The most recent issue of First Things has been sitting around my house for nearly a week now. By this time, I would usually have torn through the whole issue, waiting as long as I could to resist the temptation to skip to the back to read Fr. Neuhaus’s The Public Square section, usually the best part of a wholly delightful magazine.
But this time I had to wait. It would be Fr. Neuhaus’s very last and final Public Square. It turns out Fr. Neuhaus had been struggling with cancer for some months. I was totally unaware of his struggle.
The day I found out about it was the day I heard he had died. I was at a staff meeting and all of my colleagues and I were surprised to find that within the last few days, and in some cases minutes, our thoughts had independently been drawn to Fr. Neuhaus.
I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it (if you’re not a subscriber you owe it to yourself to track down this issue), but Fr. Neuhaus approached what he knew might well be his last piece in the journal he founded with incredible tact.
A former Lutheran minister, his long piece focused on recent scholarship concerning the Lutheran view of justification and what still separates us as Catholics from the reformed position.
He then made his first mention of death in giving due notice and honor to the recent passing of Avery Cardinal Dulles, a great champion of orthodox Catholicism and a principle pillar of the First Things roster.
He then proceeded on with a few of his beloved book reviews and cultural criticisms.
Then, in the last few pieces, he returned to death. He spoke of Solzhenitsyn, he remembered Cardinal Dulles again, he thought of Studs Terkel, and he cited some recent scholarship on what very young babies know.
Then, finally, he spoke of his own plight. He talked like St. Paul. Full of the vigor to continue to live and fight for the gospel, but ready to accept his calling home whenever his Savior was ready to make it happen. His grit, determination, tenacity and humility in the face of death should be a shining example to us all.
And so I closed the final page on the last issue of First Things in which I would ever read new thoughts from one of the world’s great cultural critics.
I will miss you greatly, Father Neuhaus, until I finally get to meet you face to face on the other side of the veil.
I’ll leave you all with his final words in the journal he founded:
“Who knew that at this point in my 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 you body is intended to do, it does concentrate the mind. The entirety of our prayers 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.”
Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, may the soul of thy servant rest in peace.
May his memory be eternal.
Lord have mercy.