Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Book, the Baptist, and the Bishop

Metz und Dulles: A Catholic Past for a Non-Denominational Present

"Metz is not a Baseball Team!"

Now to admit that I wanted to be the pope as a child is not a stroke of hubris, but a sincere and plain fact. As much as we can accept there to be such things as "facts" in this world, despite the heresies of philologists like Benedetto Croce, we'll try our best to recognize some "factuality" now and then. Nonetheless, the Catholic ethos of my small brain ruptured one recent afternoon, as I was cleaning my basement and moving my thousands of books around; first, as I shifted the 16-inch statue of the great St. Joseph, holding baby-JC (with wounded knee--I think a family member dropped it on the floor, and since, the good baby-lord has been de-kneed of its plaster self) it was a statuette I'd won two years ago at the annual Tavola di San Giuseppe "St. Joseph's Table" here in Chicago. (This tradition, by the way, is one that I've resurrected for myself, after partaking in some rather ostentatious festivals in northern New Jersey during my childhood--all put on by transplanted Sicilians (my family), their suits, their hairspray, their deliciously monstrous tire-size knit-woven breads with boiled eggs stuck in them for some pastoral, peasant-nourishing evocation of local saints). I always get that tepidly sentimental feeling when I think of such statuary and the cult of the saints (of course, I use this word cult in the most affectionate way, not like most of the media in their misappropriating Jonestownish affectations). Scholars argue that "nostalgia" is some proto-Freudian, conservative fetishism, that East Coast progressives and coffee-drinkers must mark as anathema, as if "nostalgia" were a term commensurate with a Protestant term from the 1540s that needed sharp and ample refutation at the Council of Trent. No children, this is not the case. But the point is, it was always good fun. And you can see that the simple broken plaster knee of a weathered statue gave me as many memories as Proust's darling madeline.

But the second item, which I came upon, opened another floodgate. And that item, which is more apropos to our general discussions of books, was in fact "a book." It was a work of theology by the German Catholic theologian, Johann-Baptist Metz (b. 1928). It is by general happenstance that I've come upon a number of interesting, curious, and otherwise notable characters in my circuitous life. Even though Metz is a highly published writer, it is not so much the content I wish to focus on, but the single book-object which had his name printed on its spine, and what that led me to think about so itinerantly.

J-B Metz (whom I've pictured above in the rugged form of a rustic cross) is one of the most highly regarded post-Vatican II theologians in the Catholic Church. I met the good Herr Professor Doktor by mere chance some years ago. I was but a child, a youth just out of college, who'd ventured into the bomb-ridden streets of Jerusalem back in 1997. I don't remember the exact year, but I think it was in my first of several years living there, that I struck out into the gout-colored deserts surrounding the Holy City. I'd heard of a lecture series-conference that was to take place at the Tantur Institute (which I believe is run by the University of Notre Dame, back in South Bend, Indiana) on the outskirts of the city. In fact, it is much closer to the "little town" of Bethlehem of New Testament charm, but of much different modern reality. The conference had to do with interfaith and ecumenical studies in history. There were talks on Medieval Islam and Christianity and Judaism, Contemporary Jewish-Christian relations, and topics from the New Testament and Late Antiquity. But I had gone, if my memory serves me right, to meet the late Prof. Michael Signer, from Notre Dame, who was a potential doctoral adviser for me. I met Dr. Signer, but I also met Prof. Dr. Metz. It was by total accident. I sat down at a table for lunch. I usually remember what I eat at each meal, even years later, but this day I don't. It was plentiful, that's all I remember. But I do remember that a cheerfully buoyant older man, with a slight combover, sat directly across from me, and spoke with a magnificent Teutonic timbre. We spoke about theology, graduate schools, and my thoughts about attending various academic programs. When we spoke about Chicago, specifically the University of Chicago, he piped up, with his Bavarian smile and attempting to finish his half-chewed comestibles, saying: "I almost went there! They offered me a job, but I said no." Indeed, it was, if I remember the rest of this conversation, the chair that Paul Tillich had held some decades before. The rest of the meal went by without much event, save for the banter of Metz and me, as humble and uneventful as I recall it.

It's Not the "Dulles Thang I Ever Herd!"

Yet, the thoughts that came to me of Jerusalem, Tantur, and Metz from simply picking up one of his books, led me to think about the power of connective thinking and the association one has between "books" as objects and the experiences surrounding them. How and why do we associate ideas, experiences, and encounters as such, especially with books? Indeed, a fascinating topic. This brought me to additional and successive encounters with the great theological luminaries of the Catholic Church. Though it was through Metz's book, I quickly bridged my Proustian gap and fell into my soup of memories relating to the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, (not "Cardinal Avery Dulles," though it is tempting).

Avery Dulles (1918-2008), who had been the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University, wrote widely on Catholic history, theology, and ethics. In my studies and travels, I had the opportunity to meet the good Cardinal twice. The first time, at his consistory in Rome in 2001; the second time, at an ethics conference at the University of Chicago a year later.

