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Life-long love of theology and ecology

Obituaries

Monsignor James Denis Edwards- Born: December 10 1943 | Died: March 5 2019

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If you were unaware of his reputation, meeting Denis Edwards for the first time, perhaps after a Mass you chanced upon, would be a gentle, warm encounter, in which the conversation revolved around your interests. Such was his way of being in the world.

Ordained in 1966, Denis was a gifted priest who fostered the life of the People of God in the Archdiocese of Adelaide through the celebration of the Eucharist, youth chaplaincy, adult education, university theological education, Church leadership and ecumenical dialogue.

For more than 40 years his primary ministry was in theological education at parish, diocesan, and university level. He communicated the richness of the Christian tradition with great clarity. Reflecting on Denis’ contribution, a theological colleague remarked: “he was not ashamed to be understandable, even down-market”.

Denis loved teaching theology. He had an international profile in several key areas, and was a prolific author – of 15 books, a collection of essays and a multitude of book chapters and journal articles, as well as being the editor of several collections of essays.

From the mid-1980s onward, Denis directed his thought to two crucial issues: the relationship between science and theology, and a Christian response to the ecological crisis. On the first, it concerned him greatly that many Catholics thought, or simply assumed, that their faith necessarily conflicted with the worldview of contemporary science. Several of his books show how the insights of science can enhance Christian faith, and how Christian faith can respond to the scientific perspective.

Second, Denis had a great love of the natural world, including birds, animals, plants and the Australian landscape, and he reflected on how Christian faith can help overcome the damage caused by the ecological crisis. Rather than proposing a ‘new Christian story’, he saw the long theological tradition as a rich resource to bring to bear on the crisis.

Among his books on this matter were Ecology at the Heart of Faith (2006) and Jesus and the Natural World (2012). In 2017, he published Christian Understandings of Creation, surveying ancient and contemporary insights. His final book, Deep Incarnation: God’s Redemptive Suffering with Creatures, will be released later this year. Denis thought that Pope Francis’ encyclical on our common home, Laudato Si’ (2015), might prove to be the most important document of papal teaching in the 21st century.

Through the decades Denis held important leadership roles in the Archdiocese, particularly with the various renewal movements. He was a member of the Diocesan Pastoral Renewal Program initiated by Archbishop James Gleeson in 1981. He was theological advisor to Archbishop Len Faulkner for the period of his leadership, 1986–2001. While committed to the Catholic Church’s sacramental view of ordained ministry, he also fostered lay leadership in the Church, and urged the Church to find new practices which recognise and embody the equal dignity of women.

Denis was involved in ecumenical dialogue over many decades. He was the longest-serving member of the Australian Lutheran–Roman Catholic Dialogue, for 33 years. He was a member of the Australian Anglican–Roman Catholic Dialogue and of the Joint International Commission for Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church. He chaired the Adelaide Catholic Diocesan Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission for five years.

Never keen on honours or awards for himself, and aiming to avoid them if possible, Denis gained a few in recent years. He was awarded an Order of Australia Medal in 2012 and the following year was appointed a Fellow of the Australian Catholic Theological Association. Appointed monsignor by Pope Francis in 2015, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, in the same year. He was a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

At his funeral, Denis’ niece Michelle spoke of his family’s deep love of him, and his love of them—of his parents Kath and Marc (both deceased), his siblings Raelene, Mary, Peter (dec), and Kevin, their spouses, and his many nieces and nephews.

Denis was a gentle, unassuming man, devoted to the gospel and the theological tradition as a priest, teacher, and theologian. May he relish the mystery of God’s eternal love.

– Written by good friend and ACU colleague Fr James McEvoy.

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