A Life Lived in Prayer
Reflections on the remarkable life of Father Neuhaus, who ‘knew that prayer powerfully shaped the course of history.’
Of Father Richard John Neuhaus, much has been written of his extraordinary life (see pages 7 and 8), and much more remains to be written.
For me, his death is the personal loss of a spiritual father and friend, mentor and model. In the days following his death and in preparation for his funeral, many memories came flooding back. Another time will be suitable to examine his large body of work, but for now, I share some memories of the man and the priest we have lost.
I first met Father Richard in Krakow, Poland, in the summer of 1994. I was attending the annual summer seminar run by Father Neuhaus and his friends, Michael Novak and George Weigel. A three-week examination of the foundations of free society in light of the teaching of Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus, the whole seminar was set in the framework of a Christian pilgrimage. We followed the steps of John Paul in his native Poland and visited the great shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa. It was the seminar’s first year in Poland and may have been Father Richard’s first visit to Czestochowa.
His reaction to the shrine was striking. I thought that this great intellectual may find such a nationalist shrine not to his taste and that the Lutheran convert of less than four years might be turned off by one of the world’s most intensely Marian sanctuaries. But what caught Father Richard’s attention was something different.
“Imagine the great column of prayer that goes up from this place,” he said. “Imagine if we could see them, thousands of prayers going up to the Lord, unceasing, year after year — a great powerhouse of prayer.”
Father Richard was a man of regular and deep prayer, and he was impressed and inspired by others at prayer.
For nearly his entirely adult life, he gathered those with whom he lived to sing evening prayer each night. He offered Mass daily at his parish in Manhattan, Immaculate Conception, from where he was buried. He regularly commented how moved and encouraged he was by the prayer of his parishioners, with the dozens and dozens who stopped in to light candles in the grotto.
A man deeply involved in the affairs of the world, he knew that prayer powerfully shaped the course of history.
Each summer, Father Richard would return to the Ottawa Valley, to his family cottage near where he was born in Pembroke. He would spend August there, reading prodigiously and relaxing, receiving friends.
The summer before I was ordained a deacon I went up to visit, and he inquired as to whether I was afraid of anything in the priesthood. I told him that I did not know whether I would be strong enough if real hardship or suffering came, having experienced neither in a comfortable life.
His response has remained with me ever since.
“Stay close to the Mass then, Raymond,” he said. “That’s what will prepare you and see you through. For if every day you are at the altar, if every day you are about the suffering and death of the Lord, then one day, when suffering shall appear in your life, you will greet him like an old friend, for you have seen him every day. Then you will be able to say to him: ‘Friend, I have been expecting you.’”
Father Richard lived that in his own life, whether concelebrating Mass with the Pope at the Vatican or offering it in a country church during his summer vacation.
The liturgy was the real world, and Father Richard knew that it was the best preparation for dealing with the reality of the fallen world around us. Once asked the secret of his remarkable productivity, he responded: “I say my morning prayers before I read the morning newspaper.” Encountering the enduring reality allows one to master the passing reality.
Older Brother in the Priesthood
My favorite of his books is not the best known.
In 1979, he published Freedom for Ministry, a reflection on what it means to be a pastor of souls. He published a second edition, for which he dated the preface the Nativity of Mary, 1991 — the day of his ordination as a Catholic priest.
It was the kind of providential moment he delighted in — confirming now as Catholic priest what he had already learned as a Lutheran pastor. As always, it was the continuities that were greater than the discontinuities. What he wrote there was what he taught me with his life, his friendship, his affection, and his glorious, magnificent words.
“At the beginning and at the end of every day, we offer up our ministries,” he concluded that book. “We are responsible for the offering, and God is responsible for the consequences, and his is infinitely a greater responsibility. We tinker and tune and experiment and resolve and fail and try again, in the happy assurance that, when all is said and done, it is the awesome recklessness of his love and not our ambition that called us to the seeming absurdity of this work.”
With Father Richard at our side, with him as our guide, this work seemed less absurd — and the recklessness of his love all the more awesome.
Father Raymond de Souza was the homilist
at Father Neuhaus’ funeral in New York on Jan. 13.
‘A LossThat Tilts the World’
Following is an excerpt from Father Raymond J. de Souza’s homily at the funeral of Father Richard John Neuhaus, delivered at Immaculate Conception parish in New York Jan. 13. The homily in its entirety will be published in First Things magazine.
Father Richard loved the priesthood and loved being a priest. He had a great deal of time for priests, nurtured priestly vocations, and stood up for the priesthood in recent years. Devastated by the unspeakable sins of so many of our brothers, wounded by the pain of so many innocent victims, slandered by so many who hate Christ and his Church — we priests needed a stalwart friend in those dark days of the “Long Lent.” For his brother priests Father Richard was an often lonely voice speaking for prudence, for courage, for justice, for wisdom and for holiness.
The man of millions of words repeated the same one over and over to all who would listen: fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Despite opportunities here and there, Father Richard did not think it was his vocation to become a bishop. Perhaps he feared he would have more meetings and less convivium. Had he become a bishop an apt motto would have been: fidelitas.
Is it not remarkable how many people have commented recently not so much on Father Richard’s works of controversy or argument, but about his life as a faithful disciple? His books on faith in the face of death — whether his own or the Lord’s on Friday afternoon — are the ones which touched souls. He knew this. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception a few weeks ago, we had our last long convivium at his home. He told me: “As incredible as it may seem to you and as annoying as it may seem to some, I really wish I had written so much more. Not arguments nor controversies, nor pointing out the foolishness which needs to be pointed out; rather, the conversational mode — inviting others to look at life this way or that, proposing the Christian way of understanding things, considering God’s purposes so that others might discover him.”
The flood of commentary upon his death showed how wide that conversation was. I read a line from Hadley Arkes which captures how many of us feel: For his friends this is the kind of loss that tilts the world on its axis. CNS photo by Bob Roller
- January 25-31, 2009