Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive
By George William Rutler
Scepter, 172 pages, $9.95
As the Victorians enjoyed collecting curiosities, so Fr. George Rutler enjoys collecting curious people. In this book he walks us through the specimens he keeps under glass. One might be tempted to think this tour only a collection of vignettes—a basket of bonbons to be enjoyed with frivolous pleasure, or a brag sheet of famous people Fr. Rutler has met. The book is that, up to a point, but not all the people within its covers are famous. Elizabeth Anscombe, John Paul II, Robert Frost, the late Queen Mother, and Mother Teresa are on display, to be sure, but so are parish secretaries and housekeepers, and they are no less interesting for having never made the papers.
In being no respecter of persons, Fr. Rutler reminds us of the many delightful ways in which eccentricity and dignity are properties of humanity and that what seems ordinary to the world is really extraordinary. The secretary of his first parish, Fr. Rutler writes, was always known as Miss Irwin: “It was as if Miss was the name bestowed with the lustral waters of the Methodist Church whose hymnodic fellowship she left in youth to embrace Anglicanism, which the Methodists had tried unsuccessfully to bring to a happier frame of mind. Agatha Christie might have formed Miss Marple fully from the brow of Miss Irwin, like a geriatric Athena.”
There are also, of course, amusing anecdotes about two men whom regular readers of First Things have met many times on these pages. Of Avery Cardinal Dulles, Fr. Rutler recounts, “For several years we celebrated Easter and Christmas together, and the only help I ever gave him was to stop a Christmas tree with real candles from falling on him. After that I claimed to have saved his life or at least to have saved him from being burned somewhat less than Jesuits of the Tudor period.” And Fr. Rutler recalls that the host of those Christmas gatherings, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, once objected to baptized Christians’ “converting” to Catholicism, saying that they more “embraced” their new Church. “That same evening,” Fr. Rutler adds, “he pointed out that the heating system in a nearby building was being converted to gas, to which I replied that he should have said it was embracing gas.”