The homily from the Mass for the twentieth anniversary of the reception into the Catholic Church of Richard John Neuhaus.
The genealogy of Jesus Christ is something of a homiletic challenge. But Saint Matthew recorded it, and so the Church presents it to us, though not often. We find it, appropriately enough, on this feast of the nativity of Our Lady, and also as the gospel for the vigil Mass of the Nativity of the Lord. (In my first years as a priest, I used the genealogy for that early evening Mass on Christmas Eve; no matter how liturgically correct it was, Jehoshaphat begat Joram is not what that congregation was looking for . . . .)
What is striking about the genealogy is that the history is so sparing, so bare. From Abraham to David to the exile to Jesus born in Bethlehem, the line seems so direct, the progression so clear. Of course Jehoshaphat begat Joram, and of course Eliakim was the father of Azor. It is so obvious to us that things should have proceeded that way, because in fact they did proceed that way, an almost inexorable unfolding of the history of salvation. We might say with Saint Paul in our first reading, “for those he foreknew he also predestined.” How could it have been otherwise?
Yet what Saint Matthew gives us in a few lines traces out a most tumultuous history, and surely to those who were living through it the outcome was not clear at all. Even when Mary was born, or when Joseph took her to be his wife, could anyone have said with serenity: Of course, from her would be born Jesus who is called the Christ?
In one of my first conversations with Father Neuhaus, in 1994 in Krakow, he told me that his entire life seemed to him to be a straight line leading to his ordination as a Catholic priest—which took place nineteen years ago today, on this feast of the Nativity of Mary in 1991.
Is that possible to believe: that a straight line connected a Lutheran minister’s home in Pembroke, Ontario, and Concordia Seminary, and his first pastoral assignment in Massena and St. John the Mundane in Brooklyn and Immaculate Conception and the private chapel of the Archbishop of New York? Was there a straight line from that chamber of commerce in Cisco, Texas, where, as Richard never tired of repeating, as a teenage proprietor of a gas station he was the youngest member, to editing First Things? Is there any line, no matter how straight or crooked, that could plausibly connect the delivery of dinner from his local restaurant Adriatic to the dining room of the Bishop of Rome?
With the eyes of faith, all lines appear to be straight. With the eyes of faith, there is indeed a straight line from Abraham the wandering herdsman to Solomon the mighty king to Jesus hanging on the Cross. There is a straight line from Eve being cast out from paradise to Joachim and Anna rejoicing over their newborn daughter, Mary. The Venerable John Paul II remarked on these straight lines by commenting that there are no coincidences, just a Providence that we do not yet see. Or to say it with Saint Paul: “All things work for the good for those who love God.”
Today we give thanks to God for one of those points on the straight line of Providence—the reception into full communion with the Catholic Church of Richard John Neuhaus. Twenty years ago today, in this very chapel, Richard John Neuhaus professed his adherence to the fullness of Catholic faith before John Cardinal O’Connor. Father Avery Dulles, S.J., was his sponsor. His friends George and Joan Weigel were present.
Can we permit ourselves to marvel at the scene? Just as Matthew’s genealogy gives us fleeting glimpses of lives mighty in the history of salvation, so too we can look at the history of the Church and marvel at moments richly blessed by Providence. Some of them are recorded for us in art and architecture and Christian piety—think of Benedict visiting Scholastica at her convent, or Francis and Dominic spending the night in holy convivium in Rome, or Thomas More and John Fisher exchanging secret messages in the Tower of London.
We can cast those same eyes of faith closer to our own time. What must it have been like in the home of St. Therese of Lisieux, growing up with her now beatified parents, Louis and Zelie Martin? Or consider the former Sudanese slave girl who became a Canossian nun, but before taking her vows in 1896 had to be examined by the local bishop; the woman was St. Josephine Bakhita, and the local bishop Giuseppe Sarto, patriarch of Venice and future Pope Saint Pius X.
Or consider that day when Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, one of the greatest pastors of the twentieth century, ordained Jerzy Popieluszko a priest—the Primate of the Millennium and the blessed martyr of Polish liberation. Or consider those private conversations of the Venerable John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa. Or to go back to our feast day, what must family life have been like in the home of Saints Joachim and Ann, and their immaculate daughter?
Of those who were present here 20 years ago, only George and Joan remain, and I don’t wish to embarrass them by suggesting that what took place here was on the order of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in Paris. Yet it is not immodest for us to give thanks for those gathered in this chapel that day—John O’Connor, Richard John Neuhaus, Avery Dulles, George Weigel.
It was surely one of those moments pregnant—if one might use that word on a birthday feast—with Providence. Without those gathered here that day, the contemporary history of the Church in the United States, and by extension throughout the English-speaking world, would have been very different, and much impoverished. Speaking only for my own family, the men gathered here twenty years ago gave definitive shape to both my own priestly ministry and my sister’s vocation.
