Associate Catholic studies professor the Rev. Jan Michael Joncas will receive the Franciscan International Award for his lifetime achievements Thursday, May 10, in Eagan, Minn.
Associate Catholic studies professor the Rev. Jan Michael Joncas will be the 54th recipient of the Franciscan International Award for his lifetime achievements Thursday, May 10, in Eagan, Minn. (Courtesy of St. Thomas)
Joncas has been a professor at St. Thomas for more than 20 years and was ordained a priest in 1980.
“I wear three hats,” Joncas said. “There’s one path that leads to priesthood, and that’s probably the foundational, most important thing in my life.”
This marks the 54th presentation of the award, which recognizes an individual or organization that demonstrates the ideals and values of St. Francis of Assisi. Past recipients include the Rev. Billy Graham, Sister Helen Prejan, Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, Habitat for Humanity and CaringBridge.
This is the second noteworthy award for Joncas this year. In February, the Washington Theological Union presented him with one of its highest honors, the Sophia Award. According to the Union, the honor is given “to a scholar whose work defines national excellence in theological scholarship contributing to the ministry of the Catholic Church.”
Sophomore Nathaniel Binversie takes Joncas’ Catholic vision course, and said he’s the most profound professor he’s ever had.
“His love for the topics of which he teaches, his love for the students, his love for the priesthood and his love for Jesus Christ totally comes through in his teaching,” Binversie said. “The way he shows care and love for the material makes you want to care and love the material just as much.”
Joncas attended St. John Vianney College Seminary and graduated from one of its first classes. He then finished his clerical training at St. Paul Seminary before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English in 1975 from St. Thomas.
After earning a master’s degree in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, Joncas returned to the St. Paul Seminary and was ordained in 1980. He was a parish priest for several years and studied in Rome for four years where he earned graduate degrees in his academic specialty: the history and analysis of Christian worship.
He joined the St. Thomas theology faculty in 1991 and in addition to a heavy teaching load, Joncas found time to: teach graduate courses and present workshops throughout the world; write three books dealing with liturgy and publish dozens of scholarly articles; serve as a weekend assistant at parishes in the archdiocese and compose and sometimes record nearly 20 collections of liturgical music.
Joncas’ most well-known composition is “On Eagles Wings,” which he wrote in 1976 and is commonly heard at funerals.
At the time it was written, Joncas was visiting a classmate in Washington, D.C., when his friend’s father died of a heart attack.
“We talked that evening, prayed together, and he got a flight back to Omaha, Neb., the next morning. Then I wrote this song between that evening and the wake service for his father,” Joncas said. “It was played at his dad’s wake service.”
Noting that St. Francis was known for his love of liturgy and music, the Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center said Joncas’ “love for the liturgy and music are internationally known. He also is an engaging and inspiring speaker and educator in the areas of the liturgy, church life and tradition.”
Joncas is also a survivor. During Holy Week of 2003, Joncas was struck with a severe case of Guillain-Barré syndrome. He was teaching that semester at Notre Dame and noticed the first symptoms while celebrating Holy Thursday liturgy.
Within a week, his body was paralyzed, and if not for a ventilator and other life-support gear, Joncas would have died.
“Surprisingly, the fear that I was going to die was neither my greatest nor even a persistent fear,” Joncas wrote in a Catholic Spirit article. “I certainly didn’t want to die, but I was surprised to learn that I wasn’t particularly afraid of dying.”
No one knows why Guillain-Barré strikes some and not others, but Joncas was statistically the one person in every 100,000 to be knocked off his feet by its debilitating symptoms. Another member of the St. Thomas community who suffered from the syndrome was the late Monsignor Terrence Murphy.
In fall 2005, Joncas returned to St. Thomas. He said he is now “95 percent back to normal and busier than ever,” despite dealing with nerve pain in his hands and feet and no longer being able to play the guitar.
The fact that Joncas can’t play the guitar has not slowed him down. Joncas told The Catholic Spirit that since his recovery, he has had an “explosion” of musical creativity.
In the past two years, he has recorded three collections of liturgical music. Currently, he is writing settings of every responsorial psalm for the three-year Sunday Mass cycle and a hymn text for every Sunday. Joncas said that his newer works mostly revolve around themes of rescue, hope and thanksgiving.
Robert Kennedy, Catholic studies department chair, has been working with Joncas for more than a decade and thinks the “Franciscan Retreat Center made an excellent choice.”
“He is very, very generous with his time as a speaker, as a composer and as a performer,” Kennedy said.
For Joncas, the award is an honor.
“It’s nice to have your worked recognized by people outside of your own field,” he said.
Caroline Rode can be reached at email@example.com.