As some of you no doubt know, Don Briel–now professor at the University of Mary in North Dakota, after a long career as the founder and fountainhead of the Catholic Studies Program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul–has been diagnosed with two forms of cancer. He is not expected to live more than a few more days. Not surprisingly, for those of us privileged to have met Don, he’s taking the inevitable with all due Christian stoicism and, amazingly, even joy.
Though I’ve followed Don’s work for well over two decades, I’ve only met him in person once. It was several summers ago, when he very graciously had invited me to lead a week-long faculty summer seminar on Christian Humanism. It was one of the nicest and coolest invitations I’d ever received up to that point in my career. My whole week at UST was rather magical, frankly. I’d never quite realized how much my scholarship might actually mean to anyone besides myself. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant–it’s not meant to. But, when I met with roughly 15 brilliant peers for a week, I realized, wow, Christian Humanism really is fascinating and vital. It was a great moment of personal and professional encouragement.
That week, I had lunch with Don. Though it was a rather humid and hot summer, we walked a long distance to a really nice bistro. Both of us in ties and suits, sweating like mad, we never ran out of things to say. We talked nonstop about ideas, institutions, and, really, everything that matters in life.
When I came away from that week–on a total confidence boost and high–I realized that I had met one of the “greats” in the form of Don Briel. I’ve felt this way a time or two in my life–when finally meeting those I’d always admired but only at a distance. When I’ve met them, I’ve often come away disappointed only because I’d had such a high opinion that I had built in my own mind. And, more often than not, those I meet still have the brilliance, but they also have all too often the arrogance that so sadly goes along with brilliance. Not Don. He is too brilliant, I think, to be troubled with something as petty as arrogance. He was just. . . well, Don. Totally confident and comfortable with himself.
When my wonderful friend, Winston Elliott, asked me about Don (Winston is a fellow admirer of Don, but, unfortunately, only from a distance), I replied, “Well, imagine the integrity and mind of Socrates in the suave form of Cary Grant.”
Don, I can’t even imagine how many lives you’ve touched in this all-too short life. Through your students, your institutional building, and your books, you have truly been one of the greats of the last century, along with Father Marvin O’Connell, Ralph McInerny, and some others. Thank you. Thank you for your life, and thank you for your witness. Thank you for your dignity, and thank you for the confidence you so graciously gave to all of those around you.
You have lived love as it was meant to be. Not as something to possess, but as something to give and share.
Do me a favor. When you enter the Kingdom, please say hello and thank you to Christopher Dawson, Russell Kirk, and J.R.R. Tolkien for me. And, say a prayer or two or twenty that someday I’ll get to hang out with you as well.