The recent passing of Jeff Gros touched me quite deeply. I am thankful that I was able to be present for his funeral service last Saturday at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois. The Mass of Resurrection, preceded by a vigil with a time of personal sharing about Jeff’s life, was profoundly Christocentric. Jeff had clearly arranged much of the service before his passing.
Dr. Jeffrey Gros, FSC, was known to all who met him as Brother Jeffrey Gros. To his closest friends, however, he was simply Jeff. I had the joy of knowing Jeff as a close friend. I met him more than a decade ago in Birmingham, Alabama. Our mutual friend, Dr. Timothy George, invited us to share a platform together at a conference on ecumenism hosted by Beeson Divinity School. I had first learned of Jeff from his prolific writing on Christian unity. He edited and authored eighteen books and 310 articles. (None of us is quite sure just how many book reviews he wrote but there were many hundreds for sure.) Jeff was always reading and doing fresh research. He was a prolific writer. He devoted himself to these disciplines and, from what his friends could tell, gave four to five hours each day to reading and writing down to his last forty-eight hours on this earth. Had he been about 10-15 years younger I have no doubt that he would have become a prolific Internet writer and would have gracefully excelled at using the social media. He did use email every day and always answered his correspondence within a day or two. He was a busy man but always accessible. He was also a public intellectual but he was a totally accessible person to people who needed him. The vows of his order prepared him to invest his life in people!
When Jeff and I first met in Birmingham we became acquainted as two people do at their first meeting, which is to say we talked and expressed interest in knowing more. This led me to read much more of his work and it led him to read my book on ecumenism in 2010, Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010). When he moved to Chicago in 2011 Jeff instantly became a deep source of personal and private encouragement. Over the last two years Jeff and I had become really good friends. Through this friendship I was immeasurably blessed in the grace of God. It was Jeff who helped me make huge strides in grasping the nuances and calling of global ecumenism. Our cultural backgrounds were similar enough so we already had a lot in common. But more importantly Jeff loved evangelical Christians in a remarkable way. He understood my world and helped me understand his so much better. When I am asked how I came to understand the Catholic Church with such deep love, while never having been a Catholic, the answer is books and people. But people are the most important part of my answer and no one helped me more than Jeff Gros.
Sadly, at least for those of us who loved Brother Jeff for all these many reasons, not the least of which was his amazing gift of encouragement, Jeff passed into the presence of our Lord on August 12. (Born in 1938, Jeff died at the age of 75 from a two-year battle with cancer.) Over the next few days I would like to introduce you to my friend, Brother Jeff Gros. I believe Jeff was one of the most important American ecumenists of our time. This is not simply my own biased view of the matter I can assure you. Numerous publications have noted his passing with excellent articles and obituaries. I will link you to several in my comments to follow.
Jeff Gros was born John Jefferson Gros in Memphis, Tennessee, the son of Jeff and Faye (Dickinson) Gros. (Jeff and I shared the Volunteer state in common since I was born in Lebanon, Tennessee in 1949.) Jeff graduated from Price College in Amarillo, Texas, entered the novitiate of the Christian Brothers in Glencoe, Missouri, in 1955, and professed his final vows in 1963. He received a B.A. and M.Ed. from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Jeff then earned an M.A. in Theology from Marquette University and a Ph.D. in Theology from Fordham University in New York City. Jeff was first and foremost an educator. He was a first-rate scholar with an incredible broad and active mind that remained that way to the end of his life. He was working on a book at the time of his death and completed another book review just days before he died.
Jeff, as I have already noted, was a member of the Christian Brothers, a Catholic order commonly known as the “Lasallian Brothers,” or the “De La Salle Brothers.” This is a religious teaching congregation, founded in France by Saint Jean-Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), is now based in Rome. The ministry of the Brothers is that of lay men who dedicate their lives to Christian education, especially to helping educate the poor. Today the order has over 73,000 lay colleagues and teaches over 900,000 students in 80 countries. The Brothers use the abbreviation of F.S.C. after their name to denote their membership in their order. They also use the honorific title of “Brother.”
As a Lasallian Brother Jeff taught in several high schools; e.g. in Evanston, Illinois, St. Louis, Missouri, and Memphis, Tennessee. He also taught (2006-2009) at Memphis Theological Seminary, a Protestant school. Jeff was an educator at heart, and trained for this profession accordingly. But Jeff was to become much better known for his unique calling and work within the ecumenical movement. He helped to broaden its scope in many ways, publishing widely in theological journals and periodicals, editing numerous books on ecumenism, and by speaking to various religious and educational groups throughout the world.
Brother Jeffrey served ten years as Director of Faith and Order for the National Council of Churches and fourteen years as the Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 2005 he became the Distinguished Professor of Ecumenical and Historical Theology at Memphis Theological Seminary. In the fall of 2011 Brother Jeffrey returned to Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, as the Catholic Studies Scholar in Residence. This is all impressive in its own way but it tells you little or nothing about the Jeff that I knew. He was a man of letters, a true scholar who knew how to research, study and write. But he was so much more. He was a man of quiet passion and deep humility who always sought to encourage everyone engaged in this great global work of pursuing the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23.
Let me illustrate just how unique Jeff was, especially in terms of this unique calling to teach and promote ecumenism. He was the president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies! Read that once again. Yes, a Roman Catholic scholar was the president of the non-Catholic professional group known as the Society for Pentecostal Studies. (I think Jeff might have found as much joy in this part of his professional life as in anything else that he did.) Think about this for a moment. Here is a man born and reared in a Southern evangelical and Baptist culture, who represented a fairly despised minority in that culture, who learned how to talk to his neighbors and then relate deeply to the Christian faith of people who, in so many ways, were entirely unlike himself in both their background and ecclesial context. In this way Jeff broke “new ground” for ecumenism in America and beyond. Tomorrow I will tell you what ground he broke and why it matters so deeply to the catholic church and, quite honestly, why it shaped me as his friend.