How to capture the essence of Richard John Neuhaus and his impact on others? Perhaps numbers help. As anyone who knew Richard even slightly would recognize, this is somewhat counterintuitive. When Jim Nuechterlein handed over the editorship of this journal to Jody Bottum, he had one word of advice for his successor: “Don't ever trust Richard with numbers.” Sage counsel, that, not least because of Richard's tendency, born of his native exuberance, to make a good story even better by whatever means of embroidery were available, including numbers. But that was just one facet of Richard's somewhat distant relation with math.
There was also, and far more important, his mathematically counterintuitive ability to multiply his energy and his enthusiasms while dividing them with others. Richard was one of the more remarkable builders of genuine community I have ever known: communities of commitment, conversation, contention, and caring. Yet the more he gave of himself, the more his effects on his extended family divided and then re-multiplied, among an ever-expanding circle of friends, colleagues, correspondents, and interlocutors.
He was a man of astonishing energy. Some might think of this as a psychological tick, the combustibility of someone who simply had to be in motion. I think it was much more than that. On January 8, the day Richard died, I was praying Psalm 51 and was struck as never before by the psalmist's prayer: “Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervor sustain me.” Over thirty-one years of the closest collaboration and friendship with Richard John Neuhaus, I came to understand that it was precisely his joy in the grace of God in Christ, which had touched and transformed his life, that made him so fervent in his prayer, his work, and his play. That fervor, in turn, energized others, even as it gave us hope. Surely one fitting tribute to his memory would be for those he energized to be sustainers of hope for each other—and, more than sustainers, extenders of the great work in which he led us. We owe him nothing less. We owe each other nothing less.
There was irony in the fact that Richard's wake and funeral Mass took place in what the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar now calls “Ordinary Time”—a phrase Richard detested. For he insisted that there was nothing “ordinary” about the times of our lives, for those lives were all being lived in the time after the Resurrection. We were living, he insisted, in the time when the horizon of our hope has been made secure: for God made clear his answer to the worst that human beings could do by raising Christ from the dead and by Christ's exaltation at the right hand of the Father—and in all of that we learned our true destiny. This time, our time, is the time of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the time in which our energies are woven into the tapestry of Providence, in ways we never fully understand. And, for über-energetic Richard John Neuhaus, there was nothing in the least ordinary about it.
So if, for those of us who loved him, the beginning of so-called Ordinary Time will now bear a permanent shadow—the shadow of our great loss—it should also be remembered that one of Richard's most familiar tropes was that bit about “the extraordinary that lies just on the far side of the ordinary.” The extraordinary things of God come to us through the ordinary things of this world. Thus there is nothing ordinary about anyone, for everyone is a someone for whom Christ suffered, died, and was raised. Nor is there anything ordinary about the time we are given in which to engage great causes, like the cause of the defense of life. So there is another fitting Neuhaus memorial: to live with the sense of extraordinary possibility that led Richard to say, with seemingly inexhaustible energy, “We're going to turn this around.”
In August 1990, just before he entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, Richard preached for two Sundays in a row from his father's old pulpit at St. John's Lutheran Church in Pembroke, Ontario. The text he chose for his last two sermons as a Lutheran pastor was that great Wesleyan hymn, “The Church's One Foundation.” Jesus Christ, the Church's one foundation, was the foundation of Richard's life and ministry. That was obvious to all who met him. What was perhaps not so obvious, in the world's eye, was that Richard's sure conviction that his Redeemer lived, and would raise him up on the last day, was precisely the conviction that energized the ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in which he was engaged for more than four decades and that, more often than not, he led.
In that radical commitment to real dialogue across theological and creedal divides, he was faithful to the teaching of two of his masters: Arthur Carl Piepkorn, who helped plant the seed of Richard's ecumenical work by teaching him to think of Lutheranism as a reform movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ; and Abraham Joshua Heschel, who inspired Richard to enter into the divinely mandated entanglement of Jews and Christians of which St. Paul wrote to the Romans.
As Richard said so often, genuine tolerance does not mean ignoring differences, as if differences made no difference; genuine tolerance means engaging differences, energetically, within a bond of civility and respect. In the carrying on of Richard's work—which will be done by Christians and Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox—that commitment to differences engaged and explored must remain both watchword and method.
In his last weeks, he was reading Anthony Esolen's magnificent translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. Perhaps he was preparing himself, as such a great reader would, for the next phase. Perhaps he was reminding himself that the peace in which the blessed rest is the dynamic peace of the divine love, the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Requiescat in pace, Richard—energetically.
George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center; he succeeds Fr. Neuhaus as chairman of the board of First Things.