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Model of Christian Discipline Mourned
Father Richard John Neuhaus was a “model Christian disciple, an inspiration in the Catholic priesthood, and a trailbrazer in his apostolate as a public intellectual.” He was also a friend.

Father Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8, 2009 – America's leading religious commentator; Lutheran convert to Catholicism who became a dominant figure in Catholic intellectual life; civil rights activist, Vietnam war protester and pro-life champion; author of landmark books arguing for religious pluralism against secular fundamentalism; pioneer in Christian-Jewish dialogue; interlocutor of popes and presidents; and impresario of the journal, First Things, which readers would read back to front so as to get right to his back pages survey of matters weighty and whimsical.

Father Richard John Neuhaus

He was for me, though, much more than that. In my early twenties, one of my closest friends told me that Richard John Neuhaus was what I should be when I grew up.

Some aspirations remain impossible, but nonetheless can inspire, and Fr. Neuhaus was that for me. It was a singular blessing of my life that I got to know him some 15 years ago, and over time he became more than a friend – a model Christian disciple, an inspiration in the Catholic priesthood, and a trailbrazer in his apostolate as a public intellectual. He was a true father to me, and I doubt I shall ever feel such a filial loss again, save for the death (long to be delayed, God willing) of my own parents.

A man, especially today, is blessed indeed to have a true father, one who both inspires and corrects, and shares with his son the joy of growing in ways of learning, of skill, of duty, of service, of holiness.

My brother and sisters have that in our own father. But my younger sister and I, through the mysteries of Providence, came into the extraordinary circle that was the ambit of Fr. Neuhaus. It may be that I would be a priest and she a religious sister had we never met him; but it is certain that I would be a much lesser priest and she a lesser religious sister.

The great gift Fr. Neuhaus gave to the many young people he inspired was his interest in them, and his evident joy in the "great adventure of Christian orthodoxy."

His journal and his books were his vehicle for intellectual argument, the pulpit his instrument for preaching, but it was the art of conversation that was his means of guiding others in the way of discipleship.

Unlike no man I have ever met, he was utterly at ease discussing the most serious things; not so much this or that influential book, but struggles in the life of virtue, mysteries in theology, the great questions of my life and his: What does the Lord want of me?

That his preferred method of doing so was after evening prayers had been said, with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, was the practical affirmation of his theological conviction that to rejoice in the Lord's gifts was an obligation of gratitude.

It is also true that the long-faced saint is a poor evangelist, and nearly everything in Fr. Neuhaus' life was aimed at preaching the Gospel in one way or another.

He had many gifts and did not pretend otherwise. Yet he knew that to whom much is given, much is demanded, and he filled his life with so much reading, writing, preaching and launching of new ventures that one suspected that he knew that a great deal would be demanded of him indeed.

He once began a conversation with me by asking, even before the first sip of the pre-prandial drink: "How are you managing your ego?"

When I choked on my own drink at that conversation starter, he chided me for pretending to false modesty. The point was not to pretend that gifts hadn't been given, but use all of them for God's glory, for which purpose they were given.

Then, as always, he gave the Christian lesson. This time it was from 1 Corinthians 4:5: "Do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God."

The Christian task is to do our best with what God has given us, and to rejoice along the way. Whether accolades or criticism comes – and Fr. Neuhaus knew both – let no one judge before the time. It is only for us to be grateful; to be faithful. The time has now come for Fr. Neuhaus; his gifts were many and as he goes to glory, his many sons pray the Lord to grant him his commendation.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, and he is on the advisory board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Rev. de Souza's web site is

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Originally published in the National Post, January 9, 2009.




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