Richard John Neuhaus died last week from complications of cancer. I will stop short of calling him a great man because that’s not my place. I never knew him, only shook his hand on one occasion and heard him speak at two events. But his legacy within American Christianity is profound beyond words. He was the founding editor of First Things journal, and though I haven’t read First Things for several years, it had a profound effect on the direction of my life. His tireless work to bring Christianity into the “public square” (a phrase that will forever be associated with him) has had a profound impact on American Christianity.
I know some Orthodox converts, both laity and priests, who are embarrassed by their Protestant heritage. I know many Orthodox people (the blogosphere seems full of them) who hold Protestantism in contempt. But thank God that Fr. Neuhaus, a Lutheran pastor who converted to the Roman Catholic Church and eventually became a priest, was not among that lot.
First Things, from the beginning, was an ecumenical journal that took the faith of Christians, whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, historic Protestant, or Evangelical, seriously. In contrast, he never took either liberal culture or popular culture more seriously than it deserved. As anyone who has casually read his journal knows, he was fond of referring to the New York Times as “our parochial little local newspaper.” As a result of the pioneering work of Fr. Neuhaus and his journal, other endeavors of serious ecumenical work sprung up. Among my favorites is the journal founded by Patrick Henry Reardon and Terry Mattingly called Touchstone.
It was on the Touchstone blog that I ran across this quote from Fr. Neuhaus, as quoted by J. Bottum (the current editor of First Things:
When I come before the judgment throne, I will plead the promise of God in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. I will not plead any work I have done, although I will thank God that he has enabled me to do some good. I will plead no merits other than the merits of Christ, knowing that the merits of Mary and the saints are all from him; and for their company, their example, and their prayers through my earthly life I will give everlasting thanks. I will not plead that I had faith, for sometimes I was unsure of my faith, and in any event that would be to turn faith into a meritorious work of my own. I will not plead that I held the correct understanding of ‘justification by faith alone,’ although I will thank God that that he led me to know ever more fully the great truth that much misundertood doctrine was intended to protect. Whatever little growth in holiness I have experienced, whatever strength I have received from the company of the saints, whatever understanding I have attained of God and his ways…these and all other gifts I will bring gratefully to the throne. But in seeking entry to that heavenly kingdom, I will, with Dysmas, look to Christ and Christ alone.
Dysmas, by the way, is the name of the thief on the cross: “And the thief said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'” (Luke 23: 42-43)
Fr. John Neuhaus, may your memory be eternal.