11 August 2022

Thomas Comerford Lawler and
Father Ronald Lawler, brothers
and US Catholic theologians

Father Ronald Lawler (the Revd Dr David Comerford Lawler) ... a Capuchin friar and leading American theologian

Patrick Comerford

The brothers Thomas Comerford Lawler and Father Ronald Lawler (David Comerford Lawler) were two leading Catholic theologians and patristic scholars in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Thomas Comerford Lawler was a leading officer in the CIA before attention to patristic studies and becoming a prominent lay theologian. His brother, Father Ronald Lawler, was a Capuchin friar and at one time the only American member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy.

For many years, because of the conjunction of the Comerford Lawler names and the many doctors in the family, I wondered whether they were related to the Comerford Lawler family of Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford.

However, in my recent researches, while I have been able to trace their family back to James Comerford, who emigrated from Ireland to New York in the 1830s, I have been unable to pinpoint which branch of the Comerford family this James Comerford is descended from. This family included many medical doctors, a highly-decorated US naval officer, a senior CIA officer, and these two prominent theologians.

So far, my research on these Comerford Lawler brothers takes me back to:

JAMES COMERFORD (ca 1810 – post 1853). He was born in Ireland ca 1810 and later emigrated to the US, living in Chemung, New York. He married Hannah … before 1839 and they were the parents of six children:

1, Mary, born ca 1839.
2, Patrick Comerford (ca 1840-post 1921), born ca 1840, died post 1921.
3, Catharine, born ca 1847.
4, Hannah (1850-1921), of whom next.
5, Elizabeth, born ca 1851, married … Nelson.
6, Margaret, born ca 1853, married … Noonan.

The second named daughter and fourth child was:

HANNAH COMERFORD (1850-1921). She was born in Burlington, Vermont, on 1 March 1850, and lived in Elmira for most of her life. She married Thomas H Lawler (1849-1919), of Elmira, Chemung County, New York, in 1872. Thomas Lawler was born in August 1849 in Massachusetts, to Irish-born parents, and grew up in Longmeadow, Hampden, and Boston, Massachusetts.

Thomas Lawler died in 1919; Hannah (Comerford) Lawler died on 5 March 1921 in the family home at 600 West Clinton Street.

Thomas and Hannah were the parents of four sons and a daughter:

1, Leo Thomas Lawler (1878-1944), of whom next.

2, Dr Albert J Lawler (ca 1878-post 1921) of Niagara Falls New York. He married Mary … and they were the parents of at least one son:

• 1a, Leo Thomas Lawler (ca 1905-ca 2000) of Niagara Falls. He married Kathleen Hewitt (1912-2005), and they were the parents of Robert Lawler (born 1935).

3, Dr Arthur V Lawler of Niagara Falls.

4, Dr Robert James Lawler (1883-1942), MD, of the US Navy. He born in Elmira, New York, on 1 July 1883. He was commissioned on 8 May 1917 into the New York Naval Militia with the rank of Assistant Surgeon, Lieutenant, and later was assigned to the National Naval Volunteers and the US Naval Reserve Forces. He arrived in France on 2 September 1918 as a Battalion Surgeon in the Marines and soon found himself in combat. He was awarded a Navy Cross ‘for Extraordinary Heroism in the attack on St Mihiel, 12-16 September 1918 and east of Rheims 1-9 October 1918 (Blanc Mont & Vierzy) and in the attack on the Argonne, 1-11 November 1918.’

He was later awarded the Silver Star Medal with a Large Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart Medal (# 645), the American Defense Medal, the Victory Medal, the New York State Conspicuous Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Palm. Dr Lawler later served as a Regimental Surgeon.

He remained in the US Navy after World War I, receiving a regular commission in 1921. He served aboard USS Nevada, USS Pennsylvania and with the Garde de Haiti . He was retired due to physical disability in 1930. He became a Lieutenant Commander on the retired list in 1936. He was recalled to active service early in World War II and was promoted to Commander in March 1942. He died of heart failure on 1 October 1942, aged 59, in Elmira, New York.

5, Frances Lawler of Elmira, who did not marry.

The first named son:

LEO THOMAS COMERFORD LAWLER (1878-1944), of 214 Fayette Street, Cumberland, Maryland. He was born on 13 December 1878, in Elmira, Chemung County, New York. He was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He was the city electrician in Cumberland, Maryland, and later worked in real estate until 1929.

He married Lillian-Marie Wilhelmina Laing (1891-1960), daughter of Frederick Joseph Laing (1849-1904) and Catherine (Long) Laing (1854-1913).

Leo and Lillian were the parents of six children, three sons and three daughters:[1]

1, Mary Catherine (1917-2008), of Berlin, Maryland. Born 30 November 1917, Cumberlamd; she married John Anthony Busch (1913-1992) of Cincinnati, Ohio; she died 7 August 2008 in in Charles Town, Jefferson County, West Virginia.

