Father Richard John Neuhaus lived an inimitable, outsized, and altogether unlikely life, starting from a small town in Ontario and winding up as probably the most influential Christian American intellectual and clergyman since Reinhold Niebuhr. The obits in the newspapers point first to the many conversions in his life — from protesting the war in Vietnam to supporting the war in Iraq, from the Lutheran to the Roman Catholic church, and from his youthful days as one of the bright young rising stars of the religious Left to one of America’s most influential conservatives.
But the newspapers don’t tend to see what remained the same in Fr. Neuhaus. Through it all, and more than anything else, he was a pastor. All his many, many projects grew out of his deep faith in Christ, and of his drive to give others the gift of joy, hope, and freedom that Christ had given him. He believed deeply that we are all made in God’s image for freedom and relationship, and so as a young man he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma for civil rights, and as an older man he dedicated himself to the struggle to ensure that every American child is welcomed into life and protected in law. He saw no contradiction between these two stands; for him, they were the same thing. As he saw it, as American progressives began to embrace abortion on demand, it wasn’t he that abandoned the Left; it was they that left him.
If he changed his mind about some things — and many times, he did — it was because of his love of the truth, which was inseparable from his love of Christ. All his life, especially in his writing, Neuhaus embodied the classic Catholic synthesis of faith and reason. I have never known a person who read so eclectically and deeply, whose mind was so fascinated by discovery, who so delighted in ferreting out and endlessly arguing over what was true. Fr. Neuhaus published dozens of books and millions of words in his long career, taking on all comers in the endless, rambunctious conversation that was his life.
That was at the heart of Richard John Neuhaus — his boundless hope, joy, and faith in Christ, his Savior and Lord. He inspired countless souls during his life, many of whom I joined at his standing-room only funeral last week in New York. I was there because one of the lives he touched was mine. This journal owes its existence to him, and I owe him much more. He was a pastor and a writer, an intellectual and a fighter, and in the year I worked for him at First Things, I had the honor of becoming his friend. Knowing him was an unexpected and altogether unlikely gift, just like his life, and just like he knew God’s gift of life and the wonder of this world to be. He counted it all a blessing, and I learned to as well. He taught me what joy it is to spend a lifetime witnessing to the truth and the hope of Christ, and I will carry that with me so long as I live. Rest in peace, Father. I hope to be half the witness you were.
Jordan Hylden ’06 is a graduate from Currier House. He is a former Editor-in-Chief and founder of The Ichthus.