From Priest to Cardinal

The one and only consistory that I have attended took place on February 21, 2001. It is the time when the pope, who has selected specific clergy for ascending the pontifical and sartorial ladders (but really much more too), elevates men of the cloth to the position of cardinal in the Church. And with each elevation comes the finest raiments and accoutrements, including two hats and a ring. The hats include a zucchetto (the Catholic yarmulke), which literally means "tiny gourd" or "baby zucchini," and a biretta (the four-cornered silk hat). As for the good Avery Dulles, he ascended late in his career to the silk throne. He was the son of the cold war hawk John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), who had been Secretary of State under President Eisenhower. And they came from granite stock Presbyterians. The younger Dulles was an amicable thinker, who spoke finely and believed passionately. And on that cool, wet day in Rome, back on February 21, 2001, he received his hats and ring and the papal wink from John Paul II, and took on the titular responsibilities SS. Nomi di Gesù e Maria in via Lata. It was rather miserable that day in Rome. A storm had passed and the cobbled ground of St. Peter's square had puddled unevenly. I came up with a Polish friend of mine, and moved toward the seating at the front. Nearby, I had noticed a man, who I think was the Chief Rabbi of Rome, whom I'd seen before. We sat not too far from him. The consistory was fairly brief. The newly minted cardinals came out. The wind blew up their vestments and made them look like a quadrille of butterflies.

After the event, the people of Rome, the general populace who had come and withstood the elements, were all invited into the papal palace. We could roam about in the grand hallways and up the deep-red carpeted stairways, and gaze at tapestries that were older than history herself.
Each Cardinal was seated at a station, as if some booth at a carnival. And lines were drawn up of newly eager well-wishers. I think the longest line was before the New York Cardinal. It was as if everyone was trying to get a prize, trying to toss a ball into a moving target, so that they could win the biggest stuffed animal! And it was by this practical observation, that I saw the shortest line: only a couple people, standing quietly before an elder statesman. I lined up and inched forward. I think I knelt down when I came up to him, because he seemed to be hard of hearing. And we exchanged a few words. I congratulated him. He said thank you. Then he asked me where I was from, what I was doing in Rome, and what I studied. What were my interests, he asked. New York; studying Latin; Theology. Something like that. I told him I was going to graduate school soon, back in the states. And we spoke mildly about the future of theology.
And there, I left him, back off to some other random nook in the Vatican. Off to a puddled piazza.

Just less than one year later, I had moved on to graduate school. The fondest memories of the vita bella and Roma behind me. I was now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and was attending an ethics conference entitled "A Call for Reckoning: Religion and the Death Penalty" which was sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was January 25, 2002. There again, I met by chance, the good Cardinal Dulles. But this time, under more curious circumstances, and perhaps more intimate terms. Of course, it was a cool winter day. Amid the conference, at one point, the Cardinal felt ill and light-headed. He was escorted to the back of the conference, and I led him to an adjacent seating area and helped him sit down on a plush leather chair. "I just don't feel too good," he mumbled to me. We had a bucket nearby and I offered it to him. "My lunch mustn't have agreed with me," he joked. "Tuna, you know!" I patted his back and comforted him as he sat partially hunched with his left hand supporting his head.

"Tough job?" I asked him.
"Oh, it's quite all right."
"You've had quite a career."
"It's been long...," he paused.
"You were among some pretty interesting folks back in the day...Kennedys, Eisenhower...,"
"Yeah, we knew lots of folks..."
"And especially becoming Catholic at that time...," I said.
"Yes...," he nodded.
"What did your dad think of that?" I dared...
"Not much!" he growled.

But even after our little repartee, and his blistering at me about how his father felt about his conversion to Catholicism, I still felt a kind presence sitting with me. He was getting better. Maybe I shouldn't have asked such an intrusive question. Perhaps the little boy Avery was still suffering quietly over the giant shadow cast a half century ago, by the intensity of that world and world view--one that had caustic reactions to a neo-Catholic reality. And perhaps he'd grown into his old age, finely attuned to the beauty of his Catholic identity and station.

I was sad to hear of his death last December 12th, a day which is situated just between my birthday and my good friend Soren's birthday. This is a eulogy to Dulles. One that I never got to write. But I'm glad that books are around to afford people like me the opportunity to re-open memory, to re-visit the past. All I did was start to clean my basement this past weekend. And one book, one glance, one thought, one semiotic consciousness later, I've been able to finally get around and pay tribute and homage to those I've felt the need to do just that.


  1. A beautiful tribute.

    Yes, I do understand how books can "re-open" memory. In 1970 I lived for a month with discalced (barefoot)Carmelite sisters in Rhode Island. It was a place of prayer and solitude. The sisters gave me a book titled Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux.
    Inscribed inside were these words: Here is the story of the "little mystic" - May she inspire and help you as you go through life. She's a wonderful friend. Much love from you Carmelite Sisters.

    I have always cherished this book. It truly has been a wonderful friend.

  2. Beautifully written.. and so thoughtful. The written word certainly has such great power to evoke nostalgia and fond memories. Reading this is so inspiring. Looking forward to the next one!