Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Continualist

In light of the memorial Mass for Father Richard John Neuhaus tomorrow (which, this time at least, is at St. Patrick's Cathedral), I'm re-posting my reflections following the funeral last year:

Though it made things rather crowded, it was appropriate that Father Richard John Neuhaus' funeral mass took place at his home parish, The Church of the Immaculate Conception in the East Village. There by Stuyvesant Town he celebrated the sacrament countless times, amidst "ordinary parishioners," many of whom knew nothing of his status as a public figure, the work he engaged in beyond his role as a parish priest. As Father de Souza noted in his magnificent homily, that altar, not his column in First Things, was his axis mundi.

I realized after the service that I had wandered into the church long ago, perhaps a decade earlier. I can't remember if it was when visiting my sister at NYU or on some youthful romp through the East Village, but I slipped in once to see the fabricated cave - the "Lourdes Grotto" in the back of the church, made to look like the actual cave in France with a hovering statue of Mary. Back then, it was one of those moments when an evangelical warms up to Catholic culture, and I remember despite the kitsch, that outlet of pedestrian Catholic piety having a positive impression. I was delightfully surprised today to discover that such a commanding intellectual had served for so long in the same church.

Father de Souza's homily celebrated Neuhaus' love for "convivium." Besides the ultimate convivium of the Eucharist, Neuhaus relished the kind comprised of vivid company mixed with cigars and a drinks. "The Scripture passage for this morning doesn't mention cigars, but Father Neuhaus wasn't a sola scriptura kind of guy." The reference to RJN as a "master of the dinner table" was fitting.

Yes, Neuhaus was conservative, but Jordan Hylden points out the folly of those who would use that word to explain him away:
More than once, when discussion at the office turned to the intellectual, political, or theological trend of the moment, RJN would get a familiar, amused look on his face - a half-grin, raised eyebrow, and mischievous twinkle in his eyes that said, "I've seen this sort of thing before." Fads meant little to Father Neuhaus, and he knew well how much the allure of intellectual fashion and the approval of the "right people" could blind one to the truth. He came to be dismissed by some as simply another "conservative." But I daresay that much of what he said will, given time, prove more enduring than the several fashions with which he was out of step.
Perhaps more than a conservative, Neuhuas was a continualist, and perhaps that's what made him a conservative. As George Weigel has mentioned, Neuhaus' two central ideas were the compatibility of disestablishment and free enterprise of religion - ensuring that religion would continue to be part of this republic; and his extension of the Civil Rights movement, with the understanding that the pro-life cause was its genuine continuation. Also, "continualist" was the word he used in one of his later books to describe those who recognized the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council. A continualist is neither a liberal who says the Council didn't go far enough, nor a conservative who saw it as breaking fundamentally with the Catholic past. Neuhaus was a Vatican II continualist who interpreted the Council as leavened by the millenia of church history that came before it, a history with which it was in harmony, not discord. The Council did bring changes, however, changes that enabled Neuhaus to become a Catholic, albeit one who faithfully lifted up daily prayer from the Lutheran prayerbook. He saw his conversion as a continuation of his genuine Lutheranism.

But Neuhaus was a continualist in another, more metaphysical, way as well. Once in a dinner conversation when I was lucky enough to sit next to him, I asked him once about his view of Marian piety and the communion of Saints. He paused, reflected, took a deep breath, and relished the chance to respond. Melodramatic as it may sound, he looked out at the dinner table like the two of us both standing on the edge of a great vista, with mountains stretching dozens of miles ahead. He explained how he expected to develop new skills of devotion, capacities he would need to nurture as he explored the horizons of communion with God and his church that lay ahead. Though it was months before his death, he sounded as if he was just beginning, which of course he was. Neuhaus continues his journey of communion with God, "higher up and further in." What a gift to have known him, and what a privilege to have seen him off.