The past year has not been abundant with fortune for the world or our nation—which made it precisely a time when one ached for commentary from Richard John Neuhaus. We waited, by an instinct that thought he would reply quickly. But there was an uncharacteristic silence. Gradually we realized through the tutorship of time that all his words in this world had been spoken. We can only surmise what he would have said when engaging the follies and faithlessness of our late culture. His attentions are different now and, confident of an eternal life beyond all the ups and downs of the present, he can claim the epitaph of another man of letters, Benjamin Franklin, who likened his body to the cover of an old book with contents torn out and “stripped of its lettering and gilding” but which he believed would “appear once more in a new and more elegant edition revised and corrected by the Author.”
In the course of the hot and rancid days of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wondered whether the half-sun carved on Washington’s chair was rising or setting. Father Neuhaus, believing that Franklin was right when he decided it was rising, did everything in his own generation to keep it high. With a perspective longer than the great Franklin’s, he also remembered that day on the Emmaus road when the sun and hope itself seemed to be declining forever. Christ appeared as the sun himself, and the bewildered men on that road recognized him in the breaking of the bread.
Tonight the risen Christ is offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of Richard John Neuhaus, and many gathered here discern Christ more clearly because of how we discerned him in Richard. Christ’s Eucharist is death and resurrection together. Father Neuhaus said to me nonchalantly on the telephone one day: “All of us are dying.” At first I thought he was belaboring the obvious, but soon I learned that it was his way of telling me with crafted delicacy that he had only a few weeks to live. He had already taken the temperature of mortality in his book, As I Lay Dying, in which he said, “I believe that one learns to die, not by philosophizing, but by dying.” In the graceful way he died, he made his own body, stripped of its letters and gilding, an elegant second edition which we should call As I Lay Rising.
It was only a month before his own death that he came to this cathedral in physical pain, and grief no less hard, for the funeral of Cardinal Dulles. The mental and spiritual bond between Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus had a creative power that strengthened the Church. Risking gross simile and exaggeration of parallels in their respective chronicles, the contemplative reserve of Dulles and the social activity of Neuhaus, may remind us of Newman and Manning. But those contrasting Victorians, in sepia daguerreotype, were too great to fit comfortably in one room, while Dulles and Neuhaus, in the vivid color of our living memory, were each other’s strength, and enlarged the space they occupied. Not far from eternal borders himself, Manning said at the funeral of one he loved more than liked, what we could say of our late friend, and no less of his own friend: “Who could doubt that the great multitude of his personal friends in the first half of his life, and the still greater multitude of those who have been instructed, consoled, and won to God by the unequalled beauty and irresistible persuasion of his writings—who could doubt that they, at such a time as this, would pour out the love and gratitude of their hearts.”
Christ disclosed himself on the Emmaus road only after he had opened the Scriptures and taught, for Christ the Priest is also Christ the Teacher, and it was that economy which made many of those who knew Richard Neuhaus remark that in many ways he opened the Scriptures and made our hearts burn within us with what he said. Such was his skill with words which he never trimmed to fit the folios of the cynics.
He had been nurtured in a tradition that stressed the preacher’s commission to flesh out the Word that was made flesh, that is, to preach the consequences of the Incarnation “heart to heart.” This was an expression congenial to Luther and Melancthon though the words belong to St. Francis de Sales. Father Neuhaus came to understand, and then broadcast by his life, that what is true in essence could animate both Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Our departed friend said, “I became a Catholic in order to be more fully the Christian I was as a Lutheran and that is what happened.”
He could speak heart to heart, and we are here a year later in consequence of that. Becoming a Catholic was for him not a matter of burning the bridge behind him, Rather, it was a walk across the bridge on which he was first set in baptism. This is not to say that such a walk is without cost, for the bridge that any man of conviction crosses is a toll bridge. Grace is free but not cheap, and we know what it cost our Lord to give it to us. The Eucharist as the “source and summit” of true devotion became the font and height of each day Father Neuhaus lived. This priestly vision only sharpened his prophetic voice. Among his benefactions to Catholic life in a troubled time was the way he lived a maxim of Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: “For the word of God is the light of the soul, and the sacrament the bread of life. These also may be called the two tables set on one side and on the other, in the storehouse of the holy Church.”
There is a story which has the attribute of being true, of two colleges in a university of Father Neuhaus’s native Canada. They were of opposite theological opinion , built facing each other. In the chapel of one was inscribed words of the Resurrection angel at the empty tomb, “He is not here.” One day some seminarians, from the more sacramentally ordered school, placed next to the inscription a sign reading: “He is across the street.”
Father Neuhaus was more aware of the full demands of charity, and did nothing like that, but he said in persuasive syntax tactful enough to win friends as deftly as he won debates, that Christ really is there. We must always remember the unfathomable patience and handsome pathos with which our Risen Lord spoke to those men on the Emmaus Road: “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” There it was: correction without condescension, an appeal to the mind in the light of glory passing all understanding, and a zeal for souls that could beguile pedestrians to paradise. The one we last saw a year ago was yoked to that enchantment and daily he stood in the public square asking on behalf of his Lord who in a marvelous agony of grace had asked Philip, “Have I been so long with you and do you still not know me?” Father Neuhaus has bequeathed that public square to all of you who now can do in your own ways what he did in his singular way.
Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. Richard John Neuhaus sang those words before he learned Tantum Ergo. The author was a redactor of King David with his harp (Psalm 18:2): “The Lord is my rock and fortress and my deliverer.” The verses go on: “The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.” The words are far more ancient than the hymn. St. John had seen it all with his own eyes in his Revelation (11: 7,11): for he says: “And when they shall have finished their testimony, the Beast that ascendeth out of the Bottomless Pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them. . . . And after three days and a half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.”
This homily was delivered by Father George William Rutler at the Mass for the Repose of the Soul of Richard John Neuhaus at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 8, 2010.