Today the church lost a world-historical figure: His Eminence, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ. For many Jesuits, they have lost a great friend: Avery. Let me tell you a few brief stories about my generous friend. Others knew him far better than I did; many Jesuits studied with him over the course of many semesters at Woodstock College; others worked with him for many years during his time at Fordham University. But for a few days I was traveling partner.
Towards the middle of 2001, I received a voicemail message from my Jesuit provincial, in Boston, which is a call you always return--immediately. The New England Jesuits were thinking about new ways of fundraising, and had hit upon the idea of a celebratory dinner, which was scheduled for later that year, for October. Their first honoree, my provincial hoped, would be Avery, but he was wondering whether the cardinal would accept. Would I be willing to ask him? “Me?” I said. “Why me?” Well, he responded, you had interviewed him in America magazine.
This was true: around the time of his elevation to cardinal, I had interviewed Avery in a wide-ranging conversation that traced his journey from son of a famous father to simple Jesuit novice to internationally known theologian to new cardinal. But other than that interview and a few conversations at Jesuit functions, I didn’t know him well. “Could you call him anyway?” asked the provincial. So the next day I asked called the cardinal’s office and asked tentatively, “Would you be willing to travel to Boston and receive an award?”
“Would I have to give a long talk?” he asked. Not as far as I know, I said.
”Well, then of course!” he said with a laugh. And then to sign off, a holdover from his days in the Navy: “Over and out!” My provincial was delighted. A few days later, someone from the New England Province, now more convinced than ever that the two of us were fast friends, said, “Since you know him so well, would you mind accompanying him to Boston?” So I asked Avery: Do you need some help traveling? “Excellent!” he said. “When should we leave?” I suggested that we leave the day before, to ensure that we arrived on time, and would have some rest the day of the dinner.
“Oh, that would be a waste of time!” he said, clearly appalled by my sloth. “We’ll leave early that afternoon!”
My province was horrified, worried that he would be late to the big dinner. “Tell him to come earlier,” they said. “You can tell a cardinal to come earlier,” I answered.
So, a few months later, I met him early one afternoon at the Jesuit community at Fordham. Together we drove at breakneck speed in his little car toward a nearby train station. While we were waiting for the train, standing underneath the shelter, with me holding his bags, Avery admitted that he felt uncomfortable receiving awards. “I haven’t really done anything to deserve it,” he said. Nonsense, I said. What about all the books, the articles, the lectures, the work on behalf of the church? “I suppose,” he said. “But I still feel awkward.”
On the train ride to Boston, Avery read a copy of a new book by Cardinal Francis Arinze, carefully making notes in the margins. I had planned to read a magazine, but was abashed by his industry, so took out a book about Thomas Merton instead, just to keep up. At one point, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Would you take a look at this?” he said. “What is it?” I asked. “It’s a talk I’m giving on ecumenism in a few weeks.”
“Avery,” I said, “You’ve forgotten more about theology than I’ve ever learned. What could I possibly add?” “Well," he said, "just tell me if it’s clear.” After I finished reading, we discussed some (very few) areas of possible clarification, and he nodded with interest, and made notes. He worked during the entire train ride, which gave me some insight on how he was able to accomplish so much so quickly.
We arrived at a Jesuit community with barely enough time to dress. “Come by my room when you’re ready to go,” he said. Around 5:00 PM I knocked gently on his door. When he opened the door he was resplendent in his cardinal’s black cassock with red piping, and wearing over his shoulders the grand ferraiolo, or scarlet cape. He couldn’t reach down to button all the buttons of his long cassock, so I knelt down in front of him to reach the bottom ones. “How do I look?” he said with a sly smile. “As my mother would say,” I told him, “you look very handsome.” Avery looked very patrician no matter what he wore; that night, the tall Jesuit looked like Abe Lincoln at the Vatican.
At the dinner he was friendly to all; and gave, despite his protestations, a brief but powerful meditation on hope, just one month after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“Why don’t we sleep in tomorrow so that you can rest?” I said at the close of the night. He looked aghast at, once again, my laxness. “Oh no!” he said. “Let’s not waste time! What’s the earliest train we can make?”
The next morning the two of us caught the 8:00 AM train to New York. Back in the Jesuit dining room at Fordham, over lunch, a few Jesuits asked how things were in Boston; the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks. “People in Boston were very upset that two of the planes that hit the World Trade Center came from Logan airport,” I explained, relating what I heard the night before. Avery said, “Well, gee, how do you think I feel? One of them came from Dulles!”
That was one of the rare times he referred to that place, out of humility. Once, during his time in Washington, D.C., when Avery was being driven to the airport by a young Jesuit, he asked him, “Father, which airport are we going to? National or…?”
Avery said, “The other one!”
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., 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 with a brief list of helpful corrections. He was a teacher, he said apologetically, so couldn’t resisted making a few corrections. (For one thing, he saved me from confusing the Fruits of the Holy Spirit with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.) And when I wrote about a topic I was afraid would prove too controversial, 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. Was I really sure about the spelling of St. Thomas Aquinas’s mother’s name?
Avery, who I knew only for the last ten years of his life, was a model Jesuit. Devoted to Jesus, to the Church, to the Society of Jesus, as well as intelligent, hardworking, prayerful, humble, and, to use and underutilized word, kind. In the time that I knew him, he helped me to understand better not only what it meant to be, in Jesuit parlance, a “man for others,” but, in more common parlance, a Christian. A friend and a hero. Pray for all of us.
James Martin, SJ