Donald McNeill, 1936-2017

Tributes paid to Catholic priest who founded Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns

September 7, 2017
Donald McNeill

A leading proponent of Catholic social teaching within higher education has died. 

Donald McNeill was born in Chicago on 14 April 1936, the son and namesake of a prominent radio personality whose Breakfast Club variety show was the longest-running programme in the history of network radio. The younger McNeill pursued a rather different path: after completing a degree at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (1958), he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1965. He joined the Notre Dame faculty, where he spent the rest of his working career, the following year, although he later gained a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary (1971).

On his return to Notre Dame from Rome, Father McNeill once told an interviewer that he had had doubts about whether he could be “a teacher in the classical sense”. He always remained deeply grateful for the support in strengthening his vocation and deepening his study of theology that he was given by other Notre Dame priests, notably Theodore M. Hesburgh, the 15th president of the university, and Henri Nouwen, visiting lecturer in psychology from 1966 to 1968.

As a result of these influences, Father McNeill began to collaborate with John Joseph Egan, an activist Chicago priest who assisted Father Hesburgh from 1970 to 1983, on a number of theology courses and community-based research projects designed to express their commitment to the social teaching of the Catholic Church. He also set out his philosophy in a book titled Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (1981), co-authored with Father Nouwen and Douglas A. Morrison.

A committed and very popular teacher, Father McNeill received a faculty award in 1980 when he was commended for “mov[ing] in and out of the lives of students and faculty, probing, seeking and challenging – reminding us all that education can never be contained totally in the lecture hall, the library or the laboratory”. In 1983, he realised his dream of setting up Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, devoted to learning, research and service informed by Catholic social teaching, where he served as executive director until 2002. More than 2,500 students a year now take programmes there.

“Father Don McNeill engaged, encouraged and empowered laypeople, especially students, to make the world a better, more just place for all,” said Notre Dame’s current president, Reverend John Jenkins. “Under his direction, countless Notre Dame alumni have become faithful and generous contributors to the common good.”

Father McNeill died on 24 August.

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