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Requiescat in pacem

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 2/20/2009

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On Jan. 8, our Church lost two fierce Catholics, one a foot soldier, the other a general. Both deaths took us by surprise.

James Joseph Foley was known to a small circle, the father of our son-in-law, Dr. Michael Foley. Jim lived near our daughter and son-in-law in Waco, Texas. He had gone out for an early-morning cup of coffee and was hit head-on in his car when a young driver veered over the centerline. Jim was taken to hospital and surgeons worked to repair his badly broken bones. They worked long and hard and were pleased with the results. Then they lost him. No extreme measures were taken.

At Jim’s funeral, his past came to join his silent body. He had served both his God and his country in the Air Force and later was a member of Knights of Columbus. On these occasions, the organizations pay their tribute. At the end of the Requiem Mass attended by 120 people, military Taps were played, as two airmen ceremoniously removed the American flag from atop Jim’s coffin, and presented it to his widow. The night before, Knights formed an honor guard at his wake. After the recitation of the rosary, 90 people came up to embrace and comfort his wife.

During the painful span of four days between the shocking news of death and being laid to rest, friends and neighbors quietly came to the house to drop off a covered dish or barbecue for 12, volunteer to pick up relatives at the airport and house them, and care for the children. This is what they do: the Knights, the military, the Catholic family.

In the morning hours that same day, we heard Father Richard John Neuhaus went to sleep in the Lord. We mourn his passing, his wit, his clear head, and valiant arguments. We did not know Father Neuhaus personally, though he was widely known in Catholic circles -- writing, speaking, advising Presidents. His influential, 1986 book “The Naked Public Square,” set the dialogue for what our society has been becoming as religious values are marginalized. Maybe he was the G.K. Chesterton of our time. Surely he was a modern Doctor of the Church.

We, like so many readers of his journal “First Things,” turned to the back section first. Here his comments in “The Public Square” informed our opinion. A gifted writer, Father Neuhaus took on the hot button issues where the Church opposes the secular drift with biting intelligence. He held fast on abortion, having been appalled by the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade.

Once a leading civil rights and anti-Vietnam War spokesman, he increasingly became critical of the excess of his former colleagues on the Left. Originally ordained as a Lutheran pastor, in the early 1990s, he became, first, a Catholic, and shortly after a priest, a move he said was simply returning to the Mother ship. He ardently supported Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He criticized the reaction to the Second Vatican Council as being “gravely distorted,” so that “much of what is called Roman Catholic Christianity is, in fact, apostate.” He formulated his law, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

Father Neuhaus was, perhaps, our strongest culture warrior and fighter against the crush of modernity on our Church. Picking arguments with Newsweek and The New York Times were regular items in his column. In a recent issue he criticized Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, over the “religious case” for gay marriage in its Dec. 15 (Christmas) issue. He didn’t mince words. Father Neuhaus called the story “a muddle of vituperation against the ignorant, Biblicist, and bigoted people who disagree with them. Maybe all the other editors were on vacation,” Neuhaus mused, “or maybe Newsweek has decided to get out of the business of the news of the week in favor of venting the strident prejudices of its editors.”

In 2000, Father Neuhaus wrote about death in an essay First Things recently posted on its website: “Death is the most every day of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn closer.”

Death is the reason we pray, say the rosary and stay close to loved ones. We know our tears come from our need to have kept those dear departed a little longer with us. We know we are less without them.

Our Jim was a heart of the Church. He lived the faith. His adored his family. He taught his professor son how to work with his hands, a rarity today. His widow will stay with her son’s family, maybe indefinitely. They will want her to stay with them or in a mother-in-law apartment they will build.

When a death comes in the ordinary things such as going out for a morning cup of coffee, we know it is close. We remember the childhood prayer at bedtime, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the Protestant version. But the Catholic version is ours:

Mathew, Mark, Luke and John

Bless this bed I lie upon

Four angels gather round my head

One to watch and one to pray and

Two to take my soul away.

“Every going to sleep is a little death, a rehearsal for the real thing,” wrote Father Neuhaus. Or maybe a rehearsal for the true first things.

RIP, Jim and Father Richard.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.