Second in a Series by Friar Ed

Short Essays on the work of +Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner, OFM Conv.

Rebuild My Church[1]
Peter Damian Fehlner’s Appropriation and Development of
The Ecclesiology and Mariology of Vatican II

 Second in a Series
Edward J. Ondrako OFM Conventual
University of Notre Dame

“I seek you, I desire you, I rise to go to you, I welcome you, I exult in you; and, finally I cling to you.”[2] Seven aspirations in a Bonaventurian mode express the love of a devout soul with the Lord in this life and in the afterlife. It is difficult to write about the afterlife. Dante’s Paradiso, however, works as almost nothing else works to say the unsayable. Saying the unsayable also works in the Collected Essays[3] of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner. The reader will discover what many of Fr. Fehlner’s students and listeners to his homilies experienced: the presence of a master teacher, preacher and Franciscan priest. Humbly and with brevity, Fr. Fehlner affirmed why he preferred the way of St. Francis of Assisi without ever forcing anyone to do the same and dissuading anyone from trying to imitate him. He understood that St. Francis and his theologian disciples, St. Bonaventure and Bl. John Duns Scotus, lived in easier times in premodernity. Do not expect to be theologians overnight, Fr. Fehlner insisted, while unfolding the daunting challenges of living in modernity and some would say, the twilight of modernity.

Fr. Fehlner was the first systematic theologian to explain St. John Henry Newman[4] and heavily rationalist ecclesiastical climate in England during the nineteenth century. Earlier in my academic career, Franciscan teachers had lauded Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, but a comprehensive approach within the Franciscan School only came from Fr. Fehlner amplified Kolbe’s thinking in the daunting Scotistic framework which made Kolbe unquestionably a theologian. Kolbe’s other gifts such as his visionary approach with employing modern communications media for evangelization were known, but not Kolbe’s theology. After Kolbe’s Beatification on 17 October 1971 by Pope St. Paul VI and Canonization on 10 October 1982 by Pope St. John Paul II, as ‘martyr of charity,’ Fr. Fehlner wrote the definitive study for validating his claim to be a theologian that is masterfully argued first, from the order of intention; second, his theology and critical question; the love of learning and desire for God; Marian epistemology-metaphysics; third, cause of the Immaculate at the heart of the Franciscan charism; its Bonaventurian-Scotistic foundations; fourth, the historical genesis and development of the Kolben narrative; fifth, nature of and implementation of the Militia of the Immaculate; sixth, the “golden thread of Frnciscan history; Kolbe’s spiritual evolution in relation to the theology of history of St. Bonaventure; seventh, the historical and doctrinal backdrop in the Church; supported by a Marian metaphysics for interpreting history; eighth, a visible crescendo of the primacy of charity; ninth, Kolbean theory of the metaphysics of the will according to Duns Scotus; and ninth, the development of Kolbe’s theory of the will; all leading to the tenth and final section on theory and praxis explained with the clarity that follows a progressive illumination. The “order of intention” had its “order of execution.”

Fr. Fehlner added a glossary of terms to help readers find Kolbe’s thought strikingly readable. An extensive bibliography supports Fr. Fehlner’s claim that St. Maximilian M. Kolbe fulfills correctly the title “Theologian of Auschwitz.”[5] The growth and development just described as a progressive illumination is a term that I first used with Fr. Fehlner and, happily, he approved and readily incorporated it into his theological vocabulary because he understood the way I was incorporating progressive illumination as it neatly binds the ancients, premodernity, modernity, postmodernity and our post-Christian culture.

The seven aspirations from St. Bonaventure’s “method” in The Triple Way or The Kindling of Love encapsulates Fr. Fehlner’s scholarly Franciscan practices, form of life and golden years. A learned believer, he lived the “goal” as summarized by The Journey of the Mind to God.[6] The Triple Way and The Journey of the Mind to God. As companion works, they bind my seven part series to introduce “Rebuild My Church.” Seven aspirations express seven degrees of the unitive way.[7] A way is not a stage of growth for one who desires to be perfect as Christ exhorts his followers, but a metaphor for the means available to a person to attain the three constitutive elements of wisdom or happiness. The metaphor of way conveys eternal possession of absolute peace, face to face vision of absolute truth, and full enjoyment of goodness or absolute love. Weaving such triplets, Bonaventure identifies the first way for beginners; the second way for the advanced; and third way for those who have reached perfection. The three ways are a ladder for the person to ascend and descend.

