A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Fr John Thornhill SM

Born in Brisbane, 13 May 1929
Professed, 2 February 1949
Ordained, 30 October 1955
Died in Sydney, 28 July 2019

Tribute by Fr Thomas Ryan SM

Among the many cameos of John’s life in the funeral eulogy of his nephew Eric Robinson, what stood out were the deep affection and love that were, and are, part of his family. Eric spoke of John’s almost ‘back-breaking’ hugs whenever he saw them. Towards the end, John still encouraged plenty of hugs, even, and perhaps especially, to the ‘non-huggers’.

This captured something special about John Thornhill. He was a man with a deep capacity for affection and friendship. In many ways, it marinated his Marist and priestly life and also his outstanding intellectual gifts. It enabled him, as theologian, teacher and spiritual guide, to somehow get inside the ‘skin’ of his listeners, especially when responding to questions.

After doctoral studies in Rome, John spent over thirty years in the formation of Marist students for priesthood and religious life. That ministry generated articles and books, especially on the Church and on the faith/culture relationship. He was a theological consultant for the Australian Bishops. In 1982 he was appointed by John Paul II as the first Australian member of the International Theological Commission.

Intertwined with his more academic theology were John’s twenty years and more involved in Adult Faith Education - with the Aquinas Academy in Sydney and, later, in Queensland and Perth. This form of ministry was perhaps John’s first love. It represented the pastoral concern pervading all he did, whether face-to-face with people or in his writings.

All his articles and books are found on his website, including the well-known The Emmaus Series, set up by his good friend Fr. Patrick Lim. Here, John explores key aspects of our Catholic story to help people grow in adult faith. John’s pastoral response to issues raised during his talks is reflected in his small book Questions Catholic Ask in a Time of Change.

John’s engagement with Catholic theologians internationally included formal dialogue with Anglicans and Lutherans. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Australian Catholic University in 2007. His life’s work is acknowledged by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, offering his condolences to the Provincial and Marist Fathers when John died. The Archbishop and fellow Bishops acknowledge the remarkable contribution which John made for so long to the Church in Australia and far beyond. John combined high intelligence with deep faith, a theologian’s mind with a pastor’s heart, an ability to listen with a readiness to stand his ground.

The John Thornhill who stood his ground is illustrated in one significant and public example. In his book Sign and Promise (p. 146-7), John notes that, as a member of the International Theological Commission, he publicly dissociated himself from the view expressed in the Commission’s document prepared for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985. That document denied that Bishops’ conferences “can be said to share in collegiality in any theologically proper sense”. John considered such a view “subversive of the Church’s best interests in this crucial period of institutional development”.

John’s concern for a collegial approach aligns with Marist confrere Gerard Hall’s comment: John’s theology is quintessentially Marist in the manner it promotes a Marian Church that is less clerical and more in tune with the experiences and aspirations of the common people.

Again, John’s attitude was to lead people gently along the path of truth, concerned to build up and not undermine their faith. His goal was to sustain confidence and renew hope that, ultimately, it is all God’s work. In this, John was especially drawn to Pope Francis with his emphasis on joy and divine mercy.

Francis uses the image of a ‘field hospital’, in which the Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy. This sentence finds a bracing parallel noted by the Provincial Anthony Corcoran SM in his funeral homily for John. In the Emmaus Series’ final talk on eternal life, John says, We will enter eternal life as the persons our life has made us … forgiven and reconciled by the Saviour himself. He will stand with the losers. Those who thought that they were winners will in the end be confounded -- but joyful too, because they will have been saved from their foolishness as they see Jesus standing with the losers in a glorious affirmation of gospel values -- all that Jesus stood for will be affirmed finally in eternal life.

May John rest in peace and rise in glory. John Thornhill’s memorial card carries a very apt quote from the Hymn for the Office of Readings for Doctors of the Church: Prudent in judgment, gentle towards all others, open, unselfish in the love he offered. All his days the Gospel was his wisdom, Christ his true teacher..  

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