Theology Grad Student Finds Vocation as Priest and Scholar

September 20, 2010 • Mary Hendriksen

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michael cover

The faculty of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology is among the best in the world—and the department attracts the very best students in the world. One is Michael Cover, whose academic pedigree includes degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale—and who is also a newly ordained Episcopal priest.

Father Cover’s path to Notre Dame began with an interest in language. “I have had a longstanding fascination with sacred texts and languages. As the son of an Old Testament seminary professor, my early years were spent, literally, surrounded by the The Epic of Gilgamesh, Akkadian lament poetry, and lexica in various languages. My childhood home always had something of the aura of a monastic library.”

“My early acquaintance with sacred texts no doubt played a formative role in my discernment of a call to Episcopal priesthood. I discovered that it was in the liturgy first and foremost that the Word of God, though translated, finds a public voice, a place to become incarnate.”

Although Cover’s desire to study sacred languages and literature would eventually lead him to biblical studies, he began his collegiate study of “sacred” texts at Harvard College with James Joyce, whom he playfully calls “the high priest of 20th century Irish modernism.” Ultimately, however, Cover’s philological interests pulled him away from Harvard’s English department and into its Department of Classics, where he studied Latin and Greek literature, writing his undergraduate thesis on Hesiod’s two great epics, Works and Days and the Theogony.

After graduating from Harvard summa cum laude, Cover received a fellowship to read the classics at St. Cross College, Oxford, for a year. There, he met his future wife, Susanna, a North Carolina native who was also studying abroad. His studies in England confirmed both “my desire to undertake formal theological training and the hope of combining priestly ministry and academic research. The long Anglican tradition of priest-scholars I encountered in Oxford helped to crystallize this vision.”

Cover next attended seminary at the Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Episcopal Divinity School. “In addition to giving me the opportunity to teach Greek and Latin in the Yale Classics Department, the time in New Haven introduced me to the sacred literature from the period known as Second Temple Judaism, which I came to realize was essential for understanding the New Testament. When I began to investigate doctoral programs in New Testament that would enable me to study this period, Notre Dame rose quickly to the top of my list. The Theology faculty includes such renowned scholars as professors Gary Anderson, Gregory Sterling, Eugene Ulrich, and James VanderKam. This combination makes Notre Dame one of the premier institutions for studying Second Temple Judaism in the world.”

At Notre Dame, Cover’s research interests include Philo of Alexandria, the Gospels, and Paul. He has learned three new sacred languages—Syriac, Coptic, and Aramaic—to add to his expertise in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. The language, he explains, serves as the entrée to the text.

“As a priest, I recognize that historical-critical study of the Bible does not take place in a vacuum,” Cover says. “As I carry out my study of sacred texts using the historical and philological tools of my field, it is critical to me that here at Notre Dame I have constant recourse to conversation with students and professors within the various divisions of Theology who help me address questions of the relevance of my work for the church and the world. The fact that studies like mine occur within a department of theology rather than in a religious studies department was a major reason I chose to attend Notre Dame.”

Moreover, he notes: “Being at Notre Dame has facilitated my development as a priest as well as a scholar. Notre Dame’s Theology faculty includes many clergy who are models of how to combine academic and clerical vocations. They have been incredibly supportive of me as I worked through the ordination process.”

Like his mentors, once Cover completes his doctorate, he hopes to teach at a research university or seminary but continue as well with ministry. He is already combining the best of those worlds. A four-year member of the Harvard Glee Club, he offers talents in music as well as preaching and more general ministry to his own parish of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mishawaka and also helps out at various other churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana.