O felix culpa. It was a happy mistake that led to my meeting Father Avery Dulles.
I had written a book review for the Register in the fall of 1999 and had incorrectly identified some misbehaving priest as a Jesuit. Father Dulles, always alert to unjustified attacks upon the Society of Jesus he loved so much, wrote a letter to the editor to correct me — including some kind words about the review in general.
I wrote him from Rome, where I was a seminarian, telling him that whatever the occasion of his letter, I considered it an honor that he would be reading something that I had written. After all, I was accustomed to reading his work as a student in theology.
I thought that would be the end of it, but Father Dulles wrote back, suggesting that we might meet when he came to Rome a few months later. It was the Jubilee Year, and he had been invited to a special conference on the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council.
We met in Rome, and over pasta, he asked me an unending series of questions about what I thought about the Council. Finally, I put an end to it, saying, “To be perfectly honest, Father Dulles, I have no interest in what I think about Vatican II. I would be very interested, though, in what you think.” He agreed to reverse the direction of the Q-and-A.
That was typical Dulles, as I would come to discover over the next years. Humble and curious — two essential elements for the ecclesial theologian — he was more interested in listening first and speaking only afterward.
The next year he was created a cardinal and returned to Rome more often. He grudgingly accepted the increasing formality that his new role required, and I was willingly pressed into service as his factotum on his Roman trips.
The duties of valet were quite impossible, whether it was searching for his cane (never in the same place twice) or attempting to make sure that all the cardinalatial attire hung properly on the tall, lanky Jesuit, a man who could make almost any clothes look awkward. But it was an honor to serve him; to be in his presence was a theology lesson in itself, as many of his offhand comments were as valuable as my university lectures.
I accompanied him to St. Peter’s to pray before the body of Pope John Paul II. Impossible to navigate a car through the crowds, it required a long walk over cobblestones for the 87-year-old, and he was jostled by pilgrims pressing in on the latest eminenza to pass by. He persevered, always a Churchman, always one to do his duty. And he knew that his visit was my only chance to see the Pope lie in state, and he was too generous to deny anyone such an occasion.
At the conclusion of each visit, he would finger an envelope of bills he had procured for the occasion — even as a cardinal he subjected himself to his strict interpretation of his vow of poverty — and ask if there was anything he could do to thank me. I was bold enough to turn down the money and ask for something more precious: his time. I would ask him to have a meal with a group of seminarians and allow us to ask him questions. The old professor always agreed. Those exchanges, frank and witty, remain among my most cherished memories of the seminary.
On one occasion, we were discussing the difference between the dying prayer of Jesus — Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do — and the dying prayer of St. Stephen — Lord, do not hold this sin against them. It seems as though Stephen was more generous than Jesus, for Jesus asks for forgiveness because of a condition; namely, their ignorance. Stephen simply prays that the sin not be held against them. Cardinal Dulles considered the issue, and then, with a twinkle in his eye that transformed his craggy face, gave the answer: “Stephen had something Jesus did not: the grace of holy orders!”
It was a joke that touched on the Church, the priesthood and sacramental theology all at once. And Cardinal Dulles was just that: a joyful Churchman, a holy priest and a gifted theologian.
April 2005 was his last visit to Rome, and not long afterward, his health began to fail. After years of my pleading, he finally agreed to visit my university chaplaincy in late 2006. He wanted to speak on theology. I asked him to speak on his own life, as a witness for our time. He refused, asking what possible interest my students would have in his life.
I told him that on the 60th anniversary of his entry into the Society of Jesus, and his 50th anniversary as a priest, he could simply talk about a life of promises made and promises kept. It would be a “testimonial of grace” as he entitled his memoir of conversion. In the end, the visit had to be postponed due to unexpected heart surgery; it would eventually be canceled, as the ravages of post-polio syndrome began to consume his body and his voice.
Our subsequent visits were at Fordham, and as his strength diminished, he became for me an even greater inspiration. I began to think of him as something of a grandfather in the intellectual work on Church and Society — the title of his last book. A grandfather, in part, because of his age and also because of his great influence on another priest, Father Richard John Neuhaus, who has been a father to me in my vocation and apostolate. It was Father Avery Dulles who sponsored Father Neuhaus at his reception into the Church and vested him at his ordination. Father Neuhaus preached at my first Mass. The debts of gratitude pile up.
Cardinal Dulles goes to eternity with an immensity of fervent prayers accompanying him. The debt owed to him by the theological academy, the Society of Jesus and the Church in America is very great indeed. And the debts, too, of so many like me — theology students and novice writers of whom he had no need to take notice, but did.
Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register’s Rome
correspondent from 1999-2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.