It happens only rarely that a sharp-witted, sharp-penned controversialist has a host of friends. Father Richard John Neuhaus was the exception, and those friends were the measure of the man.
He was an influential editor and author, a familiar figure at the Vatican and the White House, where President George W. Bush called him "Father Richard." But more than anything else, he was a man of God, deeply in love with his Church and his Lord.
Father Neuhaus died Jan. 8 in New York at the age of 72 of complications from cancer. More than most public figures, his passing brought expressions of genuine grief from people who knew him well. Joseph Bottum, poet, essayist and editor of First Things, the monthly ecumenical journal Father Neuhaus founded, spoke for many when he said:
"My tears are not for him -- for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord he trusted.
"I weep, rather, for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of his life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away."
Richard John Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ontario, on May 14, 1936, one of eight children. His father was a Lutheran minister, a profession he also followed, becoming pastor of a poor congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a naturalized citizen of the United States.
During the 1960s, he was an active participant in the civil-rights and anti-war movements, and was a co-founder of the group Clergy Concerned About Vietnam. But in time his enthusiasm for liberal politics cooled. The decisive event for him, he later said, was the Supreme Court's January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
He remained an activist all the same, moving in a neoconservative direction, and in 1984 established a "Center for Religion and Society" as part of the conservative Rockford Institute. When that relationship ended in strife, in 1990 he launched First Things and its publishing base, the Institute on Religion and Public Life.
In September 1990, Father Neuhaus entered the Catholic Church. A year later, he was ordained a Catholic priest by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, who, along with Pope John Paul II, was one of his heroes.
He wrote many books setting out his views on religion, politics and social issues. Among the best known were "The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America" (1984), "The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World" (1987) and "Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth" (2006). With the Protestant evangelical leader Charles Colson, he spearheaded efforts aimed at fostering political and social cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals and founded a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
To many of his readers, Father Neuhaus was best known for his monthly First Things column "The Public Square." Writing in a fluid and highly readable style, he shared his thoughts about politics, Church life, his omnivorous reading and much else. In the process he was often insightful and almost never dull.
In a tribute last November written to mark the 90th birthday of his longtime close friend Cardinal Avery Dulles, he noted that it was sometimes said in criticism of the eminent Jesuit theologian -- who was to die just a month later -- "Avery Dulles doesn't do fireworks."
Richard Neuhaus did do fireworks. But even though he could be tart and occasionally controversial, he was consistently generous and never mean-spirited. As with Shakespeare's Falstaff, so also with him, he was not only witty himself but "a cause that wit is in other men."
Writing of death, he once said: "The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well." And living well is something he was good at.
Russell Shaw in an OSV contributing editor.