Touching lives in and outside the classroom for 50 years

Father Norbert Burns, S.M., became a Marianist 70 years ago, was ordained a priest 60 years ago and began teaching at the University of Dayton, Ohio, 10 years later. Add to that 40 years as a marriage counselor, 25 years as a radio program host and 20 years of service in local parishes and on campus, and the result is a priest who is both a legend and an inspiration to the Dayton community.

An authentic priest

So it’s no wonder that it took him three and a half hours to greet everyone in the receiving line at a recent celebration of those milestones.

“He is so authentic, and so encouraging for you to be who you are,” said Susan Ferguson, director of the university’s Center for Catholic Education. “He can see what each person’s gift is, and he really tries to help you unwrap what your potential can be.”

Father Burns, 89, recently received the university’s 2013 Special Service Award for Volunteer Service, given in recognition of his roles as an undergraduate student at the university, and a professor, counselor and evangelist for the Marianist charism. It also recognized the campus record that he set for attracting 27,000 students to his Christian Marriage course. Although officially retired, he continues teaching that same elective at the request of the administration and by popular demand.

Lessons learned

Ferguson was still a student when she and her husband Richard, who had already graduated, took the priest’s class in 1976 for their pre-Cana instruction as an engaged couple.

“One thing that stands out that he taught was that there would be mountaintops and there would be valleys, and that you had to support each other,” said Richard Ferguson, now executive director of UD’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community. “Obviously after 37 years of marriage, I found that to be true.”

That’s timeless advice in the curriculum, and students’ desire to learn about meaningful relationships hasn’t changed either.

“People are looking for a life that has purpose and meaning, and they sense that so much is bound up in relationships,” Father Burns told Our Sunday Visitor.

Teaching as a vocation

After graduating from UD, Father Burns earned a licentiate of sacred theology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and a doctorate in sacred theology from St. Thomas University, Rome. He did post-graduate studies in counseling a Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and became a marriage counselor as well.

“I wanted to spend my life on a university campus with young people who are thinking about life and their direction,” he said. “They’re asking questions and making decisions about where they’re going. It’s a thrilling time in their lives.”

Changing times

When he started teaching 50 years ago, his class reflected the times with a more traditional approach to marriage.

“Today’s young people are much freer and they are much less bound by traditions and regulations,” he said. “Rules have changed, and the understanding of themselves has changed. Fifty years ago, marriage was much more solidified in defining each one. The man was going to go out to make the money and call the shots and the woman was going to stay home and keep things together and kind of satisfy him.”

Marriage as friendship

He’s often asked how a priest can know so much about marriage. His answer: It’s all about the principles of relationships and belongingness.

“You spend your whole life trying to be a good relationship person, and that’s what marriage is about,” he said. “Marriage is a friendship, and people say, ‘Let’s be friends for the rest of our lives.’ It’s two different people trying to relate to each other, except with so much more intimacy. It’s their desire to be open to each other, and to give the freedom to allow the other person to be who they are.”

Father Burns’ profession and vocation have been influenced in many ways by his love of the Blessed Mother, which is why he was drawn to the Marianists.

“My mother had a very deep devotion to Mary, and I got that from her,” he said. “My dad was a lieutenant on the Cleveland Fire Department rescue squad and had a life of service. I wanted to spend my life and dedicate my services in Mary’s name, and she took care of it, and here I am.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.