On Friday, 3 July 2020, Fr Walter Senner OP died of lung failure in Mainz University Hospital at the age of 71. The Dominican Order loses a true friar and priest and an internationally renowned scholar – a historian of philosophy. Many lose a good colleague and friend.
Walter Senner was born in Auggen im Breisgau on 30 July 1948. After receiving his Abitur at Wiesbaden Oraniengymnasium, he entered the Dominican Order and made simple profession on 28 September 1969, followed by solemn profession on 9 December 1972. From 1969-1971, he studied philosophy and theology in Walberberg, Bonn and Cologne, Oriental culture in Leuven from 1971-1976, and philosophy, theology and communication sciences in Bonn and Cologne. He was particularly influenced by his doctoral advisor Fernand Van Steenberghen and by Fr Willehad Paul Eckert OP whose festschrift Fr Walter published in 1996. On 29 June 1974, Walter Senner was ordained to the priesthood. From 1982 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he worked as a student chaplain at St Thomas Morus in West Berlin and, from 1986, also provided pastoral care to foreigners awaiting repatriation.
He received his doctorate in philosophy from the Institut Supérieur de Philosophie of the Université Catholique de Louvain in 1989. His dissertation on the Sentence Commentary by Johannes von Sterngassen OP comprises two volumes and includes an edition of the Sentence Commentary. After completing his doctorate, Walter Senner became Regent of Studies of the Dominican Province of Teutonia. He held this office from 1990 to 2000 and also served as Moderator of Studies (1990-1996) and as librarian of the provincial library in the Convent of St Albert in Walberberg (1990-1993).
From 1998 to 2005, Walter Senner was a member of the Commissio Leonina in charge of the critical edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas in Grottaferrata and Saint-Jacques in Paris. His work in this scholarly project, which had been initiated by Leo XIII in 1879 and entrusted to the Order in 1892, was very important to Fr Walter, and he meticulously attended to the critical study of the manuscripts. From 2005, he held the office of provincial promoter for ongoing formation, he was member of the provincial council, and also worked in pastoral care at the Dominican church and as librarian of the Priory of the Holy Cross in Cologne.
From 2006 until his retirement in 2019, Walter Senner was Professor of Medieval History of Philosophy at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Here he was very much in his domain. As an internationally renowned expert on scholastic and especially Thomistic theology and member of the Roman Institute of the Görres Gesellschaft he researched and taught at the Angelicum. Many scholars and students gained benefitted from his generous advice, support and encouragement. From 2008, Fr Walter was also Director of the Istituto San Tommaso. St Thomas’ heritage was a matter close to his heart. This Roman phase of his life ended with his retirement at the age of 70. The topic of his farewell lecture on 16 January 2019 was “Saint Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart – consent and dissent”.
Mainz became his next place of activity. Along with being a confessor at the priory church, Walter Senner had many plans for research and took on several obligations. However, cancer and treatment for same made him tire more quickly and forced him to reduce his workload.
In addition to his teaching, Fr Walter did excellent academic work as President of the Istituto San Tommaso in Rome, as editor-in-chief of the German edition of St Thomas’ works (Walberberg Edition), and as editor of the new series of Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Dominikanerordens. He was a member of the academic advisory boards of Archa verbi and the Görres-Gesellschaft and was involved in other associations such as the Meister-Eckhart-Gesellschaft.
Walter Senner’s main research interests were the history of Dominican philosophy and theology, especially of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Johannes von Sterngassen, Meister Eckhart and of the “German Dominican Schools” and the Studium Coloniense of the German Dominicans. His focus was thus on the most influential Dominicans of the Middle Ages – both locally in the Province of Teutonia and globally. Fr Walter’s research forms an important contribution to the history of universities and the humanities.
Walter Senner initiated the voluminous Albert the Great-anthology Albertus Magnus. Zum Gedenken nach 800 Jahren. He co-edited a second large anthology, Die deutschen Dominikaner und Dominikanerinnen im Mittelalter, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the papal confirmation of the Order.
St Thomas’ legacy was of particular importance to Fr Walter, and he became one of the leading Thomas experts. Because of his considerable work on Aquinas, Fr Walter was entrusted with the continuation of the German Thomas-Edition by his home province of Teutonia. This bore fruit in the monumental volume on sin, with a commentary by Otto Hermann Pesch. For his academic merits, he was bestowed with the title of Magister in Sacra Theologia in 2014, the highest academic title in the Order.
Walter Senner’s achievements are particularly evident in his research on Meister Eckhart. He found the long-forgotten date of Eckhart’s death (28 January 1328). With Markus Vinzent (London), Fr Walter discovered Eckhart’s important Quaestiones Parisienses in the Bibliotheca Vaticana. His long study of Eckhart culminated in the Companion to Meister Eckhart which became the standard reference work on Eckhart’s life and work and the process against him. Walter Senner was also particularly interested in Henry Suso, whom he appreciated as a spiritual writer. His studies on Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart and Henry Suso led Fr Walter to a great appreciation of the achievements of the “German Dominican Schools” of the 13th and 14th centuries and the Cologne studium generale. This stimulated further research on the Paris Magistri around the year 1300, which he pursued with Markus Vinzent.
In 1998, Walter Senner took on responsibility for the series Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Dominikanerordens. Neue Folge (earlier, his dissertation had been published as volumes 4 and 5) and expanded the range of topics to include research on important theologians and philosophers. Fifteen volumes were published between 1998/99 and 2020, one of them in English – a further innovation of Fr Walter’s. The series was connected with Walter Senner for over 20 years. His influence was positive throughout.
We commemorate an internationally renowned scholar who probably never planned or pursued a career, but rather accepted the various tasks assigned to him. On the one hand, Walter Senner met many of the characteristics of the typical “lone scholar”, a bit old-fashioned perhaps and at times even against the zeitgeist, but meticulous in his study and analysis of sources (which often made it difficult for him to reach an end). On the other hand, Fr Walter networked with others, pushed publications and research projects forward and shared the results of his findings and studies gladly and unselfishly. We remember him as a man who enjoyed conversation and who was a true brother. We are grateful for his tireless work which he pursued until the very end of his life.
Klaus-Bernward Springer (Köln) – Viliam Štefan Dóci OP (Roma)