Cardinal Ratzinger said in his funeral homily for John Paul the Great: “This is not the time to speak of the specific content of this rich pontificate.”
Likewise, this is not the time to speak about the specific content of the rich literary life and public achievements of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Our privileged task today is to bury a Christian disciple, not principally a public figure. You would all know that even without my quoting Cardinal Ratzinger, but I thought Fr. Richard would be pleased that his funeral homily began: “Cardinal Ratzinger said . . . ” He liked to begin stories like that. Six years ago, he did me the honor of preaching at my first Holy Mass, and sure enough, he said, “When Cardinal Ratzinger was ordained a priest . . . ”
Now it is no longer for Fr. Neuhaus to do for us, but our turn to do for him. We come to pray for the merciful judgment of his soul, that whatever sins he committed may be forgiven him, that whatever purification remains might be accomplished quickly, and that the Lord Jesus will welcome him home. We offer for him today the same sacrifice he offered on this altar so many times, the same sacrifice Jesus offered for us, the same sacrifice which alone is meet and just, right and availing unto salvation.
Bishop Dennis Sullivan, together with his brother bishops, offers this holy sacrifice, assisted by so many of Fr. Richard’s brother priests. His offering of this funeral Mass is a sign of the esteem and sorrow of the Church in New York, who has lost one of her most illustrious sons.
We pray too for all those who loved and admired and were inspired by him, that our Christian faith in the Lord’s resurrection may be strengthened. We ask that this consolation be extended to those closest to our brother Richard: to his brothers and sisters, especially Mim and Johanna, who were devotedly with him when he died; to his nieces and nephews and many relatives; to Jody Bottum and the family at First Things , who looked after him so tenderly these past two months; to Fr. Larry Bailey, who looked after Richard for much longer than that; to George and Joan Weigel and their children, for Richard was a beloved part of their family; to Robert Louis Wilken, his longstanding friend of fifty-five years; to all his colleagues and collaborators near and far; and to Fr. Joy Mampilly, and the priests and parishioners of Immaculate Conception parish, who have lost one of their own.
In St. John’s Gospel, St. Martha professes her faith in Jesus as the “Resurrection and the Life.” We too profess that faith, and we so eagerly desire to hear from the Lord Jesus the words he said to Martha: “Your brother will rise again.” We need those words. Only those divine words permit us to live with joy and hope amid the sorrow and anguish of this time. This was the secret to the good humor and enthusiasm with which Fr. Richard met each day; this was the secret to how he bore up under the travails that came his way.
There are travails to be sure, for the task of the Christian in the public square is manifold: to be in this world, and if need be, bestride it like a colossus; to wrestle with the passing things here below while keeping eyes fixed on the prize above; to be as successful as earthly standards permit while remaining faithful to the standard of the Cross; to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ while taking note of the profane news of the doings of men. The public square can be a dangerous and forbidding place for those who wish to follow Christ. In the public square, just as on the streets of New York, it is wise to have a friend who knows the way. How much easier it was to enter the public square with Fr. Richard at our side; how much more dangerous and forbidding it now seems without our trustworthy guide.
The corrupting forces of this world were already at work on Martha’s brother Lazarus. He had died and been laid in the tomb. Behind the stone and under the wrappings his body was going the way of all flesh. Sacred Scripture is not shy on this point: There will be a stench. But the tomb does not have the final word. The final word belongs to Jesus: Your brother will rise again. Our brother Richard will rise again.
Martha says to Jesus for her dead brother: Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you. That is the great Christian plea in the face of death. We call upon the power of Jesus, the Lord of life. Fr. Richard knew that plea well, for he never ceased to call upon the Lord of life for those most vulnerable. The day when every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life is not close at hand but, as he put it in one of his last major addresses, “We shall not weary, we shall not rest.” Whether it is civil rights or the right to life, the long struggle for justice can be wearying. So we need champions along the way, to encourage and to exhort. Here in this city the pro-life movement had no more formidable partnership than the two lions of Fifth Avenue—John Cardinal O’Connor at St. Patrick’s and Fr. Neuhaus at his offices at Twentieth Street. The late Cardinal and his great friend were happy, mighty warriors in the cause of life. Now we shall miss Richard as dearly as he missed his beloved Cardinal. The Cardinal gave two precious gifts to the Church and to the pro-life movement, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and the Sisters of Life, and it would please him that the latter are here praying for the former.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord’s celestial mountain. In the translation we used we hear of a “feast.” We used the RSV translation, because it is never a good idea to set the deceased to spinning even before he gets to his grave, which may well have happened had we used the lectionary of the New American Bible, against which Fr. Richard regularly inveighed. There is another translation. In the Latin Vulgate, the word used is convivium. Convivium might just have been Fr. Richard’s favorite word. There are other candidates— winsome and egregious come to mind—but he loved that word, convivium. He was the only one I knew who used it in ordinary conversation, but, of course, his conversations were rarely ordinary.
