Father Richard John Neuhaus, Ten Years On

Father Richard John Neuhaus (Photo courtesy of First Things)
His words still matter for the ongoing mission.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been ten years since Father Richard John Neuhaus died. There was a memorial Mass this past Tuesday evening at the parish church, Immaculate Conception on the lower East Side, where he was pastor. He was first and foremost a Catholic priest, although he was probably best known as editor of First Things, and he was also religion editor of National Review. He was a Lutheran pastor at the time, and, as I understand it, William F. Buckley Jr. carefully chose a non-Catholic for the position (because we’ve often had so many Catholics around, people might understandably mistake us for a Catholic magazine). God had other plans, and Father Neuhas later converted and was ordained a Catholic priest.

There are two pieces of his I break out every year, one around this time of year, with the March for Life this upcoming Friday. The second, on Good Friday. Come to think of it, they are both good reflections on his life, and a good way to focus on the fact that we are not on earth very long and have a purpose. Be about that work, always, and definitely now.

The first of the pieces is the text of a speech Father Neuhaus delivered to the National Right to Life Convention in 2008, and the second is a reflection of his from the book Death on a Friday Afternoon.

His “we shall not weary” speech:

We have been at this a long time, and we are just getting started. All that has been and all that will be is prelude to, and anticipation of, an indomitable hope. All that has been and all that will be is premised upon the promise of Our Lord’s return in glory when, as we read in the Book of Revelation, “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be sorrow nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And all things will be new.

That is the horizon of hope that, from generation to generation, sustains the great human rights cause of our time and all times—the cause of life. We contend, and we contend relentlessly, for the dignity of the human person, of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, destined from eternity for eternity—every human person, no matter how weak or how strong, no matter how young or how old, no matter how productive or how burdensome, no matter how welcome or how inconvenient. Nobody is a nobody; nobody is unwanted. All are wanted by God, and therefore to be respected, protected, and cherished by us.

We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along the way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person—of every human person.

Against the encroaching shadows of the culture of death, against forces commanding immense power and wealth, against the perverse doctrine that a woman’s dignity depends upon her right to destroy her child, against what St. Paul calls the principalities and powers of the present time, this convention renews our resolve that we shall not weary, we shall not rest, until the culture of life is reflected in the rule of law and lived in the law of love.

It has been a long journey, and there are still miles and miles to go.

And from Death on a Friday Afternoon:

The liturgy of Good Friday is coming to an end now. A final prayer replaces the usual benediction:


send down your abundant blessing

upon your people who have devoutly recalled

the death of your Son

in the sure hope of the resurrection.

Grant them pardon, bring them comfort.

May their faith grow stronger

and their eternal salvation be assured.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Let all the people say Amen. The church is dark now. The altar is stripped and bare. Some are getting up and leaving in silence. Others remain kneeling, looking into the darkness. Holy Saturday is ahead, the most quiet day of the year. The silence of that silent night, holy night, the night when God was born was broken by the sounds of a baby, a mother’s words of comfort and angels in concert. Holy Saturday, by contrast, is the sound of perfect silence. Yesterday’s mockery, the good thief’s prayer, the cry of dereliction—all that is past now. Mary has dried her tears, and the whole creation is still, waiting for what will happen next.

Some say that on Holy Saturday Jesus went to hell in triumph, to free the souls long imprisoned there. Others say he descended into a death deeper than death, to embrace in his love even the damned. We do not know. Scripture, tradition and pious writings provide hints and speculations, but about this most silent day it is perhaps best to observe the silence. One day I expect he will tell us all about it. When we are able to understand what we cannot now even understand why we cannot understand. Meanwhile, if we keep very still, there steals upon the silence a song of Easter that was always there. On the long mourner’s bench of eternal pity, we raise our heads, blink away our tears and exchange looks that dare to question, “Could it be?” But of course. That is what it was about. That is what it is all about. O felix culpa!

