Queen’s University Belfast academic Dr Gaven Kerr OP is a something of a rarity – a young lay person not just unafraid to speak up for his faith but one who has in a few short years delivered results by manifesting the type of missionary zeal urged by Pope Francis in his Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
Two weeks ago, appropriately on the Feast of St Thomas Aquinas, Gaven and other Dominicans here rejoiced in the birth of a new Lay Dominican Chapter, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, based in Lagmore parish on the western outskirts of Belfast.
Lagmore PP, Fr Martin Graham, is its spiritual promoter.
Dr Kerr, founding president of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapter was instrumental in setting it up and its foundation was marked by a concelebrated Mass in Lagmore’s Christ the Redeemer Church. Fr Graham presided assisted by Fr John Walsh OP, spiritual promoter of Lay Dominicans in Ireland and Fr Gary Toman, chaplain at Queen’s.
Queen’s Chaplaincy, which is experiencing something of a renaissance in its own right – which The Irish Catholic plans to examine in a future issue – is the base of another recently established youthful Dominican Lay Chapter, the Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Chapter, which we reported back in June.
The common link between the two chapters is Gaven Kerr, (30) married father of two, Aquinas scholar and one of two part-time teachers of Scholastic Philosophy within the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s.
Two years ago the Frassati Chapter was formed after students heard Gaven sing the praises of the Dominican charism during a series of lectures in the chaplaincy.
This latest development prompted me to sit down with Dr Kerr to hear about his faith journey and the story of how the Dominican way has become a central feature of his life.
It is fascinating to receive an insight into how key individuals like a teacher can positively change the course of a person’s life. In Gaven Kerr’s case, it was two teachers and a priest.
Gaven, one of four children of Kevin and Margaret Kerr was brought up for the first three years of his life in the Springfield Road area of west Belfast before the family moved to nearby Hannahstown.
“A natural part of life was seeing soldiers on the streets of Turf Lodge, like being in a movie, as a young pupil at Holy Trinity Primary School.”
“The first time I became aware there was something wrong called the Troubles and attempts were being made to do something about them was the visit of President Clinton to Belfast at Christmas .”
He was 12 and recalls his father coming home saying that he had “got shaking Clinton’s hand”.
Gaven progressed to St Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School, Glen Road, where Gerry Adams and Martin McAleese were once pupils. There, two teachers in particular had a profound influence on him.
Dr Aidan Donaldson, who introduced him to “the whole Catholic tradition in philosophy” and Mr Declan Breen, who taught him “the whole Catholic understanding of Scripture and the role Scripture plays in the formation of doctrine”.
He had been minded to pursue a university course in music but without the influence of those two teachers, (Dr Donaldson is still on the staff, Mr Breen is retired) he has no doubt he would not have chosen to study philosophy and scholastic philosophy at Queen’s.
Gaven remains deeply grateful for their tutelage recalling that when he stopped “thinking like a child” and progressing normally to “a more interrogative attitude” around the age of 16 they were on hand “to guide me through it.”
He remarks that some young people at that stage “get lost but I was fortunate to have those two good teachers”.
Gaven arrived at Queen’s in September 2001 and quickly visited the Catholic Chaplaincy “as I was always open to the Divine”.
“For the first time I saw people going daily to Mass and saw Mass not anymore as a kind of pre-arranged thing on a Sunday and felt a need to take responsibility for my faith.”
Then “a spiritual awakening” took place after he went to the then chaplain, Fr Joe Gunn (now PP in Bangor Co. Down) for Confession.
“It was the first Confession ever where the priest actually engaged with me and tried to help me see the reality of sin but also the mercy of God. That was a real Epiphany, a life changing moment.”
“It was a very memorable experience with Fr Gunn. After that being a Catholic became a real lived experience for me.”
The Holy Spirit was working in other ways as well in Gaven’s life that autumn. He proposed and got engaged to his girlfriend, Collette Barkley, whom he “set eyes on at 15” and married in 2005.
He would not explore the priesthood if the celibacy rule was changed as “I would not have got married had I a priestly vocation.”
He insists celibacy should “remain the norm because the priest’s bride is the Church and any change would lead to both a practical tension and a theological tension”.
As an undergraduate he singles out Tim Lynch, “a great lecturer who introduced me to a love of the history of philosophy”.
After graduating Gaven remained at Queen’s to gain a Masters in Aquinas’s Metaphysics and a PhD on Aquinas and Kant, his supervisor being Rev Prof James McEvoy, whose funeral took place on the day he submitted his doctoral thesis in 2010.
In addition to convening a well subscribed QUB scholastic philosophy course which caters for some of the requirements of five Down & Connor seminarians at St Malachy’s College, Dr Kerr also has several teaching responsibilities elsewhere.
These include other courses for the Down & Connor seminarians via the Maryvale Institute, the Dominican seminarians at St Saviour’s Priory, Dublin and the Neocatechumenal Way seminarians in Dundalk.
He defines philosophy as “the study of being and as an attitude it is the study of wisdom”.
“For me being a philosopher is just like a martyr being a Christian and the intellectual drive is the pursuit of truth and behind that drive is God, a force pushing you to figure out the truth.”
His hero, Thomas Aquinas, one of the great Dominican saints, remains relevant after 800 years because “he deals with perennial issues pertaining to the moral life, man’s relationship to God and to the world, Christ and the Church”.
He says he has experienced “some aggression” because of his strong pro-faith position without wishing to go into detail but is heartened that this has “toned down” since the arrival of Pope Francis.
Gaven was introduced to the Dominican charism while teaching at a summer school run by Lay Dominicans in Lithuania in 2010 and felt what they were doing “bringing St Thomas Aquinas to those who didn’t have the opportunity to study him was exactly what I wanted to do”.
“I always felt the need to be a preacher, to speak the truth, especially the truth about God and religion and to defend it where necessary.”
He was particularly attracted to the Dominicans because “they are called to work not for their own perfection but for that of their neighbour.”
Gaven visited and ultimately joined St Dominic’s chapter, Falls Road, the largest in Belfast.
Late last year after a visitation Fr Walsh suggested the foundation of the new Our Lady of Wisdom Chapter with Dr Kerr as president.
Gaven explains: “It’s part of our Dominican tradition that when we have a lot of members we don’t stock up our grain for it to grow mouldy in a barn. We plant seeds so it can spread and in that way an old chapter gives birth to a new one.”
That new one has already two members and “six interested prospective members”.
“Bringing Christ to our neighbour signifies a very active type of lifestyle, one that is truly evangelical. Jesus did not tell us to learn the truths about God and simply rest in the truths received; rather he told us to go out to the whole world proclaiming the truth of the Gospel,” says Gaven Kerr.
Pope Francis would be pleased.