Margaret O'Gara Photo by Michael Swan

Margaret taught us to give

  • August 6, 2015

The richness of a gentle August day was all round. A drive in the countryside featured lush fields ready or almost ready for harvest, with merry little breezes riffling through. Such a day will always make me think of Margaret O’Gara, for I heard the news of her Aug. 16 death during that country drive in 2012.

Over the days following, many feelings emerged, but the dominant sensibility bubbling up in me was gratitude. Gratitude that such a person had crossed my path, and given me so much, so freely. As I listened to the reflections at her funeral Mass, and in plenty of conversations afterwards, I marvelled (though it didn’t surprise me) how many people contemplated her with gratitude and joy.  

The other side of gratitude is gift. In gratitude we discover what we’ve been given, we start to know how we can give, and we want to give. Like Martha (Luke 10:40), we can learn to give, not out of resentful duty, but out of fullness and abundance. I thought I knew what Margaret O’Gara had given me, but since her death I’ve learned much more about what she gave, to me, to others, to the Church. With these gifts, I’m better able to give, and have a greater responsibility to try.

Margaret was professor of theology for 37 years (University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto). Imagine how many people she influenced directly, and indirectly, since her students were often destined for leadership in academics or in the Church. She and her sister Monica wrote that their parents, Jim and Joan O’Gara, “taught us a strong commitment to the Church, and they taught us about the great responsibility and privilege of the laity.” She herself witnessed how a laywoman could be a strong, faithful, pastoral teacher and leader in the Church.  

As a professor, Margaret was one of those instructors all students knew about. Everybody knew she would give you serious, “head-cracking” readings (to use her own expression), lead you deeply into the heart of theology with all its profound questions, expect you to work hard and break open your mind and your faith. Whether or not you thought this a good thing varied from one student to another, but she always lived up to expectations. She taught the value of the real, hard work of study and research, of bringing faith to reason and reason to faith. Sometimes there seems to be a rift between scholarship and faith, as though the two were incompatible or even hostile to each other. Margaret, in her person, showed how foolish this notion is, how significant and life-giving the work of theology is for all the faithful — and how important it is to do it faithfully.

In her course on the Triune God, for instance, we learned to respect the vast Christian heritage of study and learning about God, Christ, Trinity and humanity, from ancient times to contemporary. We learned to read what has been written, thought and prayed over the centuries; to read the Scriptures; to read our times; to read our own hearts and minds. She taught us not to fear questions — our own and others’ — but to ask them, use, pursue and discuss them: questioning faith.

Sometimes laypeople are shy to speak about our faith, afraid of getting it wrong or not really understanding it. Margaret taught us to listen to people who think differently than we do, to speak as best we can, having boldness even to speak about God who is beyond all knowing and speaking, to make mistakes and be willing to learn and speak again. My faith in the Trinity was deepened and strengthened by these studies, for which I’m grateful — and from which I’m better able to give.

She taught as much by who she was as by what she put in a course curriculum; that is, she gave herself. Her kindness and generosity, her hope-filled spirit, could take delight in students’ learning and in Christians working to overcome seemingly permanent Church divisions. And her gift of breaking open dense concepts or thoughts, and letting the Spirit of God shine simply through them, helped these things happen. She didn’t seem to expect everybody to be Margarets, but to discover and give out of their own gifts. The Ecumenical Gift Exchange is her book about inter-church dialogue, but also about the way the Church and all of us grow through receiving and giving.

Margaret taught me, gently, persistently, that each of us has a mission in the Church, a mission stemming from our baptism which nobody can give or take away from us. What does it mean to be a woman in the Church? Few of us will fulfill the responsibility and privilege of the laity by becoming theology professors or serving on international ecumenical dialogue, as Margaret did. All of us can sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching, as Mary did (Luke 10:39).

(Marrocco can be reached at