Theology teacher Dr. Luke O’Connell did not set out to become an expert on friendship. But recently, it’s all he’s been talking about. He just spoke as part of a series of the Thomistic Institute, lecturing on “Cor ad Cor,” (Heart to Heart) on John Henry Newman and St. Thomas Aquinas on friendship at St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington, VA. In addition to teaching theology at Visitation, Dr. O’Connell is also a professor at Georgetown University.
“The main point was literally that friendship is a school for virtue. It teaches us the habits necessary for living a good Christian life,” said O’Connell of his lecture. He’s been “fascinated” by the phenomenon of friendship, and how it is one of the most accessible ways to explain Christian life to others.
“The role that friends play has always been something that captured my heart,” he said. “When I think about the students I love here, and at Georgetown, most often when they’ve come to me for mentorship, it’s not about Catholic doctrine; it’s almost always about a relationship with friends.”
Dr. O’Connell believes that the more clearly we can offer “a vision of what good friendship looks like,” the more formative that can be for a young person. Seeing examples in the scripture, in the friendships of the Saints, like that of St. Jane and St. Francis, is important.
It comes into play in his senior year theology classes on ethics, “when our students hear and learn about living life well, and doing the right thing.” O’Connell points directly to the scripture to show how Christ loved his friends, because at one point, the scripture changes its vocabulary from “followers” to “friends.” He points to teachers and his own friendships with colleagues for students to see what it means to be a good friend, and to the Sisters, who model it so beautifully.
Before he began the research into Newman and Aquinas for this lecture, he hadn’t realized how Newman was heavily influenced by St. Francis de Sales, who coined the phrase “heart speaks to heart,” which is a beautiful connection to Dr. O’Connell’s work at Visitation. He did learn that Newman never read Aquinas before writing on friendship - and yet, their writing shares similar arguments.
“Friendship is shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Dr. Connell, contrasting the love of friends with romantic love, which he sees as “across from” each other. “Friendship builds up on what is external. We don’t get jealous; we want more people to join us in what we love. The more I read Newman and Aquinas, what they share is that the quality of friendship is determined by the quality of the external object, and if it is Christ, that is the perfect object of friendship. That is the kind of enduring friendship.”