Oh happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,

Which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

To prodigal children lost in a distant land, to disciples who forsook him and fled, to a thief who believed or maybe took pity and pretended to believe, to those who did not know that what they did they did to God, to the whole bedraggled company of humankind he had abandoned heaven to join, he says: “Come. Everything is ready now. In your fears and your laughter, in your friendships and farewells, in your loves and losses, in what you have been able to do and in what you know you will never get done, come, follow me. We are going home to the waiting Father.”

I’m reminded of the weeping sounds from hell we hear on Holy Saturday. Do we hear them in the world today? I can’t help but think that Fr. Neuhaus did. His writing sounded like he did, both in the pastoral tone of his “we shall not weary” speech and in the meditative tone of Death on a Friday Afternoon.

My friend, author Mike Aquilina, just added another Father Neuhaus selection to my list this past Ash Wednesday by posting it on Facebook, of all places:

Ash Wednesday again. With the ashes the cross is traced on our foreheads. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” A solemn little ritual, and each year I am astonished by the eagerness with which the multitudes turn out for it. I really don’t understand why; it is so totally counter to the fatuously upbeat spiritualities of the culture. That’s probably why.

It doesn’t take much to see the message there. The world needs us to witness to the hope that is Christ Himself in every word we write and every encounter that stems from the written word — whether a book, essay, blog, or even tweet. Let’s take each one of them as a chance to offer what Christ wants from them: a witness to His unworldly ways, shedding light on the glory that is every good gift He’s given us, in love of Him and all He has created.

Fr. Neuhaus in the Erasmus Lecture discussion with Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. (Photo Courtesy of First Things)

And one final thing. As with Bill Buckley, what I remember — perhaps what I choose to remember — most about Father Neuhaus is his capacity for gratitude, awe, and piety. Last February, during a toast at a small dinner in honor of the tenth year since Bill passed, Father George Rutler talked about how Bill was childlike about his faith. I think something similar can be said about Father Neuhaus, especially when one rereads so much of what he wrote, including his reflection on his near-death in As I Lay Dying. I think of all of this along with his wit and joy. And I do often, too. In my mind, it’s all connected with the role of women in the Church, and Pope Benedict XVI, and New York.

The one time I met a pope was in October 2012 at the opening Mass of the year of faith. Pope Benedict had decided to reissue messages that Paul VI had promulgated at the end of the Second Vatican Council. That day during Mass, I was to receive the message to all the women of the world, on behalf of all the women of the world. My late friend Kate O’Beirne would always tease me about that and nudge me about relaying the message better. Aside from the beautiful, powerful message about the need for women to do nothing less than save the peace of the world, I, of course, practiced what I would say, should I have a second to say something to the Holy Father. I decided I would thank him for the Jesus of Nazareth series he had written, which helped us know Our Lord better. Well, I did have a chance to thank him, and he was clearly grateful. He was such a happy father that day and looked at me with nothing less than the eyes of the father.

But what does this have to do with Father Neuhaus? At the very beginning of his final book, American Babylon, he writes about how much of a New York chauvinist he is — even as he writes about us being exiles on earth. He writes how he occasionally described NYC “only half facetiously, of course” as, well, Heaven, suggesting that over the gates of the Heavenly City there may in fact be a large sign that says: “From the Wonderful People Who Brought You New York City — The New Jerusalem.”

That day with Pope Benedict, I realized I had some small-talk time I had not bargained on. The pope helped me along, asking where I was from. When I said New York City, he said: “New York!” and opened his arms with excitement and approval and joy. I so prayed that Father Neuhaus knew about that moment and sensed he may have. It was that joy that he radiated so often in the midst of a substantive debate or conversation. The same joy made it so that raising questions about the regime we were living in was not a message to take up arms but to be critical about what we were pledging allegiance to, being constantly challenged by Christ and Christ alone. There was a father’s love about so much of his writing, helping people to see God in all things. May we always do the same, learning from the best of Father Neuhaus.


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