William F. Buckley Jr. died nine years ago today. When I announced his death on the website, a stream of e-mails poured in testifying to what an impact he had on people’s lives by his presence — in print, on television, and in person. Person after person told of the one time they met him, and in each case the story was nearly identical: Bill treated them like they were the most important person in the world. Priests and at least one religious sister shared the influence his public Catholicism had on them. Others said that while their own father wasn’t in the picture when they were growing up, Bill was a reliable presence in their lives with wisdom, even if only via Firing Line.
With a need for real religious faith lived out in the world with authenticity, however imperfectly we humans ever do it, the anniversary of his death is an opportunity to reflect on his witness, and in quite sophisticated circles, too. I asked a few friends and observers to remember. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
What I remember most of WFB’s faith, the thing that most impressed me, was his instinct for the eternal. He was drawn to that which had stood the test of time and would last. Whether it was his devotion to the traditional Mass or his love of Bach, he had a preferential option for the eternal. This not only colored his tastes but, one could argue, had a deep impact on his politics. That didn’t mean that he was a prude or in any way solemn. In fact, he was quite the opposite. WFB is a good reminder that one can be an observant Catholic while reserving the right to display it in dramatic and even eccentric ways. That waft of incense often floating in the air around him had less to do with the Mass than with Marlboro. He was lot of fun to be around, and though he was serious about the issues he fought for, he never took himself too seriously. There was always that Buckley-esque twinkle in the eye filled with one part mischief and one part humility. I attribute his fighting spirit and the grace that accompanied it to his faith.
When I interviewed Bill for Crisis back in the mid Nineties, he inspired me with two comments: One, that he prayed the Rosary every day. Two, that he had had a love affair with Jesus Christ since his childhood, when He answered his prayers about his mother, who was going through a very difficult pregnancy.
I thought that if Bill, with all he was doing, could find time to pray the Rosary, I could too. And of course the Rosary leads you straight to Jesus.
Following the interview, I began describing Bill as the Saint Paul of the modern conservative movement. Saint Paul because (a) Bill was a true believer in his faith and philosophy, spreading both wherever he traveled; and (b) he was an apostle of caritas. “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I am no better than a clanging gong or a brass bell.” So many, many acts of charity throughout his life. He proselytized for conservatism for nearly 60 years, sustained by his deep faith.
— Lee Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation.
SLIDESHOW: Remembering WFB
Bill was the opposite of ostentatious in his religious observances. But any close friend could see that prayer occupied an important place in the spiritual economy of his life. I think he would have liked what the novelist Anthony Trollope had to say about such matters. In the late 1850s, Trollope wrote:
A man in his short sojourn here has mainly three things to do; and he should endeavor to do them all well. He has to say his prayers, he has to earn his bread, and he has to amuse himself.
I suppose we might cavil over the deflationary phrase “amuse himself” — perhaps “engage” or “occupy” would have been better — but in essentials, I think Bill would have smiled on Trollope’s enumeration of duties. And it was the prelude, the recognition that our sojourn here on earth is ineluctably short, be it full of years or, like that of Lessing’s son, numbered in hours only, that distributes weight to the obligations articulated.
Pascal gave classic expression to the unsettling side of this phenomenon:
When I consider the short duration of my life, absorbed by eternity before and after, . . . the little space I fill, and which I see swallowed up in the infinite vastness of spaces that I do not know and that do not know me, I am frightened and astonished by seeing myself here rather than there, as there is no reason why I should be here rather than there, or now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose order and guidance were this place and time assigned to me?
Pascal expresses the discomfiting aspect of this humbling recognition, the side that pushes people into graduate seminars in philosophy and the therapist’s couch. Bill did not have much time for this allotrope of existential anxiety. He recognized, as he put it in his magnificent account of his visit to Lourdes, that “from the day of birth, we are on our deathbed.” But if he found in it a private inspiration to prayer, he publicly embraced it as a goad to action and enjoyment, not paralysis. His focus was adamantly outward, blissfully with the particularities of his latest adventure. Socrates may or may not have been right that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Bill indisputably demonstrated that the unexamined world just won’t cut it. “The entertainment committee,” he liked to say, “never sleeps.”
