Remembering a Missed Opportunity – Father Richard Neuhaus drew people together

This article was written in fond memory of Father Richard John Neuhaus, Editor of First Things magazine who died on January 9, 2009. It was published in The Atlantic Catholic, January 31, 2009.

Writers and public leaders well above my pay grade have already had much to say about the life and death of Father Richard John Neuhaus.

Born and raised in Pembroke, Ontario, the young Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a liberal Lutheran Leader of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s. In 1968 he was a delegate to the Democratic Convention in Chicago where he clashed with police and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

In the mid-nineteen seventies his ideas about religion and politics evolved. He was profoundly affected by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision and began to vigorously defend a more conservative position on the sanctity of life and the place of religion in public affairs.

In 1984 he published The Naked Public Square about the dialogue between religion and culture in the context of post-modern secular relativism. He converted to Roman Catholicism on September 8, 1990 and a year later was ordained a priest by Cardinal John O’Connor. Many knew him best as the founder and editor of First Things, an ecumenical journal with the declared purpose of examining “a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

I met Father Neuhaus very briefly in 1991 while in New York for a meeting with American author and social critic, Midge Decter. She was a colleague of Neuhaus at the newly founded Institute for Religion and Public Life. Decter had recently declared victory over fellow travelers of the former Soviet Empire and disbanded her international contingent of culture warriors known as the Committee for the Free World.

With the Cold War behind us, Midge had graciously accepted my invitation to speak at an international student conference to be hosted by Lower Canada College in Montreal. I was visiting New York to confirm the arrangements for her participation. We met at her office on Fifth Avenue and prepared to head out for a Manhattan burger at what Midge promised was a good “sports bah.” I was a big fan of Decter’s work and looked forward to having lunch with her after an early morning drive from Canada.

As we were leaving for lunch a man appeared in an office doorway and Decter said: “This is Richard Neuhaus.” We just exchanged friendly nods and that was the sum total of my direct human contact with a man who was to have a profound influence on my reading habits and prove to be one of the most important public scholars of our generation.

I will always regard the abbreviated nature of that one personal encounter with Father Neuhaus as a missed opportunity. At the time, I knew little about him and his work. Throughout the late 70’s and 80’s I used to balance my youthful infatuation with the New Yorker with more conservative magazines like Encounter and Commentary, but in 1992, First Things was only beginning to enter my radar screen. I still recall that over lunch Midge convinced me to subscribe.

Since that time I have looked forward to the monthly delivery of First Things and, like many other readers, found myself turning directly to the back pages for Neuhaus’ often controversial but always good- humoured survey of recent events in “The Public Square.”

Although deeply saddened by the suddenness of Father Neuhaus’ passing, I was moved to learn that, notwithstanding the participation of five bishops and seventy priests, the homily at his standing-room –only funeral Mass on January 13 at Immaculate Conception Church in New York city was delivered by a Canadian.

Father Raymond de Souza, a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, Chaplain of Newman House at Queens University and long-time admirer of Neuhaus, described Father Richard as “a wise friend and trustworthy guide for Christians.” He rightly pointed out that Neuhaus “drew people together who might not otherwise meet   –   Christians and Jews, evangelicals and Catholics, Canadians and Americans, clergy and laity, theologians and journalists, entrepreneurs and evangelists, distinguished authors and aspiring writers.

Neuhaus was not without critics, as anyone who has been called to stand for something will well understand. But overall, his wit, wisdom, talent and compassion has spanned borders and reunited generations. His deep sense of “convivium” and the power of his words will be very hard to replace   – not a bad contribution for a guy who was always happy to point out that he didn’t finish high school.

Brooks is Director of Advancement at Sacred Heart School of Halifax.