A Tribute to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)

Mary Angelita Ruiz

Richard John Neuhaus sang “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” that stalwart American hymn, as though it were a rollicking drinking song, the rhythm swinging like a full tankard in a fist. His voice was rumbling and huge and pleasantly out of tune and his eyes lit up as he sang:

COME thou fount-of EV’RY ble-ssing
Tune my HEEAART to singthygrace!
STREAMS of mer-cy NE-VER cea-sing
Call for SOOONGS of loudestpraise!

It was a favorite hymn of the Community of Christ in the City, the little ecumenical community in Manhattan that was Father’s home for over thirty years, and my home for almost three while I worked for his journal, First Things. We always sang the hymn this way, though its words are raw. Father’s rendition may have been rollicking, but it was also tender, even confessional. When he sang

Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood

he sang with an immediacy that made clear he was singing not about an abstraction but about a daily meeting with one man. He was the same in conversation, speaking of “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” with awe but also easy familiarity–the way one might say “Abba,” daddy. He had a childlike faith.

In so many ways he was a titan of a man, the last person one might call childlike: learned in an astonishing variety of subjects, prodigiously productive, incisive, disciplined, unflagging, avuncular (his own appellation). His mind was always at work, his pen almost as frequently so. He spoke in the cadences of a preacher, in and out of the pulpit. He exuded an irresistible energy and held the attention of any room.

He led a life, as he would say, of “high adventure.” He grew up in the Ottawa Valley in Canada, the youngest child but one of a Lutheran minister, and at fifteen, moved to Cisco, Texas to open a filling station. He talked his way into college, despite being a high school dropout; was ordained to the Lutheran priesthood; became pastor of the desperately poor Brooklyn parish of St. John the Evangelist. He marched for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., founded Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, and preached the urgency of the pro-life cause to his fellow activists, the cause for which he soon broke from the political left. He wrote The Naked Public Square to argue that the “American experiment in ordered liberty” demands religiously informed participation in public life, an argument that shaped and still shapes American political debate. He advised presidents, befriended John Paul II (always “John Paul the Great,” his way of urging “Santo Subito!”). And he founded First Things to encourage the development of the projects that were the great works of his intellectual life: “the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty” and the sustaining of a theologically-grounded ecumenical dialogue among Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

In 1990, after decades of wrestling with the question of Lutheranism’s place in the Christian communion, Richard John Neuhaus ‘became the Catholic he was,’ to borrow his phrase. In 1991, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of New York. (Heaven, he liked to explain, would have a sign over the gate: “FROM THE PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT YOU NEW YORK: THE NEW JERUSALEM.”) Thereafter followed the floods of work for which he is now perhaps best known. Every month for eighteen years he turned out the Public Square, those thousands upon hundreds of thousands of vivacious and erudite words—what Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, called “one of the great journalistic feats of our time.” With Charles Colson, he founded the ecumenical project Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He wrote As I Lay Dying, Death on a Friday Afternoon, Catholic Matters. For millions of viewers around the world, he was the televised guide to the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. And winding through it all were his deep and lasting friendships, nurtured in prayer, in study, in debate, over whisky and dinner and whisky, through a haze of cigar smoke, in conference rooms, in the Vatican, at his dinner table.

“I’m just a simple parish priest,” he would say, smiling innocently, and people laughed, because hanging in his bathroom were pictures of him tête-à-tête with presidents and popes, and honorary degrees crowded the dusty walls of the steps to his basement office at home.

It was a joke, and yet it was no joke. For when Father Neuhaus spoke about the priesthood, he spoke like a man in love describing his bride. The priesthood was the great love of his life—not the adventure or accomplishments, not the books or essays, not the colloquia, causes, or even his most beloved friends, but that intimacy with Jesus that came of laying down his life for Him. He had time for everyone: for readers of First Things who arrived at the office hoping for an autograph and were ushered to the couch for a conversation; for the eager young dreamers who sought his advice, including those who founded the journal you are reading now; for the elderly parishioners who saw him every morning at Immaculate Conception Church on 14th Street in Manhattan. The look in his eyes when, in quiet moments, he recalled his ministry at St. John the Evangelist or spoke of consecrating the host each day at Mass, was the look of the long-ago fisherman called from his nets. He quoted the nineteenth-century Dominican Father Jean Baptiste Lacordaire:

To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to teach and to pardon, console and bless always—what a glorious life!

In 2006, Father Neuhaus turned seventy. There was a great to-do, a dinner packed with friends from the “worlds within worlds”–one of his favorite phrases–that his life and works overlapped. After sufficient libations, the toasting began, and then the roasting, and soon the room was roaring with laughter as, one after another, friends leapt to their feet to raise a glass.

Then Professor Robert Wilken stood up. He and Father Neuhaus had been friends most of their lives. They met at Concordia Theological Seminary as teenagers. The one became a priest, the other a professor and theologian. They had converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism within a few years of each other.

Professor Wilken’s toast was simple. This is all good, he said, but here is something you may not know about Richard: Every night as he goes to bed—and here Wilken’s voice caught—the last thing he still prays is

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

The highest praise from an old and dear friend: He had a childlike faith.

May the Lord keep your soul, Father. Rest in peace.


  1. Francis Ruffing says

    I am not an intellectual not schooled in Theology, Philosophy, Sociology or Politics. But I read First Things and Father Neuhaus for years (sometimes understanding and sometimes not) and could see the good this man did. He shaped much of me and how I view the Church (and church) and the world. I never met him, but miss him deeply. He is just plain stuck in my memory. Thank you for the tribute.