On Aug. 7, the Rev. Norbert C. Burns, recognized his 89th birthday. But that wasn’t the biggest milestone of that week.
The well-known priest and University of Dayton professor was honored at a Jubilee along with several other Marianists that Friday at a reception at Kennedy Union, and a Mass at Immaculate Conception Chapel the next day. More than 350 people attended, and it took three hours to get through the reception line.
Everyone who knows him speaks about his kindness and enthusiasm for life. That positive attitude propelled him through 70 years as a Marianist, 62 years in the classroom, 60 years as a priest, and 50 years as a U.D. professor. Joan McGinnis Wagner, who has been the director of Marianist Strategies at U.D. for the past 17 years, met the Rev. Burns when she came to the university back in 1974.
“My husband, A. J. Wagner, was in the first class at the U.D. law school, so we would come to noon mass on campus and Father Burns would preside. When I went to graduate school, I was his graduate assistant,” said Wagner. “He’s one of the most passionate priests I’ve ever known, and totally devoted to his ministry. He connects with people of all ages, and his enthusiasm about his faith life, about Mary, and about education is contagious.”
He was hired by the university in 1958, and taught more students that any other professor at U.D. He never missed a class due to illness, never took sabbaticals, and taught summer classes. A friend of his estimated he taught close to 27,000 students.
“This is the first day of school at U.D., and I have sadness in my heart that I’m not there. I loved being in the classroom and challenging the students,” said the Rev. Burns, whose title is now Professor Emeritus. “I wanted to spend my life teaching young people, and every day was a thrill; every day was a new experience.”
The class he taught, Christian marriage, was one of the most popular on campus.
Even though he’s never been married himself, that was not a roadblock to the effectiveness of his class.
“I feel that relationship is relationship, it’s a science, and marriage counseling is a science. All you do is take those principles and apply it to the relationship of a man and a woman,” said the Rev. Burns. “Being married could even be a hindrance, because every marriage is different. I have all kinds of relationships in my life, and managing those is a science beyond personal experience.”
In addition, the energetic Rev. Burns hosted a local call-in radio show on WVUD that was called “Challenge of Modern Day Marriage.” The popular show reached beyond the university to the larger regional area with marriage advice and counsel.
“I invited the listeners to send in questions. I think the most popular question I had was, ‘When two people disagree, how do you come to a resolution?’” remembers the Rev. Burns. “My answer was to get the two people to talk to each other, and find some common ground. That way can they accommodate each other to get to a satisfying resolution.”
If all that activity wasn’t enough, he also spent 40 years counseling married couples. He also founded the Pre-Cana and Cana Conferences in Dayton. These were intended for engaged and married couples. He spent a lot of time trying to mend relationships. For the Rev. Burns, the term “relationship” is an important one that comes up time and again.
“Mary’s great gift is relationship, and her relationship to Jesus was a great example of that. For me, the classroom was a chance to foster relationships and grow community in a positive way,” said the Rev. Burns.
According to the Rev. Burns, he had two predominant convictions when he joined the Society of Mary. He wanted to dedicate his life to Mary because his mother gave him a deep love for Mary through her faith example while he was growing up in Cleveland. Secondly, he wanted to spend his life in the classroom sharing that faith and those convictions with his students.
All these decades have passed quickly for the Rev. Burns because he spent his life doing what he loved to do. At the age of 89, he’s the oldest living Marianist in the Dayton area who’s not in a health center. He lives at the Sawmill Road Marianist community, and spends his days in reading and quiet prayer.
“Humbly with Mary’s guidance, I shout my gratitude for these 70 years. My lifetime of belonging to her has reached its climax in these final years, as every day I visit Mount St. John and spend time at her shrine, the Lourdes Grotto,” said the Rev. Burns. “I spend my time talking to her and praying. A thank you, over and over again, is my gratitude for the wonderful life I have enjoyed.”