Avery Dulles: Friend, Hero, Christian

Avery Cardinal Dulles’s earthly life, which ended last week, was like something out of a Henry James novel. The scion … Continued

Avery Cardinal Dulles’s earthly life, which ended last week, was like something out of a Henry James novel. The scion of a fabled family–his father, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State under President Eisenhower–and educated at élite schools, he left his Presbyterian roots for the Roman church and, worse, the Jesuits. (Newsreels covered his 1956 ordination; the footage is now on Youtube.) During World War II, the young man joined the Navy, and won the French Croix de Guerre.

Dulles’s conversion from agnosticism came during his undergraduate years at Harvard. As described in his autobiography, his turn to God was half in response to philosophical inquiry, half in response to noticing a tree in springtime, its little buds “in all innocence and meekness” following an unseen law that called to the student. His subsequent career as a Jesuit priest and theologian was, by all accounts, extraordinary. By the time of his death, he had written roughly 800 scholarly articles and 23 books; was considered the dean of American Catholic theologians; and was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II–the only American Jesuit ever to receive that honor.

Over the last ten years of his life, I was fortunate to come to know a serious scholar who did not take himself too seriously. In October 2001, I was asked to accompany the great man to Boston, where he would receive one of his many awards, at a fundraising dinner. Before we boarded the train near Fordham University in New York, where Avery taught theology, I asked how he felt about the accolade. “I haven’t really done anything to deserve it,” he said. What about the books, the articles, the lectures? “I suppose,” he said, “But I still feel awkward.”

We arrived in Boston with barely enough time to dress in the Jesuit community where we were lodging. “Come by my room when you’re ready,” he said. An hour later, I knocked on his door. When he opened the door he was resplendent in his cardinal’s black cassock with red piping, and the grand ferraiolo, or scarlet cape. At age 82, Cardinal Dulles couldn’t reach the lowest buttons of his cassock so I knelt down to help. “How do I look?” he said with a sly smile. “As my mother would say,” I told him, “you look very handsome.” His patrician bearing was evident no matter what he wore; that night, the lanky Jesuit looked like Cardinal Abe Lincoln.

The next morning we caught the 8 a.m. train back to New York. (His Protestant work ethic, undimmed by his Catholicism, opted for the earliest train we could make.) Back at Fordham, a few Jesuits asked how things were in Boston; the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks. “People in Boston were upset that two of the planes that hit the World Trade Center came from Logan airport,” I explained, relating what I heard the night before. Avery said, “How do you think I feel? One of them came from Dulles!”

That was one of the rare times he referred to that place, out of humility. Once, during a stay in Washington, D.C., a young Jesuit was assigned to drive Avery to the airport. He asked, “Which airport are we going to, Father? National or…?” Father Dulles said, “The other one!”

Given his lightheartedness, it seemed appropriate that, in 2001, during the Vatican ceremony when he was made a cardinal, Pope John Paul II placed the customary red biretta on Avery’s head, and it toppled into the pope’s lap. No one enjoyed telling that story more than the new cardinal. And he enjoyed recounting a tale from his Navy days, when as officer of the watch, he ordered his ship to fire on a German U-Boat in the Caribbean. When dawn came, Ensign Dulles realized that had bombarded a coral reef.

Avery was quietly generous to me, as to so many others. When I wrote about a topic I thought might prove controversial, Cardinal Dulles, in his late 80s, patiently read through a 400-page manuscript. He didn’t have to tackle the whole thing, I explained, worried about the demands on his time. If he wanted, he could read only the part in question. “Of course I want to read the whole thing,” he said. “How else will I understand it in its full context?” A few weeks later he sent a gracious note saying that all was in accord with “faith and morals.” Later, in a phone call, he said the old teacher couldn’t resist making a few minor corrections: Was I sure about the spelling of the name of St. Thomas Aquinas’s mother? He signed off his calls with Naval precision: “Over and out!”

Avery was a model Jesuit. During a 2001 interview for America, he told me the he felt being a cardinal betokened a responsibility to accept more speaking engagements, even at his advanced age. The son of John Foster Dulles taught his friends what it means to be, in Jesuit lingo, a “man for others.” Or, to use two old-fashioned words, what it means to be humble and kind. Or, in more common parlance, what it means to be a Christian.

James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is associate editor of America magazine and author of “My Life with the Saints.”

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  • agapn9

    Cardinal Dulles sounds like a great guy. Wish I would have met him. May his face always behold the Queen and her triumphant Son in heaven.

  • mightysparrow

    The observation that a man is a Christian because of his humility and kindness is ethnocentric in the extreme. Humility and kindness are cornerstones of thought and behavior in all of the world’s religions- not just Christianity. I have the same reaction to that kind of assertion when I hear someone say, “…he/she would never do THAT sort of thing, they’re a Christian.” I think it is time to acknowledge that we don’t live in a world where the doctrine of only one or a few faiths have an exclusive claim to certain virtues and ideals.

  • JamesMartinSJ

    To: MightySparrow.

  • gmkinzer

    Thank you, Father Waters! Dulles was a hero to us young seminarians way back when, a “flaming liberal” in the days of our Cardinal McIntyre. When a professor actually assigned us in the late 1960s to read one of Dulles’ books, we all knew that Los Angeles–and the Universal Church–had forever changed!We still quote from that book on the models of the Church. He and it are unforgettable. Father Gary Kinzer

  • speed123

    Sparrow is an anti Christian in general, and a anti Catholic in specific.No need to reply to her constant grips and complaints…Honestly, who comments on a great piece about the death of a great theologian with such baseless and trivial accusations?Talk about ego centrism / ethnocentrism…

  • hyjanks

    I’m confused and maybe the likes of speed123 can help me. I’ve read “both” Bibles, the “evil” one of Leviticus fame that most Christians would rather forget (including, most likely, the late, great Cardinal Dulles) and the new, improved, kinder version in which, by the way, Jesus himself fails to rebuke anything present in the first one.

  • jimmy_mac

    I have to second the comments in the article. Not only was Cardinal Dulles a great theologian, as the author so aptly states, he was a true reflection of the teaching ethic which has been the Jesuit tradition. I had the opportunity to meet him several times during my academic journey and found him down to earth, funny, and able to bring explanations down to a level understandable to his audience.As the product of a long Jesuit education, I have experienced some wonderful teachers and priests over far too many years. Cardinal Dulles provided a wonderful window into an understanding of both theology and humanity.