My first impression of Richard John Neuhaus was not positive. Soon after his ordination as a Catholic priest, Joseph R. Windle, then the Catholic bishop of Pembroke, Ontario, took advantage of Richard's annual return to Canada, the land of his birth, to invite him to dine at the cathedral rectory. As the young assistant at the cathedral, I knew attendance at such events was considered obligatory, and thus I first came into Richard's company.
It soon became evident that Fr. Richard had not left his self-confidence back in New York. Bishop Windle offered, in compliment, his opinion that Richard's entry into full communion and ministry within the Roman Church could well be the most significant conversion since John Henry Newman. Richard drew heavily on his ever-present cigar, then agreed that some people might be justified in holding such an opinion.
I almost gagged. How American, I thought to myself. His smug self-assurance rankled my Canadian sense of propriety. Then with a glint in his eye, a tilt of his head, he let out his breath with a hearty, self-mocking laugh and a warm slap on my shoulder. I decided then that I wanted to get to know this American brother priest, as he was clearly a more complicated character than I had first thought.
As fate would have it, I did not have to wait long, for we discovered that next summer that we each inhabited the same island as cottage owners in the Ottawa Valley: a discovery that led to many evenings spent together on each other's front deck, bourbon in hand, after sharing a common celebration of the Eucharist and a common meal. These summer soirées were soon augmented with regular invitations to come to New York, where Richard would host me in his Nineteenth Street home. It was there that I first entered into the daily gathering for evening prayer, food, and fellowship. There I met luminaries such as Avery Cardinal Dulles, leaders in the fight for the cause of life, and any number of academic and literary types who seemed drawn to Richard's table. No matter on which side of the border we met, we always found ample fuel for many hours of amazing conversations.
Yet even these memories could not explain what it was about this man that inspired people who, upon hearing of his death, felt compelled to come from all over North America to the memorial celebrations in his adopted Manhattan and his native Pembroke.
Then it came to me. Every word of tribute that I heard or read referenced his seminal 1984 book, The Naked Public Square, but it seemed to me that the man's greatness was found in an earlier work, his 1979 Freedom for Ministry. Here Richard offered a powerful vision of pastoral service. Here he spoke of the importance of finding ways to present the awesome challenge of Jesus Christ to those under one's pastoral care. By accepting the wonderful “challenge of orthodoxy” that is the placing of Christ at the center of their lives, clergy of all stripes would find the inspiration to minister God's love to all the baptized as they labored to promote the Kingdom of God. His fraternal care and concern for those who took up the pastoral yoke of Jesus Christ was where his compassion, faith, and profound humility in the face of the paschal mystery shone through the brightest for me.
This was the missing key. It was not to be found in the overtly public (dare I say American) ministry of marching for civil rights and peace, or in his commentaries and books on public culture; but rather it was the interpersonal, interior expeditions of a shared faith (a quintessential Canadian attribute born out of long, cold winters spent indoors). It was here, where he walked side by side with fellow souls on the incredible journey to Jesus, that the true goodness of the man shone through. Rightly was he acclaimed for his public accomplishments, yet it was with bonds of friendship, hewn from shared acts of faith, hope, and fraternal love that will forever anchor his place within the hearts of all who came to know him as pastor, priest, and friend.
So this summer, and every summer that God grants me in this life, as the August sun sets into the serene waters of the majestic Ottawa River, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, son of both Canada and America, will be remembered with a gracious prayer of thanksgiving for a life well lived. May he always bask in the eternal glow of Christ's merciful love.
Fr. Tim Moyle is a priest of the Diocese of Pembroke, Ontario.