Fr Joseph Donders, widely known as 'Sjef', died on 7 March 2013 in hospital in Maastricht (Holland) aged 83. He will be fondly remembered as an inspiring speaker who for many years worked closely with CAFOD's education programme.
Born in 1929 in Tilburg, Sjef began his training with the White Fathers (later called Missionaries of Africa) in 1952 and was ordained priest in 1957 in Galashiels, Scotland.
Sent to Rome for further studies he started a doctorate on Teilhard de Chardin but midway was made to change since a young priest was not allowed to read his books in those days. Nonetheless Teilhard's thinking had a lasting effect. While teaching philosophy for nine years at the order's formation house in Holland, Sjef became a well-known figure on Radio and TV.
In 1970 he arrived in Kenya teaching philosophy first in the seminary and then at the University of Nairobi where for six years he was Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. As a lecturer he was remembered years later as being "electrifying and thought-provoking". In its recent tribute the Kenyan national daily, The Nation, says "He helped shape the destiny of this country through his contribution to education. Prof Donders taught in Kenya for 15 years and made a deep imprint on the nation."
It was particularly as University Chaplain that he became known to a far wider public. It seems that when he preached at the university chaplaincy there were more worshippers outside than inside. As a result Orbis published a collection of 52 of these sermons in a book entitled 'Jesus the Stranger' which won the 1979 USA National Religious Book Award. This was followed by nine other collections of sermons published by them. Many were re-published in Australia, Ireland, India, and The Philippines. Some were translated into German, Italian, Indonesian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.
In 1984 he became the first Director of the Washington-based 'Africa Faith and Justice Network'. AFJN was founded as a missionary commitment to social justice 'to educate and advocate for a transformation of US policies toward Africa, by bringing the most important issues affecting the people of Africa to the lawmakers in Washington.' It involved Sjef in a lot of travel in America, Africa and Europe visiting religious communities, parishes and universities to inform them about the work of AFJN and so to use their political influence.
In 1988 Sjef became Professor of Mission Studies at The Washington Theological Union which brought him into contact with the Latin American Church where he visited students on internships in Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil and Argentina. He continued to teach at the Theological Union till 2007. He finally retired and returned to Holland in 2010.
Sjef was first invited to come and work with CAFOD's education programme in 1984 and then continued to come each summer for most of the time he was based in Washington. Among a whole generation of CAFOD supporters he made a deep and lasting impression through his ability to communicate the Gospel message with simplicity, relevance and humour. He was able to draw on his very rich and varied experience as educator, preacher and missionary and will be remembered particularly as a charismatic storyteller. He was a prolific writer with some 77 titles to his name (according to Amazon's current list). His latest major publication was the Award-winning 'John Paul II, His Encyclicals in Everyday Language.' (Orbis Books).
A key idea in Sjef's presentation of the Bible was what he called "The Big Story". He thought most preaching had followed the traditional paradigm: Creation - Fall - Redemption - New Life. According to this Jesus offered himself as a ransom in atonement to the Father. As a result grace was available but could be lost (ie we could be without God). A widespread reaction to this pattern nowadays is 'What a strange God!' (ie the story no longer works). The outcome has been an exclusive, individualist spirituality: some are 'reborn' and have divine life in them and others don't. We need to appreciate that each Gospel presents a different explanation for why Jesus died and this paradigm only corresponds to St Mark's account).
Sjef's alternative paradigm ("The Big Story") sees Abram ah Sarah as the first historical figures. This father & mother of all nations - whole prophetic tradition of a Messiah to come - Jesus proclaims a Kingdom of Justice & Peace - Heavenly Jerusalem (= city of peace) where all the nations of the earth will come together (Rev 21) establishing the Kingdom of Justice & Peace. This framework fits in with so many conclusions of our tradition and experience:
- The whole Bible is about Justice & Peace: we don't have to pick out a few 'proof' texts.
- The Gospels mention Kingdom 115 times. 'Christ first of all proclaims a Kingdom; everything else is relative.' (Evangelii Nuntiandi Paul VI).
- The Kingdom is already among (within) us, though not yet fully realised.
- 'It is like a treasure, yeast, a banquet, salt, a pearl…'
- The big story shines through in all the small stories of daily experience.
- 'Do to others as you would have them do to you';
- 'Each time we degrade a victim we see the face is our own';
In this way Sjef arrives at a more inclusive spirituality: God's life (Spirit) is in everyone and can never be lost. (Dominum et Vivificantem, JPII).
So we are not saved by 'grace' which only we Christians have. How else do we explain the straightforward human goodness that is the daily experience of ordinary people?
The task is to make the big story the story of every individual.
The Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7) is already present in people and can be drawn out (Acts 10). Our task is to tune in to the Spirit of Christ (in people already), enabling them to understand the truth about themselves - that they form the one family of God. This is the Good News of Peace (Acts 10:36 & Ephesians 2:17)
'That they may be one' (Jn 17:21) can be seen as a prayer that everyone realise that they are one already, that they already share God's life and form the one family of God.
Yet so much in the Catholic Church has seemed to emphasise the exclusion of others.
People are basically good: they share God's life and are 'Temples of the Holy Spirit'. This is not to deny the reality of sin in the world and our dependence on God, but far better to focus on what is positive about them.
Sjef Donders lived as he taught and those who knew him will always remember his example of living out the Gospel. "Jesus lived His Life inviting us to share His intention and His Spirit. It is the way He asks us to carry our cross in the way He did. The final victory will be His and ours!"
Brian Davies, a former Head of Education at CAFOD, is active in Justice and Peace in Birmingham Archdiocese.