This essay was originally delivered on January 8, 2019, as a homily for the Richard John Neuhaus Memorial Mass at Church of the Immaculate Conception in New York.
When Jesus saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus was many things: a thinker, writer, preacher, lecturer, conversationalist, priest, friend, colleague, mentor, editor, entrepreneur, professor, theologian, innovator, public intellectual, and pastor. In all of these roles, he was always, like Our Lord, a teacher.
He began in his own home with his siblings, celebrating home liturgies and preaching to his sister Johanna in imitation of his father Pastor Clement Neuhaus, himself a Lutheran Pastor. Filled with the fire to share an insight and proffer an opinion, he started his own newspaper out of his home to broaden his audience. From his humble start in Pembroke, Ontario, he would go on—like Our Lord—to teach many things to many people. It was in his blood. He was a soul destined by the Providence of God to be a shepherd of many souls, and a teacher to many of the great minds and aspiring disciples of his time and circumstance.
His Light, of course, was Christ.
While he would often remind us that “everything is interesting if you think about it long enough,” it was the gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to bestow life and eternal life on those who drank of it that fueled Fr. Richard’s passion.
For Fr. Richard, Jesus Christ made the finite capable of becoming infinite. It is His influence that ought to inform who we are, and all that we do—privately and publicly. He was convinced that cult, that is, religion, is at the heart of culture, which is at the heart of politics, which is the art of men and women deciding how we want to live our lives together. And for Fr. Richard, there was only one true cult: that of Jesus Christ and His Church rightly ordered through time.
So despite his many interests, his mastery of multiple disciplines, and his acute mind, like St. John Paul II, Fr. Richard believed, preached, and taught tirelessly and unequivocally that “Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.” It is for this reason that he so passionately defended and labored for the right to life of every human being, from the first miraculous moment of existence in the womb until the last breath of the most broken ones in our midst. He saw in each person the image of the astonishing mystery of God-become-man, and he taught us to defend, honor, and fearlessly persuade others of the sublime and sacred reality of human life.
Born a pastor’s son, he would die an Alter Christus, administering the mysteries of the Kingdom of God in persona Christi. His journey from Missouri–Synod Lutheranism to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to the Catholic Church and ordination to the priesthood is well chronicled. Of course, that final step was precipitated by a well-known trial.
Fr. Richard read, wrote, and preached much on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He believed very much in St. Paul’s radical faith in God, as expressed in Romans 8:28: “All things work together for good for those who love God according to his purposes.” So when Fr. Richard, Davida Goldman, Paul Stallsworth, Jim Nuechterlein, and Maria McFadden found themselves with trash bags in hand on Madison Avenue on May 5, 1989—the fateful day of the Rockford Raid—it did not take long for him to put wheels in motion in the musty basement of 338 East 19th Street to begin The Institute of Religion and Public Life and First Things, with the collaboration of his good friends George Weigel, Michael Novak, Robert Louis Wilken, Peter Berger, David Novak, and so many others. These projects would be the center of his mission and vocation for the remainder of his earthly life, which came to its conclusion ten years ago—almost thirty years from the day of the Rockford Raid.
Tens of thousands of people—from readers of First Things to bishops, professors, presidents, and popes—have benefited from Fr. Richard’s power to overcome adversity and persevere with these missions. We can see clearly the evidence of the wisdom packed into St. Paul’s proclamation—so many things, and so many minds and souls of so many lives have been, and continue to be ordered to the Good, True, and Beautiful, because of the trials and triumphs, tenacious dedication, and discipline of the life and mind of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. His mission, through the Institute for Religion and Public Life and First Things, has continued to enlighten and guide another generation of readers and intellectual leaders through the gifts and talents of Rusty Reno and team and all those committed to laboring for a religiously informed public philosophy.
Only in heaven will we grasp the extent of his influence on the souls of those who encountered him in print and in person. I number myself among the many whose lives and vocations were deeply influenced by Fr. Richard, and I am delighted to be among the many “children of joy” who resided at the Community of Christ at 338 East 19th Street, with his dear friend and colleague Pastor Larry Bailey and the First Things team. Matt Rose once quipped that living at 338 must have been what Aristotle meant by living the “good life.” For those of us who enjoyed those years, when Fr. Richard’s friends and collaborators would pass through town and join us for Evening Prayer, a glass of Dewar’s on the rocks, and a Baccarat cigar, with the dogs Sammy I and Sammy II at Fr. Richard’s feet and a cheeseburger from the local diner in his hand—we were treated to delightful conversation and true Christian fraternity.
I recall many dinners in which the great teacher would stir himself up into a table fervorino—we were an assembly of six, perhaps like his first congregation of siblings in his boyhood home. Now, with the years of wisdom and the richness of a life lived to the full in Christ, Fr. Richard would, on many occasions, be moved by his own words about the astonishing love of Jesus Christ. With the love of a true pastor for his flock and a father for his children—at times with tears in his eyes—he would exclaim, “there is nothing greater that you can do with your life, than to throw your life away for Jesus Christ…to throw your life away and join the high adventure of life in Christ.”
Ten years have elapsed since he passed from life to death to eternal life. Almost eighty-three years have passed since his birth into life on May 14, 1936. Nineteen days later he was born again in Christ in baptism on June 2, 1936. Almost thirty years have passed since he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, on the Nativity of Our Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8, 1990, and almost twenty-nine years since his ordination to the priesthood on September 7, 1991. At that ordination, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Fr. Richard’s long-time friend, mentor, and confessor, would vest Fr. Richard.
Shortly before Fr. Richard’s death in 2009, Cardinal Dulles preceded his friend and disciple into eternal life. I recall Fr. Raymond de Souza assisting Fr. Richard up the stairs from the crypt to the sanctuary of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Fr. Richard was weak. He was dying, this time not lying in a bed as once before, but stubbornly trudging ahead to sit in the choir stall to honor a life well lived for Christ. A few short weeks later, after being lovingly cared for by so many, including Pastor Bailey, Nathaniel Peters, Amanda Shaw, and so many friends, he breathed his last breath with family at his side, and died.
Upon his death, I joined Sr. John Mary, SV and a couple of the Sisters of Life at his bedside to pray and sing the Office of the Dead from the Liturgy of the Hours. Thousands of times, Fr. Richard would have repeated Simeon the Prophet’s words to God on the completion of his mission, “Lord now you let your servant go in peace…your word has been fulfilled.”
Fr. Richard’s last published words read: “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.”
Fr. Richard, we have interceded for you, and continue to do so, but now it is we who ask you to intercede for us at the throne of glory. As you knew so well, the darkness of our time and culture—and even the darkness that has crept into our own Church—is great. But we believe with you that the Light has entered the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. We proclaim with you the power and authority of Christ in all times and places, and in all circumstances. We ask your assistance, Fr. Richard, to persevere in trials, to carry the cross, and to witness joyfully to the power of the Resurrection, so that we may preach with our lives, teach as you taught, and imitate your example of giving glory to God by throwing your life away for Jesus Christ and joining that high adventure of living life on high in Christ. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, thank you, we love you, pray for us.
Fr. Vincent Druding, a former editorial assistant for First Things, is a priest in the diocese of New York.