From twenty years distance, and more than eighteen months after Father Richard’s death, we can say that of course he would have become Catholic, and of course he would have launched First Things, and of course he would have become part of the Catholic moment that he himself wrote about. Of course, for now we see the bright, bold lines of Providence. But on September 8, 1990, none of that was obvious.
So we give thanks to God for the act of faith and courage that Richard made here that day, an act of faith and courage that would strengthen the faith and courage of so many others. What the Lord would do in subsequent years was all hidden then, awaiting Richard to say yes to another vocation within his Christian baptismal vocation. How that vocation would end was also hidden.
There would be a straight line from this chapel on the 8th of September, 1990, with Father Avery Dulles putting his hand on Richard’s shoulder, to the cathedral where Father Richard put his hand on Cardinal Dulles’ coffin on the 18th of December, 2008. It is just a few hundred feet from here to St. Patrick’s, but that line of Providence was magnificently fruitful in the life of the Church.
Cardinal Dulles told Father Richard that he would always be a “convert priest.” Avery Dulles knew that well, for he converted while a student. Richard was 54. We are in the days of preparation for the beatification of the greatest of all the convert priests—John Henry Cardinal Newman.
For those who like to wonder at “coincidences,” Richard was received into full communion in the 1990, the centenary year of Newman’s death, and Dulles was made a cardinal in the bicentenary of Newman’s birth. Another convert priest, our friend George Rutler, could write a whole book embroidering those facts alone. The convert priest seems essential to the intellectual life of English-speaking Catholicism—John Henry Newman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, Thomas Merton. To those names we can certainly add Avery Dulles and Richard John Neuhaus.
Indeed, without these adornments to Catholic life, English-speaking Catholics would have a much diminished patrimony. These great convert priests demonstrate that what the Second Vatican Council teaches is true, namely that there are real sources of grace outside of the visible confines of the Catholic Church, and that these sources of grace, in God’s good time, work toward to full communion and Christian unity.
The Nativity of Mary is a feast of God’s good time. Her conception and birth are the final stages of preparation for the fullness of time, in which God would send His Son, born of this woman. What took place here twenty years ago was a moment of special grace, a moment in the chronological life of Richard John Neuhaus that encountered the kairos of God’s providence. For that we, and so many others, give thanks.
On the tombstone of Avery Cardinal Dulles it notes that he entered the Society of Jesus on August 14, 1946. On the headstones in the Jesuit cemetery at Auriesville, August 14 is the most popular date for entering the Society. The second most popular is September 7. Evidently, the vigil of the Marian feasts was considered a favorable time to enter a society dedicated to proclaiming the Holy Name of Jesus. Cardinal Dulles would be given the titular church of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. The straight lines of Providence connect so many, many things! And Richard entered full communion on Mary’s birthday, for Mary’s role is nothing other than to lead all the baptized to closer union with her Son.
In August1990, Pastor Richard John Neuhaus preached his last sermons in what had been his father’s pulpit, at St. John’s Lutheran in Pembroke, Ontario. He knew that he would become Catholic upon his return to New York. And so he chose as the theme of his final sermons the hymn, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ the Lord.
The Church has only one foundation, and Mary, Mother of God, gave birth to Him. Her whole life, from her immaculate conception and nativity onwards, was directed to encouraging all her Son’s disciples to build their lives on that one foundation. We pray that today, she is leading her devoted sons, Avery and Richard, to the throne of grace, where they will have prominent places in the Cardinal Newman section for convert priests.
What took place twenty years ago today became an occasion of grace for many of us gathered here today, and of course a decisive moment in Richard’s own life. So there would have to be a statement. He wrote one, and it read: “To those of you with whom I have travelled in the past, know that we travel together still. In the mystery of Christ and his Church nothing is lost, and the broken will be mended. . . . We travel together still.”
Indeed, we all travel together, the broken bits being mended, praying for the unity of Christ’s Church, proclaiming boldly the Gospel in the public square, issuing the invitation to the high adventure of Christian discipleship, as we walk together along the straight lines of the Church’s providential pilgrimage though history, with Mary as our mother, for the Lord Jesus is indeed the firstborn of many brothers.
Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario. His last article for First Things was , a review of John Allen’s The Future Church. His writings can be found here. The readings for the Mass, offered in the chapel of the Archbishop of New York on 8 September 2010, were Roman 8:28-30, Psalm 13, and Matthew 1:1-23.
Readers interested in more on Father Neuhaus and his work should read the memorial issue, which includes Fr. de Souza’s homily at Fr. Neuhaus’s funeral, The Great Convivium.