Fr. Neuhaus had a missionary zeal, a fervor for argument and conversation in defense of the faith he loved so passionately. First Things was, of course, the vehicle by which that virtue presented itself to society at large. But First Things is only one of his legacies. One of the richest of the many he left us is the Tertio Millenio seminar, which he cofounded with Fr. Maciej Zieba, Rocco Buttiglione, George Weigel, and Michael Novak in 1992.
The seminar takes place over three weeks each summer at the Dominican priory in Krakow, Poland. Its intent, as described in its official pamphlet, is “to deepen the dialogue on Catholic social doctrine between North American students and students from the new democracies of central and eastern Europe.”
It was my privilege to attend the seminar in 1998, and through the years everything we learned there—about Catholic social teaching, the thought of John Paul II, a vibrant Christian culture, and the friendship whose root is the Lord—has rippled out into the lives of the Tertio alumni. Many of us today are sisters and seminarians, teachers and writers, fathers and mothers. Now living out that last vocation, I regularly find myself moved anew by my time in Krakow. The seminar's gift is more than the excitement of studying with Catholic intellectuals and clever Eastern Europeans. Like so many of Fr. Neuhaus' gifts to those who loved him, it is one that, having been planted by a most assiduous farmer in the soil of young hearts, grows over a lifetime.
His annual arrival in Krakow was anticipated with glee by all and, in the typical Polish Dominican way, arrangements for delivering him to the priory were conducted with manic efficiency. It was a testament to his pleasure in the seminar that he made the journey from New York sixteen summers in a row, always bringing for the staff a bottle of what became known as “Jack Daniels, O.P.” He appeared in class the following day, apparently immune to jet lag, and began to lecture on Centesimus Annus.
Most of us knew him through his writing, but few had witnessed him in his full extempore glory. He spoke on the value of the human person made in the image of God, on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity that are fundamental to a just society, and on the dangers consumer culture poses to spiritual values. He spoke from just a few notes, and sometimes none at all, pulling together effortlessly all the threads he had so carefully spun out in his decades of work on religion and public life. For those of us who sometimes mused on the title “public intellectual” in our vocational daydreams, his lectures were a powerful schooling.
Stimulating as his classes were, the Masses he celebrated were the heart of the seminar. Every day, after the lectures and before our common dinner, the students and faculty gathered in a tiny chapel in the priory, sitting on wooden folding chairs around a stone altar. One of the Dominican brothers led the singing, students took the readings, and Fr. Neuhaus often preached. With strong emotion he called us—Americans searching for the roots of liberty, Eastern Europeans so lately liberated—to the authentic path of freedom and holiness, centered in the sacrifice of Christ, and raised the host to unite our group in a bond far stronger than argument.
As was always the case, seriousness mixed easily with joy in his company. His confident mangling of the Polish language amused him as much as us, and he partook with gusto in such fare as dark bread slathered in lard and salt, served with plenty of vodka at a local peasant restaurant.
When the Tertio alumni reunited in Rome at the turn of the millennium, his mood was ecstatic. After all, there were few things he loved more than a gathering of friends, particularly when the friends talked and laughed and sang like that group did (and most particularly when the group included, as it did for a few hours in Rome, the Holy Father himself). Over the years, as more and more young people came to be part of the First Things family, one of the first questions asked of them at Saturday dinner was “Were you in Krakow?” Thanks to his relentless generosity in the service of God, Krakow will always be in us.
Alicia (Mosier) Chesser, a writer in Oklahoma, was a fellow and editor at First Things from 1998 to 2003.