NEW YORK — Amid the great public spectacles of his visit to America, Pope Benedict XVI made time for a private, poignant encounter with Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, on April 19 at New York’s St. Joseph’s Seminary.
Cardinal Dulles, suffering the effects of post-polio syndrome, now lives in the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University. As his muscles atrophy, he is no longer able to walk and is unable to speak. He was therefore unable to participate in the papal events alongside the other cardinals.
Instead, the Holy Father decided to meet him privately as a gesture of esteem and affection.
The encounter echoed the iconic embrace of Archbishop Fulton Sheen by Pope John Paul II in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in October 1979. Archbishop Sheen was growing increasingly frail — he would die two months later — but made a determined effort to be at St. Patrick’s when John Paul visited.
The Holy Father gave him a warm embrace and, paraphrasing the vision of St. Thomas Aquinas, told Archbishop Sheen: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus. You are a loyal son of the Church.”
The encounter of the young Pope and the elderly bishop was as dramatic as one could imagine, two master evangelical performers in the mother Church of what John Paul was pleased to call the capital of the world.
John Paul, the former stage actor, saluted America’s greatest preacher.
Benedict, the university professor, saluted America’s greatest scholarly theologian. And, suitably, the latter encounter was private, at Fordham, a place of teaching, with the two scholars speaking about their earlier theological collaborations and their books.
“Eminenza, Eminenza, I recall the work you did for the International Theological Commission in the 1990s,” said the Holy Father as he greeted Cardinal Dulles with obvious enthusiasm. Cardinal Dulles kissed the papal ring and smiled back at Benedict. Unable to speak, Cardinal Dulles had prepared a text that was read to the Holy Father by a fellow Jesuit priest.
Cardinal Dulles then presented Benedict with a copy of his most recently published book, a splendid collection of the McGinley Lectures he has been delivering at Fordham for 20 years under the title Church and Society.
Benedict immediately took it in hand, read the inscription and began to look through the pages — as happy as any scholar is to get a new book by a respected friend.
A touching moment occurred when Benedict took his leave, greeting all present, including Dominican Sister Anne-Marie Kirmse, Cardinal Dulles’ secretary for the past 20 years.
“Sister, thank you for all the work you do for Cardinal Dulles and for the Church,” Benedict said. Sister Anne-Marie revealed later that 20 years ago, just before she went to work for then-Father Dulles, her only prayer was that she would find some way to put her theological training to work for the Church.
That was now confirmed by the Church’s supreme pastor.
I visited Cardinal Dulles two days after his meeting with Pope Benedict. At our last meeting in August, although he was growing more frail, we had a lively conversation for more than an hour. Now he writes a few words on a writing pad, and I had to do most of the talking.
It suits the cardinal in a way, as he was always ready to listen rather than to speak, to learn rather to teach, but it is a sadness not to hear him speak, for he always had interesting and witty things to say.
On the pad he indicated that he was teaching a seminar on the thought of Benedict XVI. I thought I had misunderstood him until Sister Anne-Marie arrived to drop off the homilies from the papal visit, a book on ecumenism by Cardinal Ratzinger and a copy of Deus Caritas Est.
The cardinal had requested them for his research for the seminar he was already booked to teach this semester before his health began to fail. His mind sharp, he is still at his task, dutifully preparing notes for the seminar, which Sister Anne-Marie, with a doctorate in theology herself, is helping him to complete.
I arrived to find him reading the Fordham faculty senate minutes. When I told him that he certainly did not have to concern himself with such dull material, he wrote simply that he was going through the daily mail. If they sent it to him, he was dutiful enough to read it.
The long admiration I have for Cardinal Dulles only grows deeper as his extraordinary work ethic and devotion to duty continues, despite his infirmity. He granted me his blessing — using his left hand to guide his right hand through the motions — and then I left.
By the time I got to the door, he was back at work, reading the materials Sister Anne-Marie had brought to him.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Dulles gave his last McGinley Lecture, which he wrote but had to be read for him. Entitled “A Life in Theology,” the lecture reflected this latest phase of his long life — he will be 90 this August.
“Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils, but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence,” he said. “As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
Unlike Archbishop Sheen, Cardinal Dulles is not dying, and may well have productive work ahead of him.
But even now, he too is entitled to have his work blessed by the Holy Father, for he too has written well of the Lord Jesus.
Father Raymond J. de Souza
served as the Register’s
Rome correspondent 1999-2003.