A convert priest gave Catholic Church confidence

  • September 16, 2010
A country pastor from Wolfe Island doesn’t get to offer the Holy Mass in the private chapel of the archbishop of New York without good reason. On Sept. 8, I had the best reason of all — to give thanks to God for a great priest, valued mentor and dear friend, who became Catholic on that very spot.

Richard John Neuhaus, who died in January 2009, was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8, 1990) 20 years ago by the then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor. Richard would be ordained a priest by Cardinal O’Connor a year later.

His sponsor at his reception was Fr. Avery Dulles, later created a cardinal in 2001. Present was Richard’s close friend, George Weigel, who would go on to write the definitive biography of John Paul II. Without those four men — O’Connor, Dulles, Neuhaus and Weigel — the recent history of the Church in the English-speaking world would have been much different, and much impoverished.

Cardinal O’Connor and Cardinal Dulles are already dead, but George and Joan Weigel were present, along with Fr. Neuhaus’ successors at the journal he founded, First Things, as well as other friends and those, like me, who first met him in his writings before he shared with us his friendship. We returned on a sort of pilgrimage to the place where Fr. Neuhaus’ life, and the life of the Catholic Church in the public square, took a significant turn. What happened that day in the archbishop’s chapel was an enrichment of both Fr. Neuhaus’s life and the life of the Church. Every conversion is like that, but the gifts Fr. Neuhaus brought to the Catholic Church were noteworthy — and much needed.

Born the son of a Lutheran pastor in Pembroke, Ont., Fr. Neuhaus would move to New York as a young Lutheran pastor himself, and in time become in the “capital of the world” — as Pope John Paul II called New York — a voice of Catholic confidence, unafraid of the elite culture, which he knew needed the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than most. Twenty years on from his conversion it is not unusual for Catholic intellectual leaders, including bishops and priests, to insist on their rightful place in the public square. That many are confident enough to do so, and to carry it off in a winsome way, is the legacy of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

His example and his friendship gave shape to my own priesthood. He preached at my first Mass when I was ordained in 2002. It was my honour to preach at his funeral when he died not seven years later, at age 72. It is propitious that this column begin by recalling the greatest of the writer priests of our time, with my hope that I might have the benefit of his prayers along the way — even as we prayed for him in New York on Mary’s birthday.

Cardinal Dulles told Fr. Richard that he would always be a “convert priest.” Avery Dulles knew that well, for he converted while a student, and was always the “convert priest.” This month brings the beatification of the greatest of all the convert priests — Cardinal John Henry Newman. The convert priest seems essential to the intellectual life of English-speaking Catholicism — John Henry Newman, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, Thomas Merton. To those names we can certainly add Avery Dulles and Richard John Neuhaus. Indeed, without these adornments to Catholic life, English-speaking Catholics would have a much diminished patrimony.

On summer vacation in August 1990, Pastor Richard John Neuhaus preached his last Lutheran sermons in what had been his father’s pulpit in Pembroke, at St. John’s Lutheran. He knew that he would become Catholic upon his return to New York. And so he chose as the theme of his final sermons the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ the Lord.” The Church has only one foundation, and Mary, Mother of God, gave birth to Him. We prayed in New York that she is leading her devoted sons, Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Neuhaus, to the throne of grace, where they will have prominent places in the Cardinal Newman section for convert priests.

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