Monday, May 15, 2006

St Paul Meets St Jaroslav

Good Lord. These pages are almost becoming like the obituaries section these days.... But, as this one is of great importance, both for the world at large and on a personal level, so it goes.

Thanks to Amy Welborn, I've just seen that Jaroslav Pelikan, Jr., the pre-eminent historical theologian of our time who wrote more books in 60 years than most people will ever read by whatever author over the course of their lives, died on Saturday evening aged 83.

What a good man, what a great soul -- and what a mind-blowing body of work he's left the world.

You'll have to forgive me for being a bit shaken up. I've never disclosed this before but, not all that long ago, in my last semester at Penn, I got to call Dr Pelikan "Professor Pelikan." He was my teacher as, in a completely unexpected (not to mention providential) way, I literally fell into a course he taught on the Communication of Political Ideas. And for three hours a week for 13 weeks, I had the blessing to be in a room the size of a walk-in closet with seven fellow-students... and the great Jaroslav Pelikan, who took the train down from his beloved New Haven every week to engage and win the hearts of lowly undergrads. (He even did it once that year in a crippling snowstorm.)

If that's not devotion and humility -- especially from a luminary who was then having international celebrations held in honor of his 80th birthday -- God knows what is. And we could all learn from it.

At the end of my student days, Pelikan provided the most amazing academic experience of my life, one which stretched heavily into the spiritual, as Pelikan was completing his journey into Orthodoxy at the time. And given my interest in things religion, he invited me to conversations with him which started before the class sessions and picked right up in his office after they ended.

I did all I could to try and cram everything he said into my head, but as much as I tried, I couldn't -- even at 80, he worked and moved at warp speed. The man could go on and on for days in the most fluent and accessible way. Simply put, it was incredible, from his precision of memory to his almost-lyrical syntheses which incorporated texts as diverse as Paul, Churchill, Strauss, Thomas, you name it.

Most of the time, I just sat there slack-jawed and kept nodding in agreement. It was such a gift to just, you know, be there... it's a good thing I've saved my notes, and I'll have to dig for 'em in the days to come.

In the meantime, however, I'm thinking particularly of Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine. Pelikan supervised Moynihan's dissertation at Yale, and the good doc always spoke of Bob with the highest affection and pride.

As Pelikan's many students (who meant almost as much to him as his own children), his legions of colleagues, friends and admirers the world over mourn his passing, we give thanks for the gift of this man, this legend, who wasn't just an authority on the theoreticals of the Christian message, but lived to the hilt what he taught.

God love him forever.

SVILUPPO: For those for whom this is an introduction to Pelikan, here's the audio of a public radio program he did a few years back on "The Need for Creeds."

Additionally, two years ago this weekend (Penn's 250th Commencement takes place today), my alma mater honored Pelikan with an honorary doctorate -- and asked him to speak at the Baccalaureate ceremonies.

You can find that text -- a reflection on Penn's motto, "Leges Sine Moribus Vanae" -- here.

And, of course, his tribute to John Paul which ran on the pages of the New York Times' Op-Ed page.