Convivium strictly means “to live together,” but it connotes a banquet or feast, indicating that a certain supply of rich food and fine wine are, if not required, at least desired. Isaiah says nothing about cigars. But then Fr. Richard was not a sola scriptura man. Convivium is an essential part of the Christian life. We are not meant to be disciples alone. Convivium is what Fr. Richard created over his whole life, delighting in the company of others and the delightful things the Lord had made. He drew people together who might not otherwise meet—Christians and Jews, evangelicals and Catholics, Canadians and Americans, clergy and laity, theologians and journalists, entrepreneurs and evangelists, distinguished authors and aspiring writers.
He brought us all together for a purpose. A good meal, a fine cigar or two, a stiff drink or three, and sparkling conversation for several hours were good in themselves, but they were so much better when put to the service of Christ and his Church. The convivium on East Nineteenth Street began for a reason with common prayer, the greatest reason for coming together. For one thoroughly captured by the Catholic sacramental imagination, each convivium points to that sacrum convivium of which St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his famous lines.
The great Christian convivium on earth is the Last Supper. I remember being here at this parish for Holy Thursday in 1997, in my first year as a seminarian. Fr. Neuhaus celebrated the Mass together with his brother priests and then we all repaired to the rectory for a festive meal to celebrate the institution of the holy priesthood. It was only a few months after the celebrated First Things symposium on the judicial usurpation of politics, and the priests were eager to ask the editor in chief all about it. Over drinks and then dinner, Richard put on a remarkable performance. Those who only heard him in the pulpit or read him in print missed perhaps his most gifted forum: the dinner table. He was a world-class convivialist.
After several hours, the dinner was winding down and Richard had been the center of the entire evening. Nobody resented that, but Richard evidently thought that a Holy Thursday celebration of the priesthood should not be all about him. So he shifted to homiletic mode, and spoke of the wonder and awe in which he held the holy priesthood. More than ten years later I vividly remember his words as he recalled the Eucharistic procession to the altar of repose: “How utterly promiscuous is the love of God!” he began, using idiosyncratically another of his favorite words. Then he preached to us at the dinner table, using those cadences he long ago perfected at “St. John the Mundane” in inner-city Brooklyn: “The Son of the Eternal Father commends himself to our hands; the Word made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary commends himself to our hands, . . . the innocent Lamb who died for the redemption of the world, the Risen One who restores us all to life, . . . this same Jesus, my brothers, allowed me to carry him in my hands. How utterly promiscuous is the love of God!”
Fr. Richard loved the priesthood and loved being a priest. He had a great deal of time for priests, nurtured priestly vocations, and stood up for the priesthood in recent years. Devastated by the unspeakable sins of so many of our brothers, wounded by the pain of so many innocent victims, slandered by so many who hate Christ and his Church—we priests needed a stalwart friend in those dark days of the Long Lent. For his brother priests, Fr. Richard was an often lonely voice speaking for prudence, for courage, for justice, for wisdom, and for holiness.
The man of millions of words repeated the same one over and over to all who would listen: fidelity, fidelity, fidelity . Had he become a bishop an apt motto would have been: fidelitas.
Is it not remarkable how many people have commented recently not so much on Fr. Richard’s works of controversy or argument, but on his life as a faithful disciple? His books on faith in the face of death—whether his own or the Lord’s on Friday afternoon—are the ones which touched souls. He knew this. On the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a few weeks ago, we had our last long convivium at his home. He told me: “As incredible as it may seem to you and as annoying as it may seem to some, I really wish I had written so much more. Not arguments nor controversies, nor pointing out the foolishness which needs to be pointed out; rather, the conversational mode—inviting others to look at life this way or that, proposing the Christian way of understanding things, considering God’s purposes so that others might discover him.”
The flood of commentary upon his death showed how wide that conversation was. I read a line from Hadley Arkes which captures how many of us feel: For his friends this is the kind of loss that tilts the world on its axis.
