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Father Thomas Stransky Had Key Role in Ecumenical, Interreligious Work

By Dennis Sadowski

Paulist Father Thomas Francis Stransky, pictured in an undated photo, died on his 89th birthday Sept. 3, 2019, in Totowa, N.J. (Photo: CNS/The Paulist Fathers)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Catholic News Service) — Paulist Father Thomas Stransky, credited internationally as a pioneer in the Catholic Church’s ecumenical and interfaith relations stemming from the Second Vatican Council, died Sept. 3 on his 89th birthday

Those who worked with the visionary priest over the years said his role in overseeing the drafting of three council documents has had a profound effect on the life of the Church for more than half a century.

“He was an agent of history in some ways,” said John Borelli, special assistant to the president for interreligious initiatives at Georgetown University. “He was part of the original staff of the (Vatican) Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. In many ways, he helped engineer many of the decisions that were made during the council. He played a big role.”

Fr. Stransky joined the secretariat in 1960 at the invitation of the future Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, secretary of the new Vatican office. He agreed, setting aside doctoral studies in the theology of missions to become one of three original staff members.

St. John XXIII had established the secretariat in preparation for Vatican II.

The move eventually led Fr. Stransky to become a consultor to the worldwide church on ecumenical and interreligious life well into his 80s.

Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled listening to stories from Fr. Stransky about the early days of the Church’s work with other religious communities.

“When he first showed up in Rome, it was a series of coincidences,” Fr. Roberson told Catholic News Service. “He happened to be in the right place at the right time. He met the right people and was on the ground floor.”

Fr. Stransky was involved in arranging for observers from various other churches and religious communities to attend council sessions. He also oversaw the drafting of three important council documents: “Unitatis Redintegratio,” the decree on ecumenism; “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”), the declaration on Catholic Church relations with other religions; and “Dignitatis Humanae,” the decree on religious freedom.

“I think he will be remembered as one of the scholar agents who helped launch the ecumenical and interreligious initiatives in the church,” Borelli said.

Fr. Roberson said his fellow Paulist was a “giant” who “provided an example of dedication to Christian unity.”

“His passing is a great loss for all of us,” Fr. Roberson added.

Borelli recalled that Fr. Stransky became a respected chronicler of the secretariat’s early history. The Paulist priest published dozens of scholarly articles and edited several books and collections of documents, including the first English language commentary on “Unitatis Redintegratio” in 1966.

After the council, the priest participated in newly founded theological dialogues with Anglicans, Methodists and evangelical communities. He ended his time with the secretariat in 1970 but continued as a consultor for more than 30 years.

He also participated in the World Council of Churches’ assemblies around the world from 1968 to 1998 and was involved in the Joint Working Group between that organization and the Catholic Church from 1965 to 1998.

After Fr. Stransky left the secretariat, he was elected as the first president of the Paulist Fathers based in New York City. Previous community leaders held the title of superior general.

Under his direction, the congregation, founded in 1858 with the mission to convert America to Catholicism, shifted its emphasis to approach other Christians with mutual respect and engage in earnest theological exchange as the way to most effectively achieve Christian unity.

During his eight-year tenure, the community grew in membership, allowing it to take on 11 additional parishes and the chaplaincies at several university Newman Centers in the U.S.

Beginning in 1981, Fr. Stransky served as novice master, overseeing first year formation of men discerning a priestly vocation. In 1988, he was invited to serve as rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Israel. The institute was inspired by the 1964 visit of St. Paul VI to the Holy Land. He remained on the staff for 20 years, returning to New York before moving to the Paulist seminary at St. Paul’s College in Washington.

Borelli said Fr. Stransky continued to write and lecture throughout his retirement, focusing on his recollections of how the church’s ecumenical and interreligious relations evolved since Vatican II. He was working with Borelli on a comprehensive narrative on the genesis and development of “Nostra Aetate” at the time of his death.

A native of Milwaukee, Fr. Stransky was the fourth of six children of Joseph and Anne Stransky. He was ordained a Paulist priest in 1957 and a year later was sent to Europe for doctoral studies before joining the Vatican secretariat.

His funeral Mass will take place Sept. 10 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York.

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