It may seem like a giant step from the three ways, but, Fr. Fehlner’s account of the timeless Franciscan vision of St. Bonaventure was fully in step with Pope St. John Paul II’s analysis of a certain positivist cast of mind relating to scientific and technical progress. In Fides et Ratio, n. 91, the Holy Father recognizes that some thinkers refer to our age as “postmodernity,” first used with reference to aesthetic, social and technological phenomena, then transposed into the philosophical field, but has remained somewhat ambiguous because postmodern is sometimes positive and sometimes negative. The philosopher Pope realized that a consensus in judgment has yet to align with historical periods. Postmodern designates complex and new factors that have produced widespread, powerful, and important changes with the terrible experiences of evil, the collapse of rationalist optimism, the disillusionment of putting too much trust in the progress of reason as the source of all happiness and freedom, which he called nihilism. Fr. Fehlner chose to condense his reasons for eschewing nihilism.

A straight line continues from the four gospels to St. Bonaventure and to the works of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner as a metaphysician-theologian in the mode of St. Bonaventure, Bl. John Duns Scotus, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Vatican II, from pre-modernity to modernity, the twilight of modernity and post-modernity. That same straight line continues into the twenty-first century, a time I now call a post-Christian culture. Difficulties and opportunities abound for Catholic thought to negotiate with figures on that historical trajectory. Fr. Fehlner was always ready to engage the contexts and concepts critically. He recognized weakness in providing Christian regulatory answers to methods that are hidden within any eclecticism because eclecticism played into the hands of those who denied the enduring validity of truth and the historical and cultural context for truth claims. Fr. Fehlner resisted any claim to the truth of philosophy to be determined on the basis of its appropriateness to a certain period and a certain historical purpose (Fides et Ratio, n. 87). He summarized: if the cultural circumstances have changed, never make the methodological mistake of saying that a writer has to reread what she wrote to be understood by herself in terms of a current and diverse cultural ambient. Pope John Paul II applied this principle to theological inquiry and compared historicism to modernism. Where there was a visible absence of critical evaluation in light of the tradition, this form of modernism was incapable of satisfying the demands of truth which is what theology engages.

Study Questions

  • How might we identify the free fall of transcendence and truth in our post Christian culture?
  • What might help us to climb out of the precipice or to chart a way beyond the free fall?
  • What are the Triple Way and Fides et Ratio saying about the unsayable truth about God?


[1] E. J. Ondrako, Rebuild My Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2021). [ISBN 978-1-943901-19-0].
[2] In te Exulto; et tibi finaliter adhaereo St. Bonaventure, De Triplici Via seu Incendium Amoris, ch. 3, 8.
[3] J. Isaac. Goff, gen. ed., Collected Essays of Peter Damian Fehlner (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, Publ., 2021), first of nine volumes forthcoming.
[4] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (London: Longmans, Green and Co., uniform edition after the original in 1845). Newman’s seven notes are: fidelity to the original idea; continuity of principles; the power to assimilate ideas from outside; early anticipations of later teaching; logical sequence discernible when developments are examined; preservation of earlier teaching; and continuance in a state of chronic vigor.
[5] Peter Damian Fehner, The Theologian of Auschwitz: St. Maximilian M. Kolbe on the Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publishing, LLC., 2020).
[6] Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum was written after he visited the place where St. Francis had received the stigmata. De Triplici Via seu Incendium Amoris was written to explain Bonaventure’s original synthesis of the method of three ways for reaching union with God: purgative; illuminative; and unitive.
[7] Way is a term from Pseudo-Dionysius to explain stages of perfection that can only be discerned if the person practices spiritual exercises that fit The Triple Way explained within a Franciscan context. The Triple Way is the method. The first way is purgative; the second way is illuminative, and the third way is unitive.


Fr. Edward J. Ondrako, OFM Conventual
Research Fellow Pontifical Faculty of St. Bonaventure, Rome
Visiting Scholar, McGrath Institute for Church Life
University of Notre Dame
June 12, 2021

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