by Mark Hertenstein
THEOLOGY DEPARTMENT’S DONALD DIETRICH PASSES AWAY AT 72
Donald J. Dietrich, Professor Emeritus of Theology and former department chairman, passed away on Saturday, November 16 at his home in Belmont, MA at the age of 72. A specialist in the German Catholic response to the Holocaust, Dietrich was the author of numerous books and articles. His funeral Mass will be celebrated today at 10:30am at St. Joseph’s Church in Belmont. Requiescat in pace.
It is not often that I become emotional. Most who know me, know that. But this past Saturday was one of those times.
That afternoon, immediately after the joy of a last football game of my senior year, while most of BC celebrated bowl eligibility, I learned that my professor and thesis advisor, and (most of all) my mentor, had passed away that morning.
It is not that common at this stage of our careers to have professors who shape our intellect, spiritual life, and life in general. But my mentor did that.
While we were originally brought together for academic purposes, I soon began to learn from his views and perspectives and his wealth of knowledge that will always be fundamental for my understanding of the world.
His great concern was that Christian theology should have its doctrine correct, but more importantly, those doctrines have consequences for the world, and Christians should practice those human consequences with love and devotion, with an eye toward a better world that is possible. The fundamental way of seeing the world that I learned from my mentor was that there are many problems in this world, great problems, some of which are the result of bad Christian theology. But Christianity practiced correctly can overcome those obstacles, however so slowly, however so slightly, to improve the world completely, not just metaphysically, spiritually, economically, politically, etc. His fundamental view was that Christianity proclaimed and practiced brought people together and improved the whole nature of the world we live in.
We also discussed life in general throughout our time together. We discussed my activities and experiences, issues that I was having, and all the things that are minor blips in life. Yet having an ear and an experienced man to listen and respond is something that is irreplaceable, and he could often give direction and advice that no one else can give. I unfortunately do not recall as much of those discussions. They were mundane. And that is the power of them – that they were so mundane, so simple, so down-to-earth. The power of the mundane in spite of all the powers of this world is tremendous when it is passed on and exerted anew. I hope that I can do half of what he has done, if and when the time comes for me to pass it on as well.
One of the last things he did for me was to write and send a recommendation for a graduate program, about two weeks ago now. The last thing we spoke about by email, the day before he died, was about our meeting that was supposed to happen this week. He had several appointments due to his health that would not enable him to come to campus, but we would still speak by phone at the appointed time on Tuesday. Such simple and powerful commitment is something that is hard to come by these days.
I hope that everyone, when such people cross their paths, never take people like my mentor for granted. I certainly never did, and never will.
Last Saturday, as I continued to stare at that short email from his wife, wishing for it to change, to be undone, I was almost brought to tears as I contemplated the five final, simple words.
“He was proud of you.”
I wish that could have been said when my work was at last complete in May. Unfortunately, it cannot be done then. But there is no need for more motivation to finish what he started – I have plenty of motivation to do that now.
“He was proud of you.” But the privilege was entirely mine.