RIP, Father Richard John Neuhaus

by Benjamin Domenech on 6:35 pm January 14, 2009

I have been asked by many who knew that I went up to New York City for the events to share an account of Father Neuhaus’s wake and funeral, and so here it is.  Excuse the rambling nature of it – there was too much shared over these two days to recall it all, and my memory isn’t as good as it used to be.

On Monday night at Father Neuhaus’s wake at Immaculate Conception in New York City, there were (by my estimate) roughly 1,200 people in a church that could hold about 800. I arrived far too early and not wanting to conflict with the evening service, went across the street to wait in one of the thousand dirty basement Irish bars there seem to be in that city, listening to the Brooklyn vowels of some angry Jets fans discussing personnel moves made and unmade.  New York is such an odd place.

After it got really packed I let an old woman have my seat and stood in the back.  The church was packed to the brim and every New York Catholic of note was there, it seemed like, interspersed with people who just knew him as “Father Richard, who baptized my son or my daughter,” and had no knowledge of his other work.  They seemed amazed to learn what he had achieved.

There were three eulogies after the homily. George Weigel’s was good, Jody Bottum’s was powerfully personal, and Robert Louis Wilken’s was inspired.  Of the three, Jody’s was the most political – at one point noting that, when the regime of abortion in America is finally ended, Father Neuhaus will be hailed rightly as a mighty champion for the cause of life, without whom it could never be achieved.  There were letters from the President, and not just of this country, and hundreds from around the world, filled with sorrow and prayer.

There were stories of his time at the church he described as “St. John the Mundane.”  There were stories of his conversion from Lutheran to Catholic, from liberal to conservative, but in both cases, it seemed more that the world turned around him than that he changed.  There were recitations of his favorite quotations – perhaps one of his favorite being one of Alexander Hamilton’s remarks, that “I will not amuse you with an appearance of deliberation when I have decided.” There were notations on his favorite words – “Winsome.” “Egregious.” And favorite of all, “Convivium.”

When invited to “Convivium” at Fr. Neuhaus’s house, one was expected to arrive promptly by seven PM, in order to stand together and sing the evening prayer.  The discussions over his dinner table, usually surrounded by young Catholic men and women, were the stuff of legend.  His house was always a mess, but a mess with unique stories hidden in it, and some excellent wine.  Perhaps the oddest furnishing was his bathroom wall that was papered with photographs of all these young people, so that he could see them while he shaved, and be reminded to pray for them as he walked – or jaywalked, which he was famous for, with a Calvinists’ sense that those cars would do what they would do – during the day.

There were many, many tales of his addiction to cheap liquor (Jack Daniels at its finest) and good cigars (two a day on average), and more tales of his long friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who would always stay with him once a year. Rabbi Heschel always said that he would bring the liquor if Father Neuhaus brought the opinions, but in truth, he brought both.  Neuhaus called him “Father Heschel” – and Heschel called him “Rabbi Neuhaus.”

He made terrible coffee, but it motivated him to stay up later and talk more, so everyone always encouraged him to make it.  He wrote 12,000 words a month for print, on average, and near the end, confided from his deathbed that he only wished he had the time to write more. He was motivated always by a longing for “prudence, justice, courage, wisdom, holiness,” and his mantra of “fidelity, fidelity, fidelity.”

Father Neuhaus once confided that the secret to his prodigious ability was to make sure he said his morning prayer every day before he read the newspaper.  Putting God first, he could get to the work God asked of him with a mind set to the right purpose.

The next morning, the day of the funeral mass, the church was even more packed – I would estimate as many as 1,600.  I stood in the back behind what seemed like the entire editorial board of National Review, First Things, and the bevy of priests who were there.  I missed a small amount of the mass, as there was an elderly woman who had come out with a cane who I ended up helping around quite a bit.  But I heard the whole of the homily first, by Father Raymond de Souza.  Fr. de Souza began by saying “Cardinal Ratzinger once said…” and had a quote that seemed relatively minor.  He then explained that he thought Fr. Neuhaus would have approved of any funeral homily that began, “Cardinal Ratzinger said,” because it was one of his favorite things to begin any conversation with in life.

Fr. de Souza’s remarks focused on this verse from Isaiah, one of my personal favorites which apparently was one of Fr. Neuhaus’s favorites as well, and its description of what he called “the eternal Convivium” of believers.  It is the Convivium that begins at the Altar, and ends in the Kingdom of God.

We recited the RSV translation instead of the NAB (to avoid, they said, setting the Father to spinning before he was in the grave):

The Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine.

And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations.

He will swallow up death for all time.

And the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;

For the Lord has spoken. And it will be said in that day,

“Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us.

This is the Lord for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”

The loss of Fr. Neuhaus, Hadley Arkes said, “For his friends this is the kind of loss that tilts the world on its axis; for so many things marking the world around just cannot be the same.”  But having been to this vigil and this mass, I feel like this is not true.  It may seem the case to us – it may seem wrong, unjust, unfair.  But I think now that it is right, and good, and the way things ought to be.

He once wrote of the cross: “This is the axis mundi, the center upon which the cosmos turns.”  He liked that phrase.  And now he knows it in full.  I have no doubt of that.

For this is the way the story should end: a sinner becomes a man of God, a man of God becomes a great warrior for God, and a warrior for God, triumphant in his work, goes now to be with God – welcomed as a champion.

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