Faithful Departed—Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ


Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, who died at 90 on December 12, was the scion of a legendary family (his father, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State); one of the most famous American converts to Catholicism (his conversion came after reading philosophy at Harvard and then, memorably, spying a tree in springtime bloom); and widely considered to be the “dean” of Catholic theologians in the United States, respected by both traditionalists and progressives. His Eminence, Avery Cardinal Dulles to the world, however, was to many Jesuits, “Avery,” and he took himself none too seriously, as befits a serious man.

Funny stories abound about the Jesuit, made all the more amusing for the man’s exalted status in the church universal and his august family background. Famously humble, he often declined to say the name of Dulles Airport when in Washington, DC. One morning a young Jesuit deputed to drive the great theologian to his flight asked him, “Father Dulles, which airport are we going to? National or….”

“The other one!” Avery said. And it seemed appropriate that when the tall lanky priest received his traditional red biretta from Pope John Paul II on becoming a cardinal (the only American Jesuit ever afforded this honor) it toppled off his head and landed in the pope’s lap. He once mistook the house dishwasher for a washing machine (for clothes) and, well, I’ll tell that story another time.

His sense of humor was all the more delightful coming from such a patrician sensibility. When one Jesuit remarked that St. John Berchmans, one of the early Jesuit saints, said that Jesuit community life was his greatest penance, Avery responded, “Well I wonder what his community thought about him .”

Avery was unfailingly generous to me during the few years I knew him. When one of my first books was published, he not only furnished the publisher with a “blurb,” he also sent me, unbidden, a typewritten letter on a plain sheet of paper with a brief list of helpful corrections. He was a longtime teacher, he said somewhat apologetically, so couldn’t resisted making a few corrections to a manuscript. (He saved me from confusing the Fruits of the Holy Spirit with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit and from misremembering the Latin translation for “meekness.”) And when I wrote about a topic I was afraid would prove too controversial for the church hierarchy, it was Avery who patiently read through a 400 page manuscript. He didn’t have to read the whole thing, I explained, worried about placing demands on his time. If he wanted to, he could read only the part in question.

“Of course I want to read the whole thing,” he said. “How else will I understand it in its full context?” A few weeks later, he wrote me a generous letter saying that all was in line with “faith and morals.” But later on, he also offered a few corrections, mainly on grammar and spelling. He couldn’t resist, he said.

Avery was a model Jesuit priest, devoted to Jesus, to the Church and to the Society of Jesus; as well as intelligent, hardworking, prayerful, humble and, to use an underutilized word, kind. People spoke wonderingly of his down-to-earth and kind manner with everyone — cardinals and cleaning women alike. In the time that I knew him, he helped me to understand better not only what it meant to be, in Jesuit lingo, a “man for others,” but, in more common parlance, a Christian.