The Catholic Church in America lost another of her intellectual giants today. The Rev. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus died this morning, at age 72. Of course, I never met the man, and I’m not sure I would have known what to say to him had I met him, but I feel as if I have lost a friend. An old acquaintance from my adolescence was buried this morning, and perhaps that makes me think a bit about mortality, yet this priest and writer whom I never met dies, and I feel a piece of me torn away.
Surely, it is vain of me to cultivate these feelings – who am I to lay some sort of claim to this man’s memory? But I have been deeply influenced by Fr. Neuhaus since I began to read him. In a sense – even though he never so much as knew that I existed – I knew RJN better than I know many people I encounter each day. Such is the power of the word to make our humanity present to each other.
I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Fr. Neuhaus – it wasn’t very long ago, unfortunately. My earliest copy of First Things is the August/September issue from 2002. What an excitement it’s been every month, to delve into the great conversation taking place on those pages. I can’t say if I first read him in FT, or if I began reading FT after encountering him elsewhere. But I can say that I used to disagree with him a lot more than I do now. He has grown on me, and likely refined my thinking significantly. Other writers have changed my thinking more quickly, but few have sunk in as thoroughly, it seems.
His death represents the second loss of a major thinker in the American Catholic church within the past month, following the death of Avery Cardinal Dulles on December 12th. Converts, both of them, and very different in the ways they contributed to the intellectual life of the Church. It really seems we can’t afford such losses right about now, but it is the Lord’s work they’ve performed, after all. And contrary to published reports, God is not dead. I guess the rest of us somehow need to step it up a bit, though I trust the Lord will raise up others with genuine capacity to fill the void.
It seems only fitting that, even in his death, RJN would get the last word in, and so it is: here.
Rest in peace, you familiar stranger, you cantankerous wizard, you deft debunker of twaddle. Thank you for everything. Your wit, your intelligence, and your passion for truth will be sorely missed.