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Issue Date:  December 17, 2004

Remembering Fr. Myles Bourke, scholar and pastor


Msgr. Myles M. Bourke, professor of sacred scripture at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, N.Y., from 1947 to 1966 and pastor of Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan from 1966 to 1992, died on Nov. 13 at the age of 87.

To say that he was the most exacting professor that two generations of New York priests ever had would be to miss the limitless devotion he inspired in so many of them. Sociologist Philip Murnion, theologians David Tracy, Joseph Komonchak and William Shea, historians Bernard McGinn and Thomas Shelley, and biblical scholars Richard Dillon and John Meier were merely the most notable among the many seminarians who owed Msgr. Bourke an incalculable debt. They repaid it with enduring affection and by collecting a treasure house of his sayings and stories about him.

Msgr. Bourke was a full-time priest and full-time scholar. Was he the only priest in America who did not own a single piece of secular apparel? Did he ever take a vacation that wasn’t a trip to some scholarly meeting?

The heart of his biblical spirituality was the Letter to the Hebrews, and that anomalous book with its doctrine of Christ the High Priest and its vision of the heavenly liturgy informed Msgr. Bourke’s life so thoroughly that what seemed a loss to biblical studies when he became pastor of Corpus Christi Parish was simply a great gain for parish liturgy and parochial preaching.

A man of austere countenance and ascetic deportment, as razor thin and sharply featured as Pope Pius XII, he had a great, convulsive laugh that would engulf anyone who spoke to him for more than five minutes. Among his closest friends were the biblical scholar Raymond Brown and the liturgical scholar Louis Bouyer. For many years Msgr. Bourke was the censor deputatus for Fr. Brown’s voluminous books. Considering the fact that they dined together several nights a week during Fr. Brown’s long tenure at Union Theological Seminary, it was like having your best friend in grammar school grade your homework.

And why did Fr. Bouyer spend Holy Week at Corpus Christi so often when he could have done the same at any of the great monasteries or churches of France? It was simply because of Msgr. Bourke and the rather sumptuous yet austere liturgies of Corpus Christi.

Born on Staten Island in 1917, Myles Bourke attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, New York’s Cathedral College and St. Joseph’s Seminary. Ordained in 1942, he received a doctorate of sacred theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington and a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. In addition to St. Joseph’s Seminary, he held teaching appointments at Fordham University in New York and the Pontifical Biblical Institute. He was president of the Catholic Biblical Association in 1967-’68 and chair of its board of trustees from 1971 to ’93. He spent his last decade sharing the common life of the Benedictine monks of Portsmouth Abbey in Newport, R.I.

Frank Oveis is a senior editor at Continuum International Publishing Group, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004

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