“O what their joy and their glory must be, those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see; crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest: God shall be all, and in all ever blest.”
I found it impossible to walk away from Father Richard John Neuhaus’ funeral Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Manhattan with anything but a beaming smile, praise to God on my thoughts, and even, with some human slips involving the inauguration, on my tongue. I was still singing “O Qanta Qualia,” celebrating the life of a man who lived it well. He enjoyed it; he prayed it; he loved it. But that’s all because he loved his Lord. Again and again during a vigil service and the funeral Mass, speakers consistently put aside what he was most known for: being a writer and editor, founder of the ecumenical journal First Things, author of books, popular speaker and influencer.
He was a Christian first, “Born Toward Dying,” as he had written. He knew that his Redeemer lived.
There was one trepidatious moment at the vigil when the priest announced, “We are here tonight to celebrate the life, death and the resurrection of …” I’ve been to enough funerals where it is announced that the deceased has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, gone to his Maker and is enjoying eternal salvation that I’ve come to expect it. Not here! Even knowing he had been given last rites, knowing he had prayed and been prayed with and prayed for. There was no presuming. For what do we know? The vigil homilist, of course, was talking about the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The next day, during the funeral, the homilist urged us for pray that Father Neuhaus will be forgiven soon and that “whatever purification remains will happen quickly.”
Not only was this right — sadly, jarringly so in my experience — but it continued posthumously what had become a bit of a ministry of Father Neuhaus: teaching us about death.
I’ve heard many stories now about the last days and weeks and months of his life. He knew he was not long for the world, and though he expressed regrets as anyone might, he radiated a peaceful anticipation.
Father Neuhaus lived his life toward meeting Christ; he went from Protestant to Catholic and changed his public policy alliances, always motivated by him. He had been on the verge of death before and escaped — and learned the lesson to be ready always.
Knowing this, our prayers changed, too. In the days before his death, Father George Rutler, a priest in the Archdiocese of New York, administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Doctors expected his passing. Family and friends kept vigil.
Priests went in and out for the opportunity to pray one last time with Father Neuhaus.
Many subscribers to First Things received their February issue on the day of or day after Father Neuhaus left us.
They read this at the very end of the issue (and, as it happened, most of us read the magazine backward, going for its founder’s short vignettes before anything else — he was a blogger before blogs):
“As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. … I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. … Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayer is ‘Your will be done’ — not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.”
The Christian knows what he without faith does not: This was not giving up. It was accepting, as a life lived for Christ is, what we were made for.
And so I sing. In praise of a God who gives us free will to live our lives in such a way that we can accept or reject eternal salvation. In praise of a great example of a man who lived discipleship.
Father Neuhaus’ days began with his morning prayers. And in those final days, it wasn’t a Blackberry he kept close, but his breviary. When he was weak, he was strong. The possibility to follow his example is open to each of us. How can you keep from singing?
Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor
of National Review Online.