I don’t know where I first heard it, but there’s a saying that seems true: “Days of glory fade away, while days of loss feel here to stay.” I hear from a lot of people who remember with great sadness the day a loved one died. Those are painful days. In my post, “A Corner of the Veil” I wrote that they are also a blessing. “Loss is not felt at all but for love,” I wrote, “and love is a direct response to grace.” It leaves us with a dilemma. Not to feel loss means to not love.
In his December 12 post in honor of Avery Cardinal Dulles Fr. John Zuhlsdorf wrote:
“It is a long tradition to pray for the dead on the 3rd day after death, 30th day and 1st year. Say a prayer for the late Avery Card. Dulles, who died one year ago today.”
I much appreciated Father Z’s tribute to Cardinal Dulles, but I needed no reminder. As I wrote recently (“Angels We Have Heard on High“), the death of Cardinal Dulles was deeply felt by the entire Church, and not in the least by me. He was foremost on my mind as the first light of dawn reached into my prison cell on December 12th last month, the first anniversary of his death.
Cardinal Dulles will always come to mind on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Father Z recommended that after praying for Cardinal Dulles we should read something he wrote. Good luck choosing. This brilliant man wrote prolifically up to the age of 90. His work is a monument to the potential of a human mind and spirit.
I first picked up Avery Dulles’s landmark book, Models of the Church when I was barely twenty. Thirty-seven years later, I could not keep up with the sheer volume of his published writings. With scholarship unmatched in the modern era, and with brilliant erudition, it always seemed that Cardinal Dulles could write faster than I could read.
In the February 2009 issue of First Things, Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote:
“Avery Cardinal Dulles, the closest of collaborators and friends, died December 12 at age ninety … Generations of Christian thinkers have been placed in his everlasting debt. You can be sure that there will be much more about Avery Dulles in these pages.”
OUR GREAT, GOOD FRIEND IS GONE
But none of it would be written by Father Neuhaus. At about the same time Cardinal Dulles died, Father Neuhaus’s bout with cancer took a turn for the worst. His last public appearance was the funeral Mass of Cardinal Dulles. On the day after Christmas last year, he was hospitalized. Then just before 10:00 AM on January 8, Father Neuhaus died. First Things Editor, Joseph Bottom, began his comment on the First Things website that day with one devastating sentence:
“Our great, good friend is gone.”
Following Father Zuhlsdorf’s lead, I can’t begin 2010 without paying tribute to a luminous star in the Church’s sky. Father Richard John Neuhaus was a dear friend of Cardinal Dulles and of many, including me.
Please join me in prayer for Father Richard on the 8th, then follow the same path prescribed by Father Z. After you pray, please go read something Father Neuhaus wrote. Good luck choosing! Like his friend Cardinal Dulles, Father Neuhaus bequeathed to the Church and the world a vast collection of some of the most brilliant writing to emerge from American Catholicism.
For an example of his courage and surgical literary skill, you could start right here on These Stone Walls at “Articles.” In his multi-installment, “Scandal Time,” Father Neuhaus gave us, in the pages of First Things, a superb analysis of the clergy sex abuse crisis that so embroiled our Church in the last decade of his life. When many other commentators employed only rage, outrage, and the rhetoric of a witch hunt, Fr. Neuhaus fearlessly dissected the matter in the finest Catholic tradition. He employed faith and reason, and his conclusions were bold and just, infused with respect for – no, a demand for – fidelity, but tempered with mercy.
In “Scandal Time,” Fr. Neuhaus stared straight into the hearts of panicked American bishops who responded to the crisis with neither fidelity to the law of the Church nor with mercy.
To the very end of his life, Father Neuhaus, like Cardinal Dulles before him, pleaded for the due process rights of priests accused, and for fidelity to the Magisterium and laws of the Church.
In one of his last letters to me, Father Neuhaus wrote of his concern that priests have a fair and just hearing, and that bishops not be allowed to implement mob justice that resulted in the forced laicization of many in cases that were decades old and defied fair investigation. In a letter dated October 27, 2008, Father Neuhaus wrote:
“It is indeed disturbing that [a bishop] may move on this without giving you a chance to offer a defense, and without your even knowing the case being presented against you … ln the modern history of the Church, it is more often than not the case that Rome is inclined toward checking possible abuses of power by bishops. So let’s pray that happens in this case.”
Just a few days ago, I received a letter from a priest from Amarillo, Texas who was administratively laicized by his bishop three decades after a single abuse claim emerged against him. There was no trial and he had no opportunity to offer a defense. His dismissal was received in the mail after thirty-five years of priesthood. In his letter he wrote,”I enjoy reading your website, but the Church has forgotten us now.” Father Neuhaus was determined that it not be so. Let’s pray it isn’t so.
FIDELITY TO THE THIRD POWER
The Book of Acts of the Apostles (1:23-26) describes the election of Matthias “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas [Iscariot] turned aside to go to his own place.” The election of Matthias to replace the betrayer of Christ is the sole mention of his name in the Canon of the New Testament. Nothing else is said of him. Nothing else had to be.
The Apostleship of Matthias had a singular mission: to be a faithful witness to Christ in the aftermath of betrayal.
It’s no irony that Richard John Neuhaus came into the world on the 14th of May, the Feast of Saint Matthias, in 1936. All of his life from that point forward seemed to be lived in the light of faithful witness to God’s revealed Truth. In his fine homily at Father Richard’s Mass of Christian Burial, Father Raymond de Souza spoke of Father Richard’s love of priesthood.
“Fr. Richard loved the priesthood and loved being a priest. He had a great deal of time for priests, nurtured priestly vocations, and stood up for the priesthood in recent years … We priests needed a stalwart friend in those dark days of the Long Lent [of 2002]. For his brother priests, Fr.Richard was an often lonely voice speaking for prudence, for courage, for justice, for wisdom, and for holiness. The man of millions of words repeated the same one over and over to all who would listen: ‘fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.”
In “From Crisis to Hope,” a post on Priests in Crisis on the Solemnity of the Assumption last year, I noted these same words:
“Fr. Neuhaus called the priesthood crisis ‘the Long Lent of 2002,’ and once wrote to me that the path from this crisis is marked by three sign-posts: ‘Fidelity, Fidelity, and Fidelity.”
Father Neuhaus reached out to me in prison at a time when most others’ in the Church just recoiled, some with stones at the ready. As you have read before in these pages, Father Neuhaus and Cardinal Dulles both urged me to put aside “the leper” reaction from so many others in our Church, and to write. Without them, These Stone Walls would not exist.
WHERE ARE YOUR ACCUSERS?
After my first three years in prison in 1997, Father Neuhaus was the very first priest I heard from. In the November 1997 issue of First Things, Father Neuhaus published a commentary entitled “Sin and Risk Aversion.” His prophetic voice was a foreshadow of what was to befall the Catholic priesthood in America five years later. After reading his brilliant editorial, I wrote to First Things for the first time:
“Regarding ‘Sin and Risk Aversion,’ it is in the nature of witch hunts that those in politics, religion, and journalism who have promoted them, participated in them, or publicly endorsed them, have done so under the guise of ‘the public good,’ and with a perceived ‘public sanction’ that has historically consisted of two equally influential components: the noise of a few, and the silence of many.”
It was therefore with appreciation for the courage of Richard John Neuhaus that I read his comments concerning the politically and emotionally explosive topics of the sexual abuse of children, public hysteria, and the response of the Church’s hierarchy and clergy to those within their ranks who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse.”
At a time when virtually every person in the Church – every priest, every bishop every Catholic commentator I wrote to – responded to me with cold silence, Father Neuhaus wrote that he planned to publish my comments in the February 1998 issue of First Things. I had no sense, at the time, of the courage this required.
Years later, in 2008, Fr. Neuhaus published an editorial In First Things about the case against me (see “A Kafkaesque Tale” at “A Priest’s Story” above). It was then that Father Neuhaus experienced firsthand the yoke of prejudice and hysteria under which accused priests have lived – guilty and innocent alike – as reason gave way to hateful rhetoric. Father Neuhaus stood his ground. In his letter of October 27, 2008, he wrote:
“We received a couple of reactions protesting our giving space to a ‘convicted pedophile,’ but I think the general response was favorable, reflecting a conviction that justice requires that all sides get a fair hearing.”
Father Neuhaus could see through such words. They were meant solely to wound, to attack, to shed heat but not light. Father Neuhaus had studied the case against me with the thoroughness of a neurosurgeon. His courageous response to those critics came a month later when he published another commentary by me entitled “Crime and Punishment” in the November 2008 issue of First Things.
In the public square of American life, Father Richard John Neuhaus personified courage. In another era, he would have walked across a Galilean road to converse with a leper. He would never cave to pressure in the backwash of a witch hunt. Richard John Neuhaus had but one agenda: the Truth, and no social pressure could keep him from it.
Of the scores of published tributes to Father Neuhaus, perhaps the most moving and accurate was one by EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo published in The Wall Street Journal on January 9, 2009. Mr. Arroyo concluded:
“When one steps back and looks at the turns of Father Neuhaus’s life — at his active engagement with social causes and, when American culture changed, with those ‘first things’ that came to matter more than ever, at his willingness to forsake friendships and old alliances to pursue the truth — it is ever more clear that he was willing to obey the promptings of his faith, no matter where they took him.”
If you fancy yourself a fellow sojourner on the path of faith and reason, then visit the First Things website. Be careful! If you have a concern for religion in the public square – for the way faith plays out in the field of the Lord where we live – you may never leave. First Things is the finest journal of its kind in the world.
In the weeks following the untimely death of Father Neuhaus a year ago, I felt thoroughly stranded. Friends sent me many of the published tributes to him. They were at once profoundly sad and joyously reflective of “a priest in full.”
I read page after page from The Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, National Review, and most especially from the pages of First Things. Journal after journal honored him. Catholics, Jews, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Baptists, theologians, prelates, academicians, politicians all honored him with professed awe at his priestly life, public witness, and fidelity to Truth. There is certainly little that I add to the litany of love and respect that summed up the life of Richard John Neuhaus.
But I want to add one thing that has appeared nowhere else. A month before Father Richard died, I received a letter from Kathleen Maxwell of New Braunfels, Texas. She wrote in response to a commentary by me that Father Neuhaus published in the pages of First Things. While neither of us knew of the illness that would end Father Richard’s life a month later, Kathleen Maxwell wrote:
“Several years ago, I read “Death on a Friday Afternoon” by Father
Richard John Neuhaus. I came back to a life of faith and to the Church
because of the writings of Father Neuhaus.”
There could be no higher praise.
From “Death on a Friday Afternoon,” (RJN, Feb. 2002)
“When I come to the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God
in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work that I have
done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good.”
One last thing: He was also a master of understatement!