“He has now been gathered by the Lord, in whom he trusted.”
Those are the words of Fr. George Butler, who administered the last rites of the Church on Thursday to one Richard John Neuhaus.
At age 72, the former Lutheran clergyman turned Catholic priest died after a short battle against the cancer with which he had been diagnosed in late 2008.
If you moved on after having caught a blurb of his passing on the TV news, or having seen a headline in a newspaper the past couple days, wondering why the big deal about a priest’s death from cancer, you moved on too quickly.
This was not simply the death of your Average Joe after one of life’s most common end games. This was, as Philadelphia’s great newspaper The Bulletin called it, the loss of a “moral compass.”
Fr. Neuhaus was one of the leading voices in the Church and in the country in defense of the millions of innocent children butchered each year in abortion procedures.
He was said to be an articulate defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and perhaps the leading conservative Catholic voice in the country.
Fr. Neuhaus also had a vision, the dream of many of today’s Catholics, to see the Lord’s Church whole again.
In the 1990’s, Fr. Neuhaus joined with leading Protestant voice Chuck Colson in editing the work ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission’ which was an effort to highlight the common mission and shared values of the two Christian traditions, including their opposition to abortion.
It should be one of the fervent prayers of all Christians to again one day see the differences that led to the great schism in the Church set aside, and for Protestants to end their ‘protest’ and return to the Mother Church. Fr. Neuhaus shared this dream, this vision, this hope.
Fr. Neuhaus knew well the traditions of both Protestants and Catholics. He was born into a Lutheran family as one of eight children. He became ordained as a Lutheran minister and served as an activist pastor in New York in the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghettos of Brooklyn.
In the 1970’s he preached against the Vietnam war, then turned his attention towards the growing genocide created by legalized abortion. Then in 1990, Lutheran minister Richard Neuhaus had his great conversion, becoming a Catholic. A year later he was ordained as a Catholic priest.
He became a highly regarded writer, particularly on life issues, and became an unofficial advisor on these to President George W. Bush who called him ‘Fr. Richard’, helping the President to articulate religious principles. President Bush correctly summed it up by stating that Fr. Neuhaus “devoted his life to the service of the Almighty and to the betterment of our world.”
Humanity lost a great voice on Thursday, particularly that part of humanity that still lies in the wombs of women the world over and cannot yet speak for itself.
It should be all of our goal, as Fr. Neuhaus wished, to see that those voices get the same chance to actually speak one day as we ourselves have received.
By moving in the direction set by this great moral compass of a man, by maintaining and spreading his mission to defend unborn children, we assure that his life’s mission goes on. And as Christians we understand full well that this is not the end for this great believer. Father Richard Neuhaus may be lost to us here on earth for now, but he now begins a new life in the presence of God.