Today is the 70th anniversary of the birth of Father George William Rutler, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and the pastor of Hell’s Kitchen (how he must love that title). In addition, Father Rutler, as he is known by all but his friends, is a pugilist, painter, musician, and all-round Renaissance man, in a time when that compliment is, alas, typically reserved for unpleasant reality-show contestants.
The youngest Episcopalian rector in the United States at the time, George Rutler converted to the Catholic faith in 1978. By now, if justice and charity prevailed, Rutler would be either the cardinal archbishop of New York or a senior figure in the Roman curia. Instead, he is, as he would say humbly, a simple parish priest in the greatest city in the world.
At the Church of Our Saviour, on Park Avenue, Father Rutler rescued a parish in debt and desolation. He not only put its books in the black and then built up its endowment. He transformed Our Saviour into an oasis of beauty, fine liturgy, and, in the words of the current archbishop of New York, a “vocations factory.” (Quite why you would transfer the manager of a successful vocations factory is, as they say, a question for another day.)
To be in the presence of a polymath, unless he has the genuine humility of Father Rutler, can be disconcerting. Many years ago, the first time he stayed at my rectory in Vermont, he told me, while holding a glass of bourbon and wearing my biretta (hat, not gun — I have a 9mm Glock and a Taurus) at 11.00 p.m., that he remembered everything he had ever read. That is not necessarily a sign of intelligence — perhaps one is in the presence of an autistic savant — but with Father Rutler you know, in fact, that you are dealing with someone from another century (Yes, he would consider that a compliment.)
Listening to his EWTN broadcasts, or reading his many books, one eventually concludes that only one figure even remotely compares with the wit, erudition, and learning of Father Rutler: his great hero, the greatest preacher of the twentieth century — no, not Fulton Sheen, but Monsignor Ronald Knox. Knox and Rutler share the gift of what we might call the “turn of phrase.” My personal favorite, from his book on hymns, is the cutting defenestration of the liturgists of the post–Vatican II generation. They “promised us the Shepherd of Hermas, and all we got was Little Bo Peep.”
A boxer (he once knocked out a robber in his parish), squash player, friend of President George W. Bush and Blessed Mother Teresa, Father Rutler is in many ways an anomaly (another compliment he would appreciate). Converts — from Newman to Knox to Neuhaus — have often found themselves under-appreciated or under-utilized. Father Rutler, with his special gifts and qualities, may belong to that club as well, but luckily he has not been backward in coming forward, as we would say in England. He has made for himself a unique place in the life of the Church not only in New York City but in the entire United States. As the ash settled on the corpses of the victims of 9/11, Father Rutler was at the World Trade Center, anointing victims. He has devoted himself to the ministry of the confessional, like his hero the Curé of Ars, John Vianney, having written one of the finest biographies of the saint in the past hundred years.
Father Rutler does not sleep. Apparently, he does not eat, either; the kitchen cupboards in his rectory are bare. He recently told some seminarians staying for a few days that “sleep and food are for wimps.” I eat at the local diner when I stay at his rectory, which these days is that of Saint Michael’s Church, on West 34th Street.
Father Rutler is the only priest who has lectured in my diocese at my invitation while never asking for a fee. He will happily drop the names of the rich and the famous — “Tell Henry Kissinger I’ll call him this evening” and “I will see the king of Tonga later” (I have heard both those lines) — and give a poor man a sandwich and treat him like a king.
“Eccentric,” “a character,” “one of a kind” — all rather overused descriptions. Yet there is no doubt that Father George William Rutler is, indeed, an eccentric, a character, and one of a kind. At seventy years of age he is, however, much more: He is a great American Catholic, and a great Catholic American — and a true shepherd, who, in keeping with Pope Francis’s thoughts on the subject, understands how to reach the peripheries; he has “the smell of the sheep.”