With a heavy heart but full of hope in the power of Christ’s Resurrection, I would like to share with the readers of Pray Tell the news of the recent death of Fr. Paul Nienaber, S.J., a contemporary hymn text writer. He would have had witty yet insightful remarks to make over the fact that he entered into eternal life on 31 October 2020. (My guess is that he would have seen the compatibility of both the “secular” Halloween festival in which we laugh at the “ghoulies and ghosties,” confident that death has been defeated, and the “sacred” festival, with its promise of welcoming his voice to the choirs of heaven on the Eve of All Saints.)
He died at the age of 65, having served as a Jesuit for 30 years. He combined in his person and work a most amazing yoking of scientific exploration and artistic creativity. I often thought that in that yoking he followed the path of another Jesuit, Pere Pierre Teilhard de Chardain, S.J., noted paleontologist and poet of a Christ-centered evolving universe.
As a scientist, he earned a doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Champaign, IL in 1988, the same year he entered the Society of Jesus. (According to my memories, I first met Paul around that time when I gave a liturgical music workshop at the Newman Center at Champaign-Urbana, where he was working with the music ministry there.) During his regency, Paul was visiting professor of physics at Xavier University from 1992-1995. After ordination to the priesthood in 1999, he worked at Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) in Batavia, IL, serving full-time there from 2000-2001 and again from 2002-2004. He then continued part-time at Fermilab while serving in various academic positions at Marquette University (1999-2000), the College of the Holy Cross (2001-2002), eventually settling at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona (2004-2019). From 2009-2019, Paul was an associate professor of physics and the chair of the physics department at St. Mary’s.
As a wordsmith, Paul crafted both memorable homilies and exquisite hymn texts. In 2015, World Library Publications brought out a collection of 28 of his hymn texts set by a variety of composers entitled Arise, O Church! Texts for Sung Prayer by Paul Nienaber, S.J. In that collection, I had the honor of setting his metrical version of Psalm 63 “For You I Long” with a CMD hymn tune I called ANCHORAGE, an image taken from the final verse of his text. Paul also contributed to another World Library Publications collection entitled Be Forever Praised! Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. (WLP is now a subsidiary of GIA Publications, which continues to make Paul’s hymn-texts available.)
In December of 2019, Paul took up residence at the Colombiere Center in Missouri as his health was failing. Both because of his frailty and because the COVID-19 pandemic made travel difficult, we connected by phone every couple of months. I regret that we played “telephone tag” for the last few weeks of his life but never made contact then. Paul’s funeral was celebrated on 6 November 2020 at Colombiere Center and through the kindness of the Jesuit community there I was able to attend virtually via livestreaming. At his funeral, the preacher (whom I believe was Fr. Robert Scullin, S.J., the superior of the community there) summed up Paul’s three great loves as his Jesuit priesthood, his ability to arouse wonder in his students, and his love of worship, especially in the Church’s song. I can testify to the truth of this insight.
I think it is only fair that Paul should have the last word in this memorial tribute. I don’t know if he was thinking of himself when he wrote “A New Passover,” but I do know he believed with all his heart in the promise of the Resurrection evoked in these words:
When earth’s banquets all have ended,
when we reach those farther shores
where the songs of saints are blended
with the angels’ blissful scores,
at the wedding table seated,
hosted by our great High Priest,
sin forgiven, death defeated-
all are welcomed to the feast.
(Fr. Jan) Michael Joncas
University of St. Thomas
6 November 2020