In Memoriam, 2017

George Weigel

This was a tough year for losing friends. At one point, I got so tired of writing obituary columns that I wrote a kind of pre-obituary so the friend in question could read it before his death. Before the civil year ends, let’s remember seven giants who will be sorely missed.

Michael Novak (1933-2017). Mike Novak was one of the most creative Catholic minds of our time, a philosopher whose thinking ranged all over the human landscape. He made a far better moral case for free enterprise than anyone before him; he had a penetrating insight into the American idea and the dangers besetting it; he probed the depths of both religious experience and secular nihilism with precision and compassion. Prior to his death on February 17, the last thing we talked about was Super Bowl LI, which was entirely in character. RIP.

Peter L. Berger (1929-2017). I began reading him in 1970, when his classic, A Rumor of Angels, was assigned in a course on Revelation and Faith – and I kept reading him for over forty-five years. We became friends and colleagues in the mid-1980s, and I discovered that, in addition to his insight into society and its dynamics, Peter Berger was one of the funniest men alive, a walking encyclopedia of jokes who used his native Viennese wit to both sharpen conversations and deflect silly conflicts between overinflated academic egos. Berger also had the intellectual humility to admit that the data falsified his early claim that modernization necessarily means secularization, so he began thinking and writing about the complex interaction of modern social, cultural, and economic life in a world that remained stubbornly religious, at least outside of a dying Europe. Andrew Greeley once sniffed that the only numbers in his fellow-sociologist’s books were at the bottom of the page: that was fine with the millions who learned to think about sociology as a form of philosophy, not a subdivision of statistics, from Peter Berger, who died on June 27. RIP.

Cardinal Joachim Meisner (1933-2017). For nine years, his diocese spanned both sides of the Berlin Wall. Then he was sent to Cologne, against fierce opposition from the forces of Catholic Lite, where he tried to reignite Catholic faith in one of Catholicism’s German heartlands. Meisner reveled in telling me stories about his banter with the Polish pope who loved to kid him about the German propensity for Polish jokes. He died on July 5, full of concern for the Catholic future, but with calm confidence that the Lord’s truth would prevail. RIP.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls (1936-2017). He brought the Vatican press office into the (first half of) the twentieth century, was sorely missed since he left that post in 2006, and died on July 5. RIP.

Father Arne Panula (1946-2017). For ten years, Father Arne ran the Catholic Information Center on K Street in Washington, D.C.: Swamp Central, if you will. In that decade he became the foremost priestly embodiment of the New Evangelization in the nation’s capital, a fisherman of souls always on the lookout for a convert to bring to the faith, a lapsed Catholic to bring back into the fold, or a lukewarm Catholic in whom to reignite the fire of the Holy Spirit. He was living proof that doctrinal clarity and priestly charity work together – a brilliant man who wore his vast learning lightly but was prepared to deploy it evangelically to bring men and women to Christ. Before his death on July 19, his last months were a powerful witness to faith and hope. RIP.

Michael Cromartie (1950-2017). We were colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center for twenty-eight years and friends for longer than that. His infectious humor won a legion of friends and admirers and he worked diligently to make the “faith angle,” as his forum for journalists was called, accessible and comprehensible to the press. The antithesis of the politicized evangelical, he was, first and foremost, Christ’s servant, and he died in Christ’s peace on August 28. RIP.

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (1938-2017). A brilliant moral theologian, he had a great impact on Synod 2015, where his five-minute exposition of what conscience means taught a lesson to more than one confused or ill-informed bishop. He died on September 6 – technically of cancer – in some respects from a broken heart at current ecclesiastical contentions. RIP.

COMING UP: The crèche and the gap

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For the past decade or so, I’ve been assembling a mid-sized Judean village of Fontanini crèche figures, including artisans, herders (with sheep), farmers (with chickens and an ahistorical turkey), vintners, blacksmiths, musicians, weavers, and a fisherman or two (one awake, another sleeping). Like the colossal Neapolitan crèche at the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, it’s a reminder that the Lord Jesus was born in the midst of humanity and its messy history: the history that the Child has come to set back on its truest course, which is toward God. The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph, and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”

Why challenging? Because Mary and Joseph were called to both form their son in the faith of Israel and then give up, even renounce, their human claims on him, so that he might be what God the Father intended and the world needed.

When Luke tells us that Mary kept all that had happened to her and to her boy “in her heart” (Luke 2.52), we may imagine that she was pondering what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once described as a great detachment: at his birth, Jesus “detached himself from her in order to tread his way back to the Father through the world.” Some will welcome the message he will preach along that messianic pilgrimage; others will be resistant. And that resistance (in which the Evil One will play no small part) will eventually lead to Calvary, where the sword of sorrow promised by ancient Simeon in Luke 2.35 will pierce Mary’s soul. Then, in the tableau at the foot of the Cross, as captured by Michelangelo in the Pietà, Mary will offer the silent affirmation of God’s will to which she once vocal assent at the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Luke 1.38).

The last recorded words of Mary in the New Testament – “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2.5) – underscore that the role of Mary, who receives the Incarnate Word of God at the Annunciation and gives birth to him in the Nativity, is always to give her Son away: to point beyond herself to him, and to call others to obedience to him. Thus what Balthasar described as a “detachment” applies to Mary as well as to Jesus: Mary detaches herself from whatever her own life-plans might be, and from whatever her maternal instincts to keep her Son close might be, in order to fulfill the vocation planned for her from the beginning – to be the model of all Christian discipleship, which is the abandonment of my will to God’s will for my life.

Then there is Joseph, another model of self-gift and self-renunciation. Hans Urs von Balthasar again: “In the background of this scene of birth there also stands Joseph, who renounces his own fatherhood and assumes the role of foster father assigned to him. He provides a particularly impressive example of Christian obedience, which can be…very difficult…to accept, especially in the physical sphere. For one can be poor by having given everything away once and for all, but one can be chaste only by a daily renunciation of something which is inalienable to man.” And that makes Joseph a model for those who struggle daily to live, by grace, the truths they affirm about human love.

“Mind the gap” is the ubiquitous instruction found on the London Underground, cautioning passengers against stepping between the train and the platform. It’s also a pithy but accurate description of the drama of the Christian life. For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. So the complement to the Fontanini characters surrounding our family crèche – each of whom represents a personal and unique “life in the gap” – is a small “Mind the Gap” Christmas ornament on our tree. For the Child born in Bethlehem is the bridge across the gap, and the angels atop the tree announce his birth.

A blessed Christmas to all.