A Tribute to Dr. Don J. Briel
Although Don Briel’s vision and administrative skills guided the growth of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas for twenty years, the last month of his life reminded us of something yet more significant. Don Briel was a teacher. With the diagnosis of untreatable leukemia, Don received notes, calls, and visits from students all over the world. Many of his students have spoken to us to tell us how Dr. Briel had influenced their lives in so many ways. And they all speak of his course on Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.
Like many great teachers, Don himself had a teacher; he had a master at whose feet he sat. That master was Cardinal Newman. Newman’s greatness is in his remarkable grasp of reality, a capacious grasp of the big picture and a mastery of the details of life. Newman sought to know the reality of Jesus Christ and His Church and to understand what difference that reality makes for the modern world in which we find ourselves. Don studied Newman, but that study was not in order to know as much as possible about Newman; it wasn’t even to advance Newman scholarship. It was, first and foremost, to understand the world from the vantage point of Christ under the tutelage of a great mind and a great soul. Don read Newman ever more thoughtfully and ever more deeply. And the fruit of his reading, the fruit of his deep appropriation of Newman was manifest first and foremost in his classroom. Students speak of the effect reading Newman had on them, but many people read Newman unaffected. Don’s students had the providential good fortune to read Newman with Don. They came to understand Newman because Don understood Newman; and even more importantly, they came to understand the importance of Newman because Don understood the importance of Newman. Newman is not simply an interesting historical figure; he is a guide to reality, to reality illuminated by Christ. And in that, Cardinal Newman, like all great teachers, brought his students to the one Teacher of all. And in this too, Don followed his master to the one Master of all and helped his students encounter that one Master, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. This is why so many of Don’s students speak of the effect he had on their lives.
In Don’s final month, this very private man was in these his final days yet again a teacher. The fruit of that study and prayer at the feet of Newman was richly manifest in the supernatural ways in which he spoke of his life and his imminent death, of his work and of his faith. He was teaching about Christ centered reality to the end.
Catholic Studies at St. Thomas is part of Don’s legacy, and we hope it will endure for many years. Yet it will pass away as do all temporal things. The human soul, however, is made for eternity. Don’s legacy as a teacher is an eternal legacy in the souls of the students he has touched. This will never pass away.