Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Pope and "Herr Professor"

He might've received the red hat at 82, but for Avery Dulles, the cardinalate has never been just an "honorary" dignity.

The only American priest ever to be directly inducted into the Roman clergy without episcopal ordination, the iconic Jesuit theologian -- who once wrote that his journey from WASP scion to to Catholic hierarch included a period of "a thoroughgoing atheism" -- stepped up his responsibilities following his 2001 elevation, becoming active in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and taking on an even larger schedule of talks and events while keeping his commitments as a prolific scribe of books and articles and the Laurence McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.

Over the last year, however, despite being as "sharp" and incisive as ever in his thought, and his desire to keep running at all cylinders -- even hoping to honor his road dates (to which he always traveled alone) -- the cardinal's been rapidly hindered by the aftereffects of a 1940s bout with polio, which in recent months has left him unable to speak or walk and recently saw him take up permanent residence at Fordham's infirmary, where pointing at lines in a notepad of frequently used phrases has become his prime means of responding to visitors.

But even so, not even illness could keep Dulles from wanting to see Pope Benedict during his visit last month -- for which he had initially signaled his intent to be present at every event alongside the other American cardinals. Though that wasn't to be given his health, it was Benedict who went the extra mile to see him, throwing his usual devotion to schedule aside to meet privately with Dulles before the youth rally at St Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie.

For most of the encounter, it's been noted that B16 -- never one to choose his words lightly -- didn't address the cardinal with the customary "Your Eminence," but the German academy's eminent honorific of "Herr Professor." Dulles' prepared remarks were read to the Pope, and the cardinal gave Benedict a copy of the cardinal's recently-published compilation of his two decades of McGinley lectures.

Two weeks prior to his papal audience, Dulles looked on as the farewell lecture he had written as holder of the McGinley chair (fulltext/fullvideo) was delivered for him.

"In this life, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end," it read. "Divine providence, which has graciously guided my career throughout these many years, is giving clear signs that it is time to move on and make way for a younger and healthier successor."

Quoting the former Cardinal Ratzinger along the way, he echoed that over the course of his teaching life "I have never tried to create a system of my own, an individual theology. What is specific, if you want to call it that, is that I simply want to think in communion with the faith of the church, and that means above all to think in communion with the great thinkers of the faith. The aim is not an isolated theology that I draw out of myself but one that opens as widely as possible into the common intellectual pathways of the faith."

For an eye onto the cardinal in his own voice, Salt + Light's streaming a 2004 interview with Dulles from Fordham's campus in the Bronx.

Sixty-eight years a Catholic, 62 a Jesuit and in his fifty-third year of priesthood, Dulles marks his 90th birthday on 24 August.

SVILUPPO: In a recent commencement address, Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio used the legend of Dulles as his launching pad.

PHOTO: L'Osservatore Romano