Axis—that’s another of Fr. Richard’s favorite words. In Canada we say “axe-is,” but he preferred to pronounce it “ox-is.” Those who heard him preach heard it not infrequently. Upon his recovery from his brush with death in 1993, he wrote: “After some time, I could shuffle the few blocks to the church and say Mass. At the altar, I cried a lot, and hoped the people didn’t notice. To think that I’m really here after all, I thought, at the altar, at the axis mundi, the center of life. And of death.”
Today, the tears are ours, and we don’t much mind whether people notice. For seventeen years, this altar was the axis mundi for this noble priest. Not his journal, not the lecture circuit, not his books. This altar, surrounded by the love of parishioners who had no reason to know what he did with the rest of his time, was the center of his world, because every altar is the axis mundi.
In some of the maps of Christian antiquity, Jerusalem is put at the center—the axis mundi. It is not a cartographical error but a theological truth. Fr. Richard kept an etching of Jerusalem above the mantle in his living room. When he died last Thursday, I was in Jerusalem with a group of pilgrims. It seemed providential; I thought of the prayer we priests say for the dying: May you live in peace this day, may your home be with God in Zion . At the moment of his death, I was at the Temple precincts, at the place where for three thousand years people have come to pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
How Fr. Richard loved to pray that way, to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.” The earthly Jerusalem, so battered and bloodied, was where the Lord began to establish the heavenly Jerusalem toward which we—Christians and our Jewish elder brothers—are walking for a providential convivium.
One of the most touching moments in the life of the patriarchs is when Jacob, already an old man, upon hearing the incredible news that his son Joseph is indeed alive and ruling in Egypt, resolves to see him. Yet there are doubts about whether he is strong enough for the journey. The Lord encourages him in a dream: “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Gen. 46).
Of Richard John Neuhaus’ girded loins the Lord will not make a great nation. The Catholic priest lives—as Fr. Richard lived, long before he was ordained a Catholic priest—in anticipation of the kingdom where they no longer marry or are given in marriage. Yet he became a patriarch, for his priestly and fatherly soul generated sons according to the order of grace, and begat many who labor even now to make of his beloved America a morally great nation. Amid the carefree domestic arrangements of Fr. Richard’s apartment, the most eccentric touch was surely the bathroom wall of photographs—dozens of them, arranged with all the care for which his housekeeping was known. There, greeting him every morning and every night were his tribe, his many brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, in Christ.
Without the patriarch there is no family. Had Richard John Neuhaus not been born that long ago day in Pembroke in the Ottawa Valley, there would have been dozens of books unwritten, hundreds of articles unpublished, thousands of speeches undelivered, controversies of great import unengaged, arguments left unmade, and millions of words unspoken. More important, if this holy priest had not passed our way, there would have been a multitude of souls unconverted, disciples uninvited, characters unformed, talents undiscovered, vocations unembraced, spiritual sons unborn. He is the father of a great family.
The last appearance in the public life of Richard John Neuhaus was the funeral last month of his friend Avery Cardinal Dulles. We made our way to St. Patrick’s with more than a little difficulty. At his side, it broke my heart to see how he concelebrated that Mass in great pain. We were being helped by Nathaniel Peters, one of the young men from First Things . Seeing how weak Fr. Richard was in the sacristy afterwards, he was overcome by emotion. Later when we returned home, he was a little embarrassed by his tears, and I tried to encourage him by telling him how grateful I was that he was looking after our dear Father. He responded: “It’s a blessing to do it, because that is just what he is—a dear father.”
The patriarch Jacob was assured by God that he would have the blessing desired by every father—that his eyes would be closed by the hand of his son. Many are the sons and daughters of Fr. Neuhaus. We have come this day to close his eyes, our heavy hearts full of gratitude for the incomparable blessing of being counted among his tribe.
At the conclusion of every convivium, every symposium, every meeting, Fr. Richard would look ahead to the next gathering, which he would announce with the proviso, “should the Lord delay his return in glory.”
The Lord will delay no longer; there is no more waiting for Richard John Neuhaus. He wrote, in what turned out to be his valedictory at the end of the February First Things: “The entirety of our prayer is ‘Your will be done’—not as a note of resignation but of desire beyond expression. To that end, I commend myself to your intercession, and that of all the saints and angels who accompany us each step through time toward home.”
We pray that Fr. Richard is now experiencing the fulfillment of that desire, which eye has not seen, ear has not heard. We close the eyes of our dear Father. Our eyes are blurred by tears. We are afraid that when they dry, we may not see as clearly without him to show us. We close his eyes and pray that they may open upon the glory of the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, at the great convivium of all the blessed. Amen .
Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario. He delivered this homily at the funeral Mass for Richard John Neuhaus on January 13, 2009, in?New York City.