When I got to the office this morning, I opened up my email and received the news that Ralph Del Colle had passed away last night at 7 PM. He was 57 years old with much left to say to the world, but God, in his infinite wisdom, thought otherwise.
It was just a little over a week after Ralph had received the Anointing of the Sick. A large community of folks had been in prayer for Ralph during his final days that God’s will would be accomplished in his life. His death is a great loss for all of us in the Christian community. I am sure that there will be other tributes to Ralph in the coming days, but, for now, I offer this initial effort to honor the life of one who sought God with all of the theological acumen he possessed.
Ralph Del Colle was associate professor in the theology department at Marquette University. I first met Ralph at an annual conference of the Society for Pentecostal Studies after watching him go after a presenter with a soft-spoken vigor that I came to understand was normal for him. Ralph always combined incisive remarks with deep passion, which sometimes got him into trouble with others. He also was deeply attuned to scholasticism in its various phases (medieval, neo, etc.), which placed him in a certain Catholic framework. As a medievalist, I sympathized with Ralph’s concerns for theological precision and clarity. I recall some great conversations in airports traveling to and from conferences about the medieval scholastics and their capacity to combine scholarly precision with spiritual depth. This combination was never lost on Ralph; indeed he seemed to emulate it throughout his life.
If you read Ralph’s work on Spirit Christology, you’ll see what I mean about scholastic precision and clarity. It is a probing and spirited defense of Spirit Christology as a viable and worthwhile model for construing the work of the Triune God in the world. It also takes some time to digest as Ralph interacts with a wide range of sources in order to substantiate his claims.
A reader who approaches Ralph’s life and work through that book might miss the pulse that drives it and drove Ralph. It is always present, hidden in plain sight for those who can see it. One glimpses this pulse in the final paragraph of an essay on the Trinity Ralph wrote in 1997:
Needless to say, the Christian doctrine of God is constructed on the foundation and capstone of Christian existence enacted in praise and worship. It is in this doxological event and context as the source and summit of Christian vision and understanding that the one God who is Father, son and Holy Spirit is known, proclaimed, and adored.
For Ralph, worship of the Triune God as an event, an experiential encounter that leads the believer to a vision of this God, is foremost. It is what fuses Ralph’s charismatic experiences on the one hand with his embrace of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola on the other hand. It also explains how Ralph could be unashamedly (and at times quite passionately) Catholic and unreservedly ecumenical. Christian theology, even in its scholastic mode, is always doxological. It is an expression of worship, a tentative grasp of that deeper vision of the Triune God that gives rise to the delectation, the indescribable joy of the saints in heaven.
I must confess that Ralph’s departure has left me grappling with the mysteries of providence. And yet, his life charts a path forward. It is to attempt, however fleetingly, to seek this God with our whole hearts. To be men and women after the heart of God, as Ralph himself was. To see our feeble efforts at theological analysis as nothing less than doxological participation in the life of the Triune God. My one consolation now is that Ralph’s heart is content as his earthly language has now given way to a heavenly one and his earthly vision to a heaven vision. What he so ardently longed for and attempted to capture with as much precision as he could, he now sees.
As I contemplated all these thoughts in my head this morning, I turned to the Catholic Catechism with its quotation of the Council of Trent on the Anointing of the Sick, which Ralph had received: “This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father’s house.” Ralph told me recently that his one desire in all of this was to surrender to the Lord, not the disease that wracked his body or anything else. He simply wanted to bear witness to God’s mercy and grace in a holy death just as he had done in a holy life. The Spirit of new life empowered him to do just that. May we all do the same.
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