2, (Dr) Thomas Comerford Lawler, of Sterling, Virginia (1920-2006), theologian and patristic scholar, of whom next.

3, (The Revd Dr) David Comerford Lawler (1926-2003), born in Cumberland, Maryland. As Father Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap, he was a Capuchin friar and a distinguished theologian. (See below)

4, Lillian M Lawler (died before 2003).

5, Frances Laing (1924-1998), married Wilton Anthony Baker of Cleveland, Ohio.

6, Albert (‘Bert’) G Comerford Lawler (1930-1991). Born in Cumberland, Maryland, 1930, died in Cumberland 22 August 1991.

The brothers Thomas Comerford Lawler and Father Ronald Lawler (David Comerford Lawler) were co-authors with Bishop Donald Wuerl of ‘The Teaching of Christ’ (1976)

The first son:

THOMAS COMERFORD LAWLER (1920-2005). Theologian and patristic scholar, of Sterling, Virginia. He was born in Cumberland, Maryland, on 19 December 1920, and was educated at Saint Fidelis Capuchin Seminary, Herman, Pennsylvania. He joined the US army in World War II, and was in the US army engineers from 1943 to 1946. He worked for the CIA for 26 years from 1951 to 1977 and received the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit.[2]

He was president of the Federation of Catholic Parent-Teacher Organisations in Northern Virginia (1968-1970), and was one of six lay members of the National Catechetical Directory committee (1972-1978).[3]

From 1964 to 1991, he was co-editor of the Ancient Christian Writers series of translations from Latin and Greek, published by the Paulist Press, and in that series translated S. Augustine: Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany and The Letters of Saint Jerome (1963), Origen: Treatise on the Passover and Dialogue with Heraclides (1992), Saint Irenaeus of Lyons: Against the Heresies (1992).

He was co-author of The Teaching of Christ (1976) with his brother, Father Ronald Lawler, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. He was co-author of The Letters of Saint Jerome and The Teaching of Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 1995), and The Gift of Faith (2001).

He was appointed director of religious education for the Catholic Diocese of Arlington in 1978. He served on the National Catechetical Directory committee, the board of directors of the Arlington Catholic Herald newspaper and the board of Catholic Charities.[4]

He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Saint Joseph’s College, Standish, ME, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute, Arlington. He received from Pope John Paul II awarded him the papal medal Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 2001.

After a long career in the CIA, he received the Intelligence Medal of Merit. A friend said: ‘He was perhaps the only man in history to earn his country’s highest award for spying and his Church’s highest award recognising the achievements of a layman.’[5]

He died on 20 November 2005, aged 84, at the Johnson Center at Falcons Landing in Cascades, Potomac Falls. He was buried on 23 January 2006 at Arlington National Cemetery.[6] Thomas and his wife of 55 years, Patricia Ann Fullerton Lawler, of Sterling had three sons, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.[7]

Thomas Comerford Lawler married Patricia Ann Fullerton (1927-2015), a journalist with the Cumberland News in Saint Mary’s Church, Cumberland, Maryland, on 24 September 1950. She was a daughter of Max R Fullerton (1905-1967) and Virginia E Fullerton (1906- ) of Baltimore.

They were the parents of three sons:

1, Peter Augustine Lawler, of Rome, Georgia.
2, Thomas Aquin Lawler, of Vienna.
3, Gregory Francis Lawler, of Ithaca, New York.

His next brother:

(The Revd Dr) DAVID A COMERFORD LAWLER (1926-2003) was born on 29 July 1926 in Cumberland, Maryland. As Father Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap, he was a Franciscan Capuchin friar, ordained on 28 August 1951.

A theologian, he was the only American member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy. He was educated at SS Peter and Paul School, Saint Fidelis Seminary, and Saint Louis University (PhD, 1958).

He taught at Saint Fidelis College, Herman, Pennsylvania, Josephinum College, Worthington, Ohio, the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, Saint Thomas University, Houston, Texas, Saint John University, New York, and the Holy Apostles’ College and Seminary, Cromwell, Connecticut.

In 1977, he was the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, formed as a conservative counterpoint to the Catholic Theological Society of America. He was made a member of the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy in 1982 alongside Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Father Hans Urs von Balthazar.

He wrote on bioethics, defending church teaching on matters ranging from embryonic stem cell research to end-of-life issues. He was co-editor of the adult catechism The Teaching of Christ (1976), with his brother, Thomas Comerford Lawler, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh.

He died on 5 November 2003 in Pittsburgh, aged 77. He was buried in Saint Augustine Cemetery, Shaler, Pennsylvania.[8]

Sources and references:

[1] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8.11.2003; Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[2] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[3] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[4] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[5] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[6] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[7] Washington Post, 28.11.2005.
[8] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 8.11.2003.

Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Thursday 11 August 2022

Saint Clare’s Church, Graiguecullen, Co Carlow … Saint Clare is commemorated in the Church Calendar on 11 August (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today remembers Saint Clare of Assisi, Founder of the Order of Minoresses or Poor Clares (1193-1253), with a Lesser Festival, and John Henry Newman, Priest and Tractarian (1890), with a Commemoration.

Saint Clare was born in 1193 in Assisi of a wealthy family, and caught the joy of a new vision of the gospel from Saint Francis’s preaching. Escaping from home, first to the Benedictines and then to a Béguine-style group, she chose a contemplative way of life when she founded her own community, which lived in corporate poverty understood as dependence on God, with a fresh, democratic lifestyle. Clare became the first woman to write a religious Rule for women, and in it showed great liberty of spirit in dealing with earlier prescriptions. During the long years after Francis’s death, she supported his earlier companions in their desire to remain faithful to his vision, as she did. Some of her last words were: ‘Blessèd be God, for having created me.’

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season.

In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit …’ (John 15: 5) … vines at the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

John 15: 4-10 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 4 ‘Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.’

Today’s reflection: ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ 4, ‘The Call’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

This morning [11 August 2022], I have chosen the hymn ‘The Call’ by the 17th century Welsh-born English priest-poet George Herbert (1593-1633).

For the weekdays this week, I am reflecting on ‘The Five Mystical Songs,’ composed by Vaughan Williams between 1906 and 1911. He conducted the first performance of the completed work at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester on 14 September 1911.

The work, taken as one, sets four poems by George Herbert from his collection The Temple: Sacred Poems (1633).

Many of George Herbert’s poems have become hymns that are well-known and well-loved by generations of Anglicans. They include ‘Let all the world in every corner sing,’ ‘Teach me, my God and King’ and ‘King of Glory, King of Peace.’

George Herbert was the Public Orator at Cambridge for eight years, and spent only three years as a priest before he died. He was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, and lived at a time when the English language was expanding and developing its literary capacities, aided by the publication of the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

Like most Anglicans of his day, Herbert sought to steer a middle course between the Roman Catholics and the Puritans. Perhaps he appealed to Vaughan Williams because were both men were creatively preoccupied with that age-old conflict between God and World, Flesh and Spirit, Soul and Senses.

Vaughan Williams wrote his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ for a baritone soloist, with several choices for accompaniment: piano only; piano and string quintet; TTBB chorus, a cappella; and orchestra with optional SATB chorus, the choice Vaughan Williams used at the premiere.

Like George Herbert’s simple verse, the songs are fairly direct, but have the same intrinsic spirituality as the original text. The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. They were supposed to be performed together, as a single work, but the styles of each vary quite significantly.

The first four songs are personal meditations in which the soloist takes a key role. In the fourth song, ‘The Call,’ which I have chosen for my reflections this morning [11 August 2022], the chorus does not feature at all.

Although this poem has been set to music several times, the setting by Vaughan Williams in his ‘Five Mystical Songs’ is undoubtedly the best known. Herbert placed the title ‘The Call’ over the poem in his collection The Temple, so Vaughan Williams adopted it for his setting.

This poem is included in the Irish Church Hymnal as the hymn ‘Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life’ (No 610), where it combines the first half of the version in BBC Songs of Praise (1997) with the second half in The Cambridge Hymnal (1967).

This short poem is simple and direct, and it is composed almost completely with words of one syllable.

Herbert’s poetry abounds with Scriptural allusions, drawing on both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as references to the liturgy of the Church of England. In this short poem, we find references to Revelation 22: 26: ‘Come, Lord Jesus …’ ‘Come’ is the call of the poet to God, but it is also the response of the poet to a call from God.

The first stanza is also a working out of Christ’s self-description in which he tells Saint Thomas that he is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14: 6). But accepting and believing this means living a life that leads to the Cross.

The second stanza has allusions to Luke 8: 16, to the banquet of the Eucharist, and to the wedding at Cana (John 2: 10).

The third stanza summarises the qualities that characterise the soul’s intimate relationship with Christ, with the final line bringing together the three keywords, Joy, Love and Heart.

4, ‘The Call’

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Part of the ancient wall of the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield, founded in 1229, during the lifetime of Saint Clare of Assisi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer:

The Collect:

God of peace,
who in the poverty of the blessèd Clare
gave us a clear light to shine in the darkness of this world:
give us grace so to follow in her footsteps
that we may, at the last, rejoice with her
in your eternal glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Clare
that she served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Thursday 11 August 2022:

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘International Youth Day.’ It was introduced on Sunday by Dorothy deGraft Johnson, a Law student from Ghana.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

We pray for university students and young adults finding their way in life. May they be guided by the Holy Spirit in all they do.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org