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Law, culture, and Catholicism...up in smoke!

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, 1936-2009

Fr. Neuhaus of First Things has passed away due to complications related to his recent diagnosis of cancer. Please pray for the repose of his soul.

UPDATE: Check out this very moving essay on the topic of dying written by Fr. Neuhaus in February 2000, entitled "Born Toward Dying." In the essay, Fr. Neuhaus dramatically recounts his brush with death at the time and a spiritual encounter that he experienced.

Also, very fittingly, I received my February edition of First Things magazine in the mail today. The part that I enjoy most in every month's magazine is the section at the end written by Fr. Neuhaus called "The Public Square." In this section, Fr. Neuhaus has enlightening and entertaining commentary on whatever item of religion, culture, and public life that catches his fancy. When I heard about his death today, I thought to myself how sad it is that I and the rest of the world would no longer be able to enjoy Fr. Neuhaus's monthly sharing of his wit and wisdom.

So I was surprised and delighted to see that the mailman had given me one last chance to encounter Fr. Neuhaus in "The Public Square." Normally I save "The Public Square" for the last thing I read after the rest of the articles, as a sort of treat, but not today. I tore off the mailing wrapper of the magazine and quickly flipped through to the last section. Sure enough, there was Fr. Neuhaus, alive and well, dispensing his thoughts on the recent death of Cardinal Dulles, on a Newsweek article about gay marriage, on the American Catholic bishops, on Charles Darwin, Peter Singer, Anne Rice, and Solzhenitsyn.... it was if Fr. Neuhaus had never left us.

And then I came to the last item of "The Public Square." It is a kind of final farewell from Fr. Neuhaus to his readers, though Fr. Neuhaus didn't intend them in that way at the time he was writing them. Still, when considering that these are the last words that will ever be written by Fr. Neuhaus in First Things, the words seem to be a sort of personal eulogy. I reproduce this last item here in its entirety:
As of this writing, I am contending with a cancer, presently of unknown origin. I am, I am given to believe, under the expert medical care of the Sloan-Kettering clinic here in New York. I am grateful beyond measure for your prayers storming the gates of heaven. Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much that I hope to do in the interim. After the last round with cancer fifteen years ago, I wrote a little book, As I Lay Dying (titled after William Faulkner after John Donne), in which I said much of what I had to say about the package deal that is mortality. I did not know that I had so much more to learn. And yes, the question has occurred to me that, if I have but a little time to live, should I be spending it writing this column. I have heard it attributed to figures as various as Brother Lawrence and Martin Luther -- when asked what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow, they answered that they would plant a tree and say their prayers. (Luther is supposed to have added that he would quaff his favored beer.) Maybe I have, at least metaphorically, planted a few trees, and certainly I am saying my prayers. Who knew that at this point in life I would be understanding, as if for the first time, the words of Paul, "When I am weak, then I am strong"? This is not a farewell. Please God, we will be pondering together the follies and splendors of the Church and the world for years to come. But maybe not. In any event, when there is an unidentified agent in your body aggressively attacking the good things your body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. 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. Neuhaus, requiescat in pace.