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Part 2 of the Register's Sanctity Made in America series focuses on Jesuit Father John Hardon.
BY Charlotte Hays
“You won’t have to go through the vacation videos,” joked Michael Wick, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life.
He was speaking to Father Robert McDermott, who, as postulator for the cause for the canonization of Jesuit Father John Hardon (1914-2000), must assemble voluminous material concerning a priest who wrote more than 40 books, including his The Catholic Catechism, which sold more than a million copies, and who thought nothing of teaching classes in four cities in the course of a single week.
When Father Hardon was a young priest, another young Jesuit died unexpectedly, which moved Father Hardon to make a vow never to waste a minute of his life on earth. In fact, Father Hardon never rode in a car without taking out his rosary.
In addition to his books, he left behind numerous articles and founded several apostolates, including the Institute on Religious Life, that are still flourishing. “He was a kind of Catholic spiritual Johnny Appleseed,” said Jay McNally, a Catholic editor who worked with Father Hardon, last spring in Chicago at an institute gathering that honored the late priest. Hardon is now entitled to be called a Servant of God, which means that Rome has given the go-ahead for work on his cause, and Father McDermott can proceed with his formidable job.
Hardon’s cause has support in high places. Cardinal-designate Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial office in the Church after the pope, is leading the effort: He initiated the cause in 2005 while serving as archbishop of St. Louis. “I see Father Hardon as a great teacher at a time when the teachings of the Church were being called into question,” the archbishop said recently in an interview with Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa for Eternal Word Television Network. Archbishop Burke called Father Hardon “an anchor in those years of confusion.”
While serving as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., Bishop Burke read about the Marian Catechist Apostolate, a program of instruction Father Hardon developed for his friend Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s congregation. The program, which places strong emphasis on Eucharistic adoration and requires participants to make the 30-day Ignatian retreat at home, is now popular with laypeople. Wanting catechesis that would replace what he regarded as “vacuous texts,” he wrote to Bishop Burke. On receiving a reply to his letter, an excited Father Hardon exclaimed, “I have my bishop!”
They would work together the rest of Father Hardon’s life, becoming close friends. Archbishop Burke saw Hardon two weeks before his death, when he was so weak that the archbishop had to kneel beside him and put his ear close to hear what he said: “Bishop, will you continue to work with me?” The archbishop has.
A man who, as his friend Dorie Gruss, a Marian catechist, remembers, looked as if he could be blown away by a strong gust of wind, Father Hardon was one of the dynamic figures of the American Church from the 1960s onward, though not always enjoying popularity with the more “advanced” elements of his beloved Society of Jesus.
He came from a home steeped in Catholicism. John Anthony Hardon was born June 18, 1914, in Midland, Pa. His father, John, was killed in an accident at work when Hardon was not quite a year old, and support of the family fell to 26-year-old Anna Hardon. She worked as a cleaning lady, and later, after the family had moved to Cleveland, took in boarders to support herself and her son. Anna Hardon never remarried, according to Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell, a Hardon friend and expert and notary for his cause, “out of concern for the influence a possible stepfather might have on her son’s vocation.”
“Hardon’s childhood was happy and devout. His mother attended daily Mass and holy Communion throughout her life,” Mitchell has written. If a piece of bread fell on the floor, he would later write, he and Anna were quick to pick it up, knowing that simple bread could be transformed into the body of Christ. Hardon prayed to be a priest after his first Communion; he prayed to be a martyr after his confirmation. Hardon did not go directly to seminary, however, after high school, enrolling instead in John Carroll University. While there, he considered marrying an old friend from grammar school, but the priesthood beckoned. When he finally took her to dinner to tell her of his decision, she burst into tears and didn’t eat a bite of the meal Hardon had already ordered. She went on to marry and have a family, while Hardon entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1936. He was so happy to find a Jesuit habit on his bed, a sign that he had been accepted, that he kissed it, a daily practice throughout his life.
Hardon was ordained to the priesthood on his 33rd birthday in 1947. Anna died shortly afterwards, and his first funeral Mass was for his mother. Two years later, he was in Rome, serving as director of the graduate library of the Jesuits’ Gregorian University. It was here that his troubles with his order began. “Little did I expect to have to defend my faith and to face criticism among my most talented fellow students who were all ordained priests,” he would later write. “I had doors slammed in my face.”
McNally feels that Hardon’s youthful prayer for martyrdom was answered, though it was a “white martyrdom” in the cause of Catholic orthodoxy. Father Hardon, always sticking up for orthodoxy, became known in his order as being argumentative. He also led an austere life: “He fasted two days a week; never bought new clothing, but got cassocks from dead Jesuits; never drove a car; never took a traditional vacation or had anything that looked like a hobby; and he didn’t see a movie the last 32 years of his life,” McNally recalled in a speech.
In the ETWN interview with Archbishop Burke, Father Pacwa observed that Father Hardon had a soft voice, could be dry, and lacked pizzazz. “He didn’t have many gifts, but he used every gift he had,” said Father Pacwa.
Hardon influenced an enormous number of people. “He was sort of a Pied Piper,” said Jesuit Father James Schall.
Father McDermott, the postulator, who, as a seminarian, had taken courses from Father Hardon at the Institute for Catholic Doctrine at St. John’s University, remembers being taken to a convent in the Bronx in 1978 to meet a special friend of Father Hardon’s — Mother Teresa of Calcutta, before she reached the height of her fame. “I see him as a defender of the faith. He gave us the materials to re-catechize the Catholic people,” said Father McDermott.
Although he was out of step with many of his Jesuit contemporaries, Father Hardon remained loyal to the Jesuits and to their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola. “The Servant of God considered the Spiritual Exercises [of St. Ignatius] so important for the continuing conversion of life to Christ that he authored a popular guide for those who wished to make them at home,” said Archbishop Burke in a talk.
“I beg you,” the archbishop concluded, “to become involved with the work of the cause for the beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Father John Anthony Hardon of the Society of Jesus, and to support generously the work of the cause.”
Charlotte Hays is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum in Washington, D.C.
MORE INFO To help with Father Hardon’s cause, and for prayers for asking Father Hardon for intercession, visit HardonSJ.org. Financial contributions to help with the copying of Father Hardon’s voluminous works are especially needed. The Handmaids of the Precious Blood, an order of contemplative nuns, has 3,000 audio cassettes of retreats Father Hardon gave the community.