Our secular age is unfriendly to Catholics, to religion generally, but the irony is that secularists are often less jubilantly worldly than their Jewish and Christian compatriots. “God made the world and saw that it was good.” That bulletin from Genesis might have been the motto of Bill Buckley’s life. He certainly did everything he could to broadcast it among his many friends. I have never known a more generous person. I do not mean only materially generous, though Bill’s largesse in that department was legendary. I mean spiritually, constitutionally generous as well.
Bill’s generosity was perhaps most solicitous in matters touching on religious faith. I think of his account, alternately moving and amusing, of the last days of his National Review colleague Frank Meyer. In his last illness, Meyer struggled with the momentous decision of whether to convert to Catholicism. Bill was a tireless emissary between Meyer and various confidants. Bill reports that Meyer, from his bed of woe, complained that “the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implication lurking in the formulation ‘the communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed.” Two days before the end, Meyer somehow overcame that final obstacle, partly, I like to think, with the help of Bill’s armory of arguments.
Another anecdote: Everyone knows that Bill commanded a formidable vocabulary. It was significant, therefore, that he should have telephoned us once in search of a word. “It means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others,” he said to my wife. “Schadenfreude?” she ventured. “That’s it!” he said and rang off. How perfectly Buckleyesque that he should have forgotten it. It named an emotion that was as foreign to him as joy was native.
— Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the co-editor of Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus.
Father Joseph A. Marcello
When I met Mr. Buckley, I was a sophomore in college, and even at a distance of all these years, I know that what most struck me about him then was what might be called a certain Catholic matter-of-factness: not in the sense of nonchalance in approaching matters of faith, but just the opposite. From his lifetime of familiarity with the Lord came an ease of conversation about Him and a givenness that his life was firmly situated within the context of a lived discipleship in the middle of the Church.
— Father Joseph A. Marcello helped with research for WFB’s Nearer, My God. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Trumbull, Conn.
Father Gerald E. Murray
Bill Buckley went on pilgrimage to Our Lady’s shrine in Lourdes a few years before he set out on the final pilgrimage to eternity. I was a chaplain on that trip and spent time with Bill. He remarked that at Lourdes he felt completely free from the ordinary sense of time and schedules. He must have experienced the heavenly sense of Lourdes. When the Blessed Virgin Mary came down to speak with Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, eternity entered into time and left a lasting mark on a faraway corner of France. Time is a measurement of change; eternity is beyond change, for it is the perfection of everything we seek when we pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Bill spent his lifetime resisting those who impossibly sought to “immanentize the eschaton” by violence, deceit, and deception. The eschaton is reserved for the next life. A sweet foretaste, however, is offered when and where God chooses to intervene in human history. Lourdes is such a place, and Bill knew by conviction, and now by experience, that Catholicism blesses her children with such joyful experiences of the fundamental truth that God is good. That joy transports us, if only for a moment, out of the limited horizon of daily life. That joy allows us to return to our daily schedule knowing it all has a meaning and higher purpose as we journey to eternity. Bill Buckley was a pilgrim who sought and upheld truth and goodness in the great struggle against the 20th century’s promoters of lies and evil. We are all in his debt. Requiescat in pace.
— The Reverend Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D., is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church, in New York City.
Father George W. Rutler
What struck me most was his tenacity in practicing Catholicism despite many challenges. The first challenge was maintaining the Catholic life in a whirlwind of distractions and many cultural figures who did not understand Catholicism or in fact repudiated it. But he recognized that all this was a kind of pseudo-sophistication which in fact was oblivious to the cultural core of the Church. The second challenge was understanding the core beliefs of the Church when they seemed complex or even implausible. Here he had to recognize that dealing with theological problems involves a matrix different from that of dealing with political problems. The third challenge was maintaining his loyalty to the earthly form of the Church (the “Church Militant”) when many bishops and theologians limited by analytical mediocrity were indulging a self-destructive fascination with false progressivism, and the aesthetic horrors of a reshaped liturgy. Here I think he kept his balance by following the example of his father’s piety, for his father was a more formidable spiritual authority for him than any ecclesiastics.
How did he manage to be so tenacious? Simply by humility. In him that humility was so solid that he could indulge self-mockery and the outward guise of gracious condescension. For one of the hymns at Bill’s memorial Mass in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I chose “He Who Would Valiant Be” from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Lines of it sum up Bill’s faith: “No foes shall stay his might / Though he with giants fight / He will make good his right / To be a pilgrim.”