Catholic theologian and professor Father Edward T. Oakes, S.J. died in St. Louis Dec. 6, prompting his colleagues to remember his work in Christology, his wit, and his lasting effect on students.
“Fr. Oakes was a unique scholar, largely because of his Jesuit background in Classics, where he was able to really do theology within the full richness and the full texture of the Western intellectual tradition,” Fr. Thomas Baima, vice-rector for academic affairs at Mundelein Seminary, told CNA Dec. 6.
“He was a very pleasant and gregarious personality. A little bit quirky, as scholars often are,” the vice-rector continued. “I always thought him delightful. He had a great wit and was very interested in current events.”
Fr. Oakes, who was elected president of the Academy of Catholic Theology in 2013, had taught at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago from 2002 until October 2013, when he entered hospice care at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis.
He died of complications of pancreatic cancer, the Jesuits' Missouri Province said Dec. 6. The Kansas City, Mo. native was 65-years-old.
Fr. Baima said Fr. Oakes was best known for the “extraordinary amount of work” he did on the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century who is widely considered to be an influence on the thought of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Fr. Oakes was involved in the ecumenical group Evangelicals and Catholics Together and was a major contributor to to the ecumenical journal “First Things.”
He joined the Society of Jesus in 1966 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1979. He taught at New York University and Regis University in Denver. He had served as a scholar in residence at Cambridge University and taught English, theater and drama at St. Louis University High School.
He held a doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary, a bachelor’s and master’s degree in philosophy from St. Louis University and a master of divinity in scripture from Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.
His books include “Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar” and “Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology.”
Before his death he was working on a project involving the theological debate about grace and nature, Fr. Baima said.
The Academy of Catholic Theology remembered Fr. Oakes as “a deeply cultured man” who “enlivened everything of which he was a part by his penetrating intelligence and warm, friendly spirit.”
The Missouri Province of the Society of Jesus said in a statement that Fr. Oakes was “a joyful man” who “loved studies and the intellectual life.”
Fr. Baima also remembered the priest’s dedication as a teacher. He recalled that one of the last public events Fr. Oakes attended at Mundelein Seminary was an Oct. 5 celebration of his book “Infinity Dwindled to Infancy.”
“A number of his former students, including doctoral students, came to the event,” the seminary vice-rector said. “We were particularly touched by the long-term affection that they maintained for all he had done for them.”
“He was a teacher who was completely there for his students. He was ‘all on’ when it came to being a teacher,” Fr. Baima said.
The Academy of Catholic Theology asked for prayers for the soul of Fr. Oakes, adding “to say that Father Oakes will be sorely missed is a profound understatement.”
Fr. Oakes' funeral Mass will be Dec. 10 at St. Francis Xavier College Church at St. Louis University, the Jesuits’ Missouri Province reports. On Dec. 11 he will be interred at Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis.