Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
Fr. John Hardon (1914-2000) was an erudite and orthodox Jesuit of the old school. Although he often found himself at odds with many in his own order, Father was in great demand as a retreat master and conference leader, and his voluminous writings developed a huge following, even among popes and cardinals.
Father was a diminutive man with a soft voice, but nonetheless possessed a gifted intellect nourished by a devout prayer life. He was a tireless worker who devoted his talents to promoting authentic Catholic catechesis, Eucharistic adoration and renewal of religious life in a post-Vatican II era of confusion in the Church and a significant decline of many established religious communities, including his own.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, who served as national director for Fr. Hardon’s Marian Catechist Apostolate, initiated the priest’s cause for canonization in 2005. Hence, Father has received the title “Servant of God.” As the 16th anniversary of the death of Fr. Hardon passed on December 30, I spoke with several Catholics who knew Fr. Hardon personally, who shared their experiences and offered their thoughts as to why he is a good candidate for sainthood.
Fr. Hardon was born into a pious Catholic family in Pennsylvania. His father died in a construction accident when he was still a toddler, and his widowed mother, Anna, never remarried. She worked nights as a cleaning woman to support herself and young John. The family was poor, said Dorie Gruss, director of Fr. Hardon’s Real Presence Eucharistic Adoration Association and a future friend of the priest, “but they had the riches of the Faith.”
Father’s exposure to Eucharistic adoration began when he was young; when Anna was not working she’d take John to all-night adoration at church. She’d spend the night praying while he slept on the pew, said Gruss. As John grew older, Gruss noted, Anna “met every challenge” in securing a quality Catholic education for the boy, sending him to Catholic schools in Ohio. John went on to attend John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution, and was particularly impressed with the lives of the Jesuit saints. Gruss believes it was Fr. Hardon’s love for St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Society of Jesus), that was a significant factor in his decision to become a Jesuit.
John entered the Jesuits in 1936, and was ordained a priest in 1947. He professed final vows in 1953. In his more than 50 years in the priesthood Fr. Hardon taught at Catholic colleges and universities, authored hundreds of books—including a 1975 Catholic catechism written at the request of Pope Paul VI—taught countless classes, led retreats, founded apostolates to promote catechesis, renewal of religious life and Eucharistic adoration, and was a determined foe of the widespread heterodoxy which surfaced in the wake of the Vatican II council.
Gruss met Fr. Hardon more than 40 years ago when she went to one of his retreats. She volunteered to help him in his apostolates. Chief among his apostolates, she said, were promoting Eucharistic adoration and using the media to spread Catholic teaching.
“Fr. Hardon would call and I’d take dictation over the phone,” she recalled, as the priest never used a typewriter or word processor and did all his writing by hand. “Over the years my family and I began to learn more and more about him, and we were totally impressed.”
Gruss lives in Lombard, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Father would frequently visit Chicago to give retreats and talks. She called her first retreat with Fr. Hardon “a peek into heaven.”
As she got to know Fr. Hardon, she noticed that it wasn’t his style to directly ask others to engage in a Catholic apostolate. Instead, one day she heard him say, “We need an association to educate people on the Eucharist.”
She took the hint, and helped found Real Presence Eucharistic Adoration Association. In addition to information on Eucharistic adoration, it has many video and audiotapes of Fr. Hardon and articles written by Fr. Hardon discussing different aspects of the Catholic faith. She still has much more material to post, she said.
In addition to his many public presentations and writings, she noted that Father was regularly called to Rome for consultation on a variety of matters, most notably his contributions to the official 1992 Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church. Gruss explained, “There was the Fr. Hardon people knew publicly, and the ‘cloak and dagger’ Fr. Hardon. He was always being called to Rome by the Pope or cardinals and asked to do a job. They knew about his through his writing. He’d do whatever they asked quietly, and no one would know about it. Rome knew that they had a good priest they could call on when they needed help.”
Fr. Hardon led the fight for Catholic orthodoxy, she said, both publicly and privately. She recalled one evening when Fr. Hardon called she and her husband at 10 p.m. one evening. He said he’d been praying for two hours before the Blessed Sacrament and asked if they could raise $60,000. There was an upcoming synod in Rome, and many orthodox bishops of modest means were unable to afford the trip whereas many progressives of wealthier dioceses could.
“We said, ‘Oh, yes, Father,’ hardly thinking about what that challenge would entail. And that’s how Fr. Hardon helped the good bishops make it to the synod,” Gruss said.
Gruss also recalled participating in an Archdiocese of Chicago meeting with Cardinal Francis George (1937-2015). Representatives came from throughout the archdiocese, with some attempting to pressure the archbishop to allow sisters and lay people to perform duties previously only performed by priests. Their argument was that a priest shortage necessitated the changes.
Gruss said, “We stood up and said, ‘We don’t have a shortage of priests, but a shortage of laity.’ Here are the statistics.”
She was able to present statistics to show that with decreased Mass attendance and participation by the faithful in the life of the Church, there was not the shortage that the opposition alleged. The Cardinal agreed.
Gruss explained, “That battle was won using statistics that Fr. Hardon supplied. That’s the way he fought the fight.”
She noted, too, that Father was often at odds with his fellow Jesuits, but never considered leaving the community. “Father was never a quitter,” she recalled. In fact, whenever he’d receive a stipend for his work, Father would faithfully surrender the money to his community, despite the fact that he was a target for persecution.
Father’s piety was well known, and some claim miraculous events occurred related to the priest. In 1998, for example, during benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, Fr. Hardon was placing the monstrance on the altar when some reported seeing the face of Christ in the host. However, the priest refused to talk about such miraculous occurrences.
More than just an intellect, Fr. Hardon also had a pastoral touch. As Gruss’ daughter lay dying of an illness when the young woman was only 22, Father came to give last rites. He then told Gruss and her husband, “She has never soiled her baptismal robes.”
Gruss noted, “If you were hurting, he was there. And, he knew just what to say and what to do.”
Martha Spalding, secretary/treasurer of Fr. Hardon’s Eternal Life apostolate, observed that Fr. Hardon was effective at teaching a wide variety of people. She said, “He never talked down to people. He had a way of reaching them using a level of language that they understood.”
Eternal life is a mostly lay Catholic apostolate Father established to evangelize and promote the pro-life message; its activities include an annual conference.
Fr. Edmund McCaffrey (1933-2016), spiritual advisor and co-founder of Eternal Life, was a close friend of Fr. Hardon, and worked alongside the priest in a variety of apostolates. Fr. McCaffrey was a Benedictine priest, and former abbot ordinary of Belmont Abbey in Charlotte, North Carolina. He joined with Fr. Hardon to found the Institute on Religious Life in 1974, the Eternal Life apostolate (with William Smith) in 1985 and The Church Teaches Forum in 1989. Fr. Hardon was constantly at work, Fr. McCaffrey remembered.
Despite Fr. Hardon’s grave concerns about the direction of the Church during his lifetime, Fr. McCaffrey said, “I never heard him speak a word against anyone. He was charitable person, a man of great integrity and prayerful.”
Father recalled that at meetings, Fr. Hardon would insist participants kneel and pray the Rosary “no matter how tired you were. He was a man of great holiness and had a great love of the Blessed Mother.”
Father recalled that Fr. Hardon was often at odds with the progressive members of his Jesuit order. While teaching at one Jesuit university, for example, Fr. Hardon “was given the worst possible jobs, the worst place to stay and the worst of everything. They did not like Fr. Hardon.”
Fr. Hardon bore his suffering cheerfully, Fr. McCaffrey recalled: “If we don’t accept suffering cheerfully, he said, we’ll lose the grace.”
Fr. Hardon was concerned about “the collapse of religious life,” the priest remembered, but would urge people to pray, particularly the rosary, for its resurgence. He’d declare, “Our Lady can save religious life.” He continued, “Fr. Hardon truly believed that religious life could be saved from secularization through prayer and penance.”
Father recalls that Fr. Hardon spent much time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and fasted frequently (“Although he could put away a good meal when the fast was over!”) He was devoted to the Sacrament of Penance, and would receive it daily. He’d beg his audiences not to let two weeks pass without going to confession.
“During my time with Fr. Hardon, I always knew I was in the presence of a saint. Whether we were having lunch, or in a meeting, or participating in a discussion group, you could see he was a saintly, holy man. It shined right through.”
Rock-Solid Orthodox Teacher
Dave Armstrong is a convert and Catholic apologist from the Detroit area, where Fr. Hardon lived and is buried. Fr. Hardon was teaching classes at the University of Detroit; two friends introduced him to Fr. Hardon in the 1990s.
Armstrong recalled, “I learned a great deal from him, in terms of theology, but even more so, his personal influence was as a rock-solidly orthodox teacher, who was a model of a saintly priest.”
He noted it was perfect timing for his meeting the future Servant of God, as Armstrong was considering converting to the Catholic faith. He continued, “No one could fail to be impressed by him. I think that being in his presence was the closest to what it would have been like to be with Jesus Christ, that I have ever experienced with any human being.”
Father’s classroom advice included, “when you write, many thousands of people can read it,” and, “when you memorize something, it becomes part of your brain.”
Fr. Hardon encouraged his married students to consider homeschooling—Armstrong homeschooled his four children—and stressed the importance of the family. Armstrong recalled, “He’d often say that a successful marriage could only take place due to God’s grace.”
He also believed good catechesis was the key to true reform in the Church, and that lay people would play an important role in reform. He was pleased with the publication of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church—which he helped develop—and assured his students, “the worst centuries in history are always followed by the best centuries,” suggesting reform was coming in the 21st century.
Armstrong also observed, “He was always extremely charitable, and I never felt that he treated me (as a Protestant) as an inferior. He had a delightful sense of humor and a wonderful sort of playful smile.”
Fr. Hardon was a champion of orthodox teaching, but Armstrong noted it would be a mistake to think of the priest as “stern and humorless” but instead as “charming and ingratiating: “To me, he was the best imaginable model of what a Catholic priest should be.”
And, despite Father’s accomplishments, he was humble. Armstrong recalled attending a dinner shortly before Fr. Hardon’s death during which Fr. Hardon received an award. Armstrong said, “His entire acceptance speech was the following (closely paraphrased): ‘Thank you. Anything that I have accomplished is entirely due to the grace of God.’ And then he sat down. He had no interest in taking any credit for himself.”
Armstrong was received into the Catholic Church by Fr. Hardon, and the apologist’s wife received back into the Church. Their first two sons were baptized by the priest, and he offered a forward to Armstrong’s first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. The priest offered him high praise by declaring the work “very Catholic.” Armstrong said, “I consider that the greatest compliment I have ever received for my work, and I hope to always live up to that high goal.”
Armstrong added, “If he is one day canonized, then I would have personally known a saint, which is a comforting and fulfilling thought. Saintly people radiate the love of God, and can’t help but change anyone around them for the better. That’s what it felt like to be with Fr. Hardon: as if one was enveloped by God’s love and grace.”
Fr. Roger Arnsparger serves as president of Eternal Life and is involved in Fr. Hardon’s canonization process. He said the effort was “moving along,” including the formation of a tribunal to investigate the cause for canonization, a theological commission to study Father’s writings and a historical commission to write an official biography of Fr. Hardon. No miracles have yet been attributed to Fr. Hardon’s intercession, which are typically part of the canonization process.
Fr. Arnsparger, who also knew Fr. Hardon, described the priest as “a true son of the Church, a simple and humble priest and a hard worker. He loved Christ and His Church, and studied and prayed in the heart of the Church. All of his writings were his way of sharing the revelation of Christ.”
He noted that he was personally grateful to Fr. Hardon for his “wisdom and guidance” and his example of a “true, humble commitment to the priesthood.”
He welcomed the prayers and support of both priests and lay people so that the Cause would advance. He also noted that Father’s books, cassocks and other personal effects were gathered for inclusion at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse, Wisconsin; Cardinal Burke was Bishop of La Crosse 1994-2003.
For those interested learning more about Fr. Hardon and reading and listening to his presentation, there is an abundance of material on a variety of Catholic websites, including www.hardonsj.org and http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/archives.htm.