By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2009
Professor Tom Flynn once led a seminar of Emory University seniors through the sticky ethical questions surrounding euthanasia.
As usual, he let students grapple with the knotty issue.
When Flynn, a respected scholar who has penned four books, was prompted to give his own thoughts, a student dismissed his point. “You would say that. You are a priest.”
“I have to battle that,” said the veteran professor, sitting in his faculty office. Teaching philosophy is tough enough. Students may “assume that you have got a bias that will not allow you to give them a totally objective view of matters,” he said about serving as a scholar and a Catholic priest.
Meet Tom Flynn: veteran philosophy professor at Emory University, priest of the Diocese of Helena, Montana.
“I love being a priest. I’ve never been unhappy being a priest. I have never been unhappy being a teacher either. I love being a teacher-priest,” he said.
Father Flynn—“Doc” to his students—is one of two known Catholic priests in the Atlanta Archdiocese who are full-time, tenured professors at colleges with Protestant roots. Father Giles Conwill at Morehouse College is the other scholar-priest.
“My view of a good teacher is a teacher who is also a mentor-pastor,” said Father Flynn sitting in his light-filled office. A poster of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre fills a wall. An action figure of Sigmund Freud rests on a bookshelf. His courses this spring include introduction to philosophy, existentialism, a senior seminar and graduate philosophy courses.
Father Flynn grew up in Montana where his father worked as a J.C. Penney manager. He marks 50 years as a priest in 2011. The Columbia University-trained professor earned his doctorate in French philosophy. He arrived at the university in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta 33 years ago after stints at The Catholic University of America and St. Mary’s College Seminary in Baltimore.
He found a diverse community at the university that started as a Methodist school.
“I learned to respect the religious authenticity of people who don’t share my denomination or even my Christianity,” said Father Flynn.
“I love the intellectual life. I love my faith. It’s a creative tension,” said the priest, who is a “well-preserved 72.”
For the author of books translated into German, Greek and Chinese, one of his proudest recognitions is his George Cuttino Medal. It is a prestigious teaching award from the university to recognize excellence in undergraduate mentoring.
In fact, three students asked him to preside at marriage ceremonies when neither the bride nor groom was Catholic. (He always declines, but makes an attempt to attend instead.) He takes young people to lunch. They are encouraged to call him at home up until midnight.
“They are like family to me in many ways. I have developed good friendships with these people. It is very important to me,” he said.
At Morehouse College, Professor Conwill heads the history department. On a recent Wednesday in February, he led his 30-student class through a prep session for an upcoming test.
He warned the first-year students about his expectations.
“I want to see notebooks out. Please take your notebooks out,” he said, wearing a tan shirt with a wooden cross around his neck.
Later, he challenged the quiet students to speak up as he covered the extensive material. (He even dropped a reference to the next day’s feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.)
“It’s a good thing we are having this review. I want you to do well,” says the professor who marks 22 years on campus this year.
“So far, he’s the best one I’ve had,” said James Martin, 19, of New Jersey, about Father Conwill. As a professor, he makes sure his lessons on history get into your head, said Martin, a first-year student.
Raised by an educator mother in Louisville, Ky., Father Conwill said students at the college that began as a Baptist seminary are like “surrogate sons.”
A priest for the San Diego Diocese, Father Conwill was drawn to the historically black college’s mission to educate black men while getting his doctorate at Emory University. He learned of the long list of great achievers from Morehouse, from filmmaker Spike Lee to Dr. David Satcher, a former U.S. surgeon general. Its most famous alumnus is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., class of 1948.
“Students need role models. Many may have never encountered a priest. I have the opportunity to break down many stereotypes and misconceptions they may have about Catholic priests,” said the priest, who was ordained in 1973.
Neither of the priest-professors wore a black-and-white clerical collar on campus. The two teachers handle their identity on campus differently.
Father Flynn dressed during a recent visit the part of the existential philosopher with his black turtleneck and brown cardigan. Earlier that morning, he hosted a prayer group with a handful of Emory faculty, most of the members non-Catholic. He said graduate students and colleagues know he is a priest, but he doesn’t announce it to his undergraduates.
“It adds a certain amount of mystery,” he said, smiling.
A student in his existentialism class called him “incredibly impassioned” in the classroom.
“He does a really good job of not depending on God for everything (in his teaching) because that wouldn’t be fair,” said Alexandra Maravich, a junior. She had heard rumors that he was a priest, but it hadn’t come up, said Maravich.
Professor John Stuhr, the chairman of the philosophy department, said Father Flynn is an excellent scholar and the matter of him serving as a priest is irrelevant.
“He is a quiet, mild-mannered, humble guy, but his international reputation and standing as a scholar is very large,” said Stuhr. He joked that if it were possible he would like to clone Father Flynn.
He runs the classroom pushing students to think about subjects, not as a place to indoctrinate, he said.
On the other hand, Father Conwill is known on campus as a priest. Putting on his cross daily during morning prayer reminds him of his commitment to Christ, he said.
Combining his background as a priest with anthropology and history gives him a unique perspective on campus, he said. Now, Father Conwill is doing research on the Knights of Peter Claver.
Both men celebrate Mass and provide the sacraments around the archdiocese. Father Conwill is a popular speaker, traveling nearly monthly to parishes and conferences. Father Flynn holds bi-ritual faculties so he can celebrate the Byzantine liturgy at St. John Chrysostom Melkite Church in Atlanta.
Said Father Conwill: “I love being a priest and minister of the sacraments. I love being a professor. I love doing exactly what I am doing and cannot imagine myself being more fulfilled in this life than this! Amen.”