and the work of Jesuit scholars Bernard Lonergan and Teilhard de Chardin. He directed several retreats each year for women religious, led days of recollection, taught in summer sessions at various schools, colleges, and motherhouses, and wrote articles for Worship magazine. His father’s sudden death in 1949 increased his responsibilities to his mother, whose gentle ways and warm hospitality were legendary. Sunday afternoons and evenings at her home became occasions for wide-ranging discussions between Gene and his disciples and friends on all church trends and movements. These continued until her death in 1966. Another very close tie for Gene was with his brother Jack’s family, which continued after Jack’s death in December 1975.
In the early 1950s, Gene began participating in annual national liturgical conferences. He gave talks, helped plan the liturgies, and directed the music. As a member of the Liturgical Conference’s board and the executive committee, he was in contact with the major contributors in Europe and America to the growing liturgical movement. In 1957, he spent six weeks in Europe vacationing and visiting liturgical enters and leaders. In 1961, he began a long series of summer workshops at The Catholic University on church music and worship. About the same time, he had his initial experience with the Cursillo and then directed several others.
Gene’s profound liturgical consciousness made him a valued resource for implementing the revised liturgy mandated by the Second Vatican Council. Many dioceses sought his advice. Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan asked him to serve on the music advisory board of bishops preparing music for the English sacramentary and later documents. He also participated in meetings called to develop liturgical renewal in seminary programs and curricula.
Through this remarkable range of activity, Gene, although often warned not to over-extend himself in outside interests, never lost sight of his primary Sulpician commitments. He made important contributions to the modernization of Sulpician seminary programs including his own theology courses at the seminary college level, considered a great innovation, served on two major committees of the U.S. Province, one on the preparation for Sulpician ministry after Vatican II, and the spiritual renewal committee from 1972 to 1976, and he was elected a delegate to several provincial assemblies.
His accomplishments made it almost inevitable that Gene would be considered for a seminary rectorship. It happened in 1968, when he accepted that position at the Theological College (known as the Sulpician Seminary until 1938) of The Catholic University. At the time the seminary was burdened with controversy over its hesitant adaptation to Vatican II norms. Gene pushed through dramatic changes in governance and lifestyle and generated even more controversy. He resigned the rectorship in 1971.
The appointment was a mistake by most estimates. His intellectual and teaching gifts did not include administration. Strong ties to friends whom he needed and to whom he gave much, a man of strong emotions and deep compassion, exceptionally dedicated to priestly work, he thought and acted in broad and creative designs with energetic enthusiasm and without much patience for detail or routine administration and careful planning. The seminary floundered for want of clear direction.
Gene recognized the problems and had little difficulty stepping back into a faculty advisory role at Theological College and assisting with the pastoral program until 1978 and also teaching courses in liturgy and celebration at the University until 1979. Before retiring, he taught a quarter’s course in liturgy at St. Patrick’s Seminary in California.
But what an extraordinary retirement. Gene was already doing workshops, seminars, and lectures for clergy and laypeople in various dioceses and he decided that work would be his new apostolate. For the next ten years, he spoke in more than 400 parishes in the United States, and others in Canada, England, New Zealand, and Australia, most often in the format of a renewal weekend, and he heartily enjoyed it. He published various booklets filled with recommendations and directives on how a parish comes alive liturgically and catechetically.
Gene wrote that life-giving celebrations in church do not just happen. All members of the assembly make them happen. His purpose was to help all members of the worshipping community assume responsibility for improving the quality of Sunday Mass celebrations. His focus was on the parish experience, which could generate new life that then flows into every other aspect of parish life. His goal was always to help people understand the renewal of the Church initiated by Vatican II.
In late 1985 Gene moved to an apartment in nearby Columbia, where he could entertain friends, serve meals, and work more independently. He continued to love his work, his friends, and his travel. He enjoyed his fame and the fact that a biography of him that highlighted his effectiveness as a teacher was published in 1988. In reviewing that work by Timothy Leonard, Father Gallagher wrote that Father Walsh was important for twentieth century Catholicism, not chiefly for his writings or any original thought, but through his personal influence as a teacher, exemplar, and synthesizer of Christian humanism. At heart he was always a liberating teacher, excited and exciting. Father Gallagher continued, he had a genius for that sacred role and has been a genius in living it out.
Returning from several workshops in New Zealand, having just completed one in Hawaii, and planning a full schedule for the coming year, Gene relaxed briefly with friends before returning to the mainland. Most of the time he had worked with crippling pain from a phlebitis condition that required a weekly hospital check-up from the onset of the problem in 1945. He loved to swim every day if possible, the only exercise that did not cause him pain, It was in a swimming pool that his life suddenly ended on August 15, 1909.
Father Walsh had made his mother’s Mass of Christian burial a joyful occasion to celebrate her entrance into the heavenly kingdom. He had planned his own funeral with a rare attention to detail and named several close friends to a committee to see that it was implemented faithfully in the evening in some church where a gala reception and dinner could follow immediately at his estate’s expense. Over 700 people were there to celebrate and support one another in· the loss of such an ardent friend and mentor. Bishops P. Francis Murphy of Baltimore and F. Joseph Gossman of Raleigh were principal celebrants of the Eucharist in the church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City on August 21. A private burial in the Sulpician cemetery the following morning was presided over by the Sulpician provincial, the Very Reverend Gerald L. Brown.
Father Walsh was survived by a brother, Aloysius J. Walsh, his sister-in-law, Mrs. Marian Walsh of Salisbury, MD, several nephews and nieces, and his cousin, Sister Marie·Sulpice, SSND.
May Father Walsh live forever in the joy of the Resurrection,
William J. Lee, S.S.