I was thrilled to be accepted to Harvard Divinity School, and even more excited by its very generous scholarship offer. But I had to turn Harvard down. Though it had much less prestige, The Catholic University of America had Father Avery Dulles on its faculty in 1978, and so, for me, it was the only place to study theology.

I first encountered Father Dulles in high school, shortly after my own religious awakening. Unlettered and fresh from years as a rock musician, I dared to pick up an article written by him. I was amazed that it was actually comprehensible, intellectually stimulating and spiritually edifying. As I entered college and began reading other theologians, I came to appreciate how unique he was. Few could explain complex concepts so clearly and integrate faith and reason so successfully, in language that anyone could understand. When I discerned a vocation to teach, I decided to study with a teacher I wanted to emulate.

Pegged as liberal

There were many things about Father Dulles, however, that I could never imitate. Son of John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's secretary of state, he was a blue blood scion of a prominent WASP family. I was a cradle Catholic from immigrant stock. I was excited, animated and enthusiastic; he was even-keeled, analytical and deadpan in his delivery. In fact, many students referred to him as Avery Dullest. But for me, every lecture was riveting because of its clarity, depth and spiritual integrity.

I will always be grateful to him for introducing me to two of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac. In fact, Father Dulles had much in common with these theological luminaries. Like de Lubac and von Balthasar, he was vastly prolific as an author, penning more than 700 articles and 26 books over his long life.

Curiously, von Balthasar and de Lubac were both pegged as "liberals" early in their career. The same was true of Dulles. Some thought his most famous book, "Models of the Church," granted license to pick one's own favorite model of the Church. This, of course, is completely contrary to his main point. The Church is a supernatural mystery. As such, it can never be adequately described by any human image or model. There may be a master image that appeals to you, said Cardinal Dulles, but you must always critique, enlarge and complete it by reference to the other images presented by Scripture and tradition. Such an approach is actually Thomistic, leaning on St. Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of analogy. As such, it is entirely traditional.

Traditional, not conservative

Come to think of it, "traditional" is the best word to describe Cardinal Dulles. Henri de Lubac drew a very helpful distinction. "Traditional," he said, means fidelity to the heritage of the Church in its most vital moments -- the Scriptures, Fathers, Doctors, liturgies and saints. "Conservative," said de Lubac, means commitment to the status quo, to the style and forms of Catholic culture immediately inherited from the last generation.

For de Lubac and von Balthasar, tradition is not a dead weight of anachronistic customs, but a fertile source of new life, a creative and even revolutionary reality. Yet traditional is the antithesis of innovative. Neither von Balthasar, de Lubac nor Cardinal Dulles ever aspired to be "creative." They desired, rather, to be faithful.

Yet to be traditional means to be creative in one's fidelity, because tradition is alive and vital. Cardinal Dulles was most creative in his teaching on the theology of tradition, successfully showing why tradition must necessarily be recognized alongside Sacred Scripture as a distinct vehicle by which revelation is passed down to us.

He makes plain that some of what we know can never be reduced to words, especially to written words. Much is known only through action and lived experience and can only be passed down in exactly the same way.

Many think, approvingly or disapprovingly, that Cardinal Dulles became increasingly conservative with age. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was extraordinarily consistent from the time of his conversion to Catholicism in the 1940s to his passing on Dec. 12, 2008. It was not Cardinal Dulles -- or von Balthasar and de Lubac -- who changed but rather the times. The wooden conservatism of the 1950s gave way to a post-conciliar free-for-all in which the commitment to the modern world and its agenda overshadowed fidelity to the deposit of the faith. Throughout all the turmoil, Cardinal Dulles was ever the same.

Von Balthasar, in his essay "Theology and Sanctity," pointed out that, up until Aquinas and Bonaventure, theologians were usually saints. The decline of theology beginning in the 14th century paralleled the increasing detachment of theology from spirituality. It was Cardinal Dulles who drew my attention to this article, and who showed me by his example that this sad alienation could be overcome even in our very secular age.

Witness to truth

When I arrived at The Catholic University of America graduate school of theology in 1978, all was not well. The arid air of the enlightenment made it difficult for my spiritual lungs to breath. Father Dulles was like a breath of fresh air. Despite his erudition, he was disarmingly simple, prayerful and humble. A saint takes God seriously, but does not take himself very seriously.

Cardinal Dulles never ceased to poke fun at himself. And despite the relentless parade of publications, talks and regular classes, he was never too busy for anyone. Though he left The Catholic University for Fordham University just as I was beginning my dissertation, he insisted on continuing as my director, as if he did not have enough work to do! Despite an impossible schedule, he wouldn't miss driving to Baltimore to concelebrate our wedding Mass.

Pope Paul VI said that the modern world does not want teachers, but witnesses. If it does listen to teachers, it is only because they are first of all witnesses.

Perhaps this is why Pope John Paul II raised priest-theologian Avery Dulles to the College of Cardinals, as he had raised de Lubac and von Balthasar before him. This was more than a stamp of approval for a theological body of work that exemplifies creative fidelity. Rather, it is a recognition that this Jesuit prayerfully lived what he taught, and thus was a witness in life as well as in word, to Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life.

Extraordinary life

Cardinal Avery Dulles died Dec. 12 at the age of 90 after a period of ill health. Named a cardinal in 2001, he was the first American to receive the honor who was not first a bishop.

Cardinal Dulles, the son of former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and nephew of onetime CIA director Allen Walsh Dulles, both of whom served in the Eisenhower administration, was born Aug. 24, 1918. He was the grandson of a Presbyterian minister and joined the Catholic Church in 1941 while a student at Harvard Law School. He served in the Navy in World War II, then entered the Jesuits after his discharge in 1946. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1956.

Cardinal Dulles had been the Laurence J. McGinley professor of religion and society at Fordham since 1988. He also had taught in Washington at the former Woodstock College, now folded into Georgetown University, in 1960-74, and The Catholic University of America, 1974-88. He had also been a visiting professor at Catholic, Protestant and secular colleges and universities.

Past president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society, Cardinal Dulles served on the International Theological Commission and as a member of the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue. He also served as a consultant to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

The cardinal was a frequent lecturer on religious and church matters well into his 80s.

-- CNS

Marcellino D'Ambrosio is a theologian and founder of The Crossroads Initiative, an apostolate of Catholic evangelization and renewal.