Twenty years ago today, on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Richard John Neuhaus was ordained a Catholic priest. Cardinal John O’Connor ordained Father Neuhaus in 1991 at St. Joseph’s Seminary, just north of the city in Dunwoodie. Exactly one year previous, on September 8, 1990, Cardinal O’Connor had received Richard into full communion with the Catholic Church, in a ceremony held in the private chapel of the cardinal’s residence.
Last night, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York invited friends and colleagues of Father Neuhaus to Dunwoodie for the Mass inaugurating the new seminary year, falling as it did on the eve of the twentieth anniversary of his ordination in the same chapel. Addressing the seminarians and the faculty on the importance of the interior life, Archbishop Dolan took as his inspiration a verse from the assigned reading of the day: your life is hidden with Christ in God.
“It was a winding road from St. John’s Lutheran in Pembroke, Ontario, where Richard was baptized, to this seminary chapel, where Richard was ordained, but the road always had a single destination—union with Jesus Christ,” Archbishop Dolan preached.
“Few of you will have a life as public at Father Neuhaus had,” he continued. “But we can all learn from him. The key to his life as a Christian disciple was that he always did his prayers in the morning before reading the New York Times. Prayer before penance, he would say!”
The great public life of Father Neuhaus was rooted in his interior life—his hidden life with Christ in God. Life as a disciple comes before life as a priest, a preacher, a publisher. How fitting then that Richard would be ordained on a Marian feast, under the protection of the first and greatest of the disciples, Mary, whose birthday we celebrate today.
Archbishop Dolan proposed to the seminarians that they could learn something from their former professor’s example. No matter what great matters of church and state required his analysis, no matter what urgent controversies beckoned him, no matter what outrages awaited his hilarious treatment—first things always had to come first. His hidden life of prayer, his friendship with Christ in God, his spiritual preparation for the morning Mass—all of this came before the many and varied projects he pursued. That’s what Richard meant when he told people that he prayed the Divine Office before reading the New York Times.
For those who knew Father Richard from near or far, the twentieth anniversary of his ordination is an occasion to thank God for all the good that was accomplished through him, not only for the public square, but for the priesthood in New York and around the world. Inscrutable—and marvellous to behold—are the designs of Providence, which deigned that the son of a Lutheran missionary pastor in Pembroke, Ontario, would grow up to become a great contributor to the mission of the Christian community in New York, both Protestant and Catholic.
It will not surprise his friends that on the very day of his priestly ordination, September 8, 1991, Father Neuhaus signed the preface to one of his books. He chose to do so deliberately, for it was the preface to the second edition of Freedom for Ministry, a book he originally wrote as a Lutheran pastor and re-issued as a Catholic priest. It’s about the ordained vocation, the call to serve as Christian pastors and Catholic priests amidst the “perplexities of the improbable vocation that is Christian ministry.”
Of all his many books, Father Neuhaus said the reaction to this one was the most gratifying. It remains my own favourite. He delighted in the positive reaction because Father Neuhaus was at heart a priest, who did all things with a priestly heart, even long before he was ordained a Catholic priest. He had a special place in his heart for priests, and in particular for those men preparing for the priesthood at Dunwoodie.
I would encourage seminarians to read Freedom for Ministry. They might find one passage in particular—as I did when I first read it as a seminarian more than a dozen years ago—strikingly applicable to their lives. It’s taken from the final chapter on holiness in the life of a priest:
In the pursuit of holiness, a sense of urgency is combined with a sense of modesty. This may at first seem contradictory. We are inclined toward an “all or nothing” attitude; if the success of the enterprise is not clearly in view, we will not waste our time on it. The way of the pilgrim is quite different, however. He urgently presses on, not because this day’s journey or even this lifetime’s journey will bring him to the destination, but because he travels by promise. The success of the enterprise was signaled in the raising of Jesus from the dead; the full actualization of that triumph may be far, far distant. Our sense of urgency is premised not upon our chronological closeness to the consummation but upon the fact that this time, no matter how close or how far, is the only time we have; it is the piece of the pilgrimage for which we are accountable.
The seminary and the priesthood ought to be a pilgrimage toward holiness. It may seem to seminarians that it is a long pilgrimage. It sometimes seems very long to us priests. But these years are the piece for which we are now accountable. That’s true for all disciples, but especially true for priests whose daily work would be incomprehensible without the horizon of eternity. That eschatological emphasis is present in all of Father Richard’s work. It’s why he would commonly add a conditional phrase when speaking about future appointments: “Should the Lord delay his return in glory!” I sometimes felt that he would not have been at all surprised if the Parousia came tomorrow morning, in between the breviary and the newspaper.
Holiness then is an urgent matter. The long road of fidelity—of holiness—begins now. Father Neuhaus was fond of saying that the solution to our crises in the Church is fidelity, fidelity, fidelity! The response to an urgent crisis ought to be our routine practise—holiness.
Twenty years after his priestly ordination and two years after his death, the public lessons of Father Richard’s life are clear. In honouring him on this anniversary, Archbishop Dolan suggested that his hidden life has lessons to teach us too.
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.
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