Avery Dulles became a Roman Catholic in 1940 when he was a first-year student at the Harvard Law School. Two years later, he was commissioned as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy and served on submarine chasers and aircraft carriers patrolling Atlantic and Mediterranean waters. For his liaison work with its own Navy, the French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre in 1945.
During his leisure time in the fall of 1944, he wrote A Testimonial to Grace, a brief, cool account of his conversion. It was published in 1946 and will quite likely be enlightening new readers 100 years from now.
On Aug. 14, 1946, Avery Dulles, just 10 days short of his 28th birthday, entered the Society of Jesus and began his novitiate at Saint Andrew-on-Hudson, a house of the Jesuits’ New York Province in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He was then tall and thin and he doesn’t look greatly different today because he has grown neither stout nor gray.
The New York Times ran a story about this novice that month because it was intrigued by his lineage. His great-grandfather, John W. Foster, was U.S. Secretary of State in the administration of Benjamin Harrison. His father, John Foster Dulles, was a lawyer with wide experience in international affairs who would hold the same position under Dwight D. Eisenhower.
When Avery Dulles was ordained to the priesthood in the Fordham University Church on June 16, 1956, Secretary Dulles had an aisle seat well up front. In response to a question at a recent press conference, Father Dulles said that at his ordination, his father, a leading Presbyterian layman, had been gratified to note that the rite, which was then in Latin, called the ordinands presbyteripresbyters.
That press conference, held at Fordham University’s School of Law on Jan. 21, had been organized because in Rome earlier that day it was announced that Pope John Paul II had named 37 new cardinals, and Father Dulles was one of the three Americans in that number.
Since then, Avery Dulles has been regularly identified in press reports as the greatest American Catholic theologian. Although he is prodigiously learned, those who know him even slightly are apt to esteem him as much for his kindness as for his erudition. At the moment, though, the cardinal-designate’s accomplishments are attracting attention, and it is impossible to speak about these without superlatives breaking out all over.
He took his doctorate at Rome’s Gregorian University in 1960. Since then, he has been teaching steadilyat Woodstock College (1960-74), at The Catholic University of America (1974-88) and at Fordham University, where he is currently the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society.
He has also been appearing in print for 60 years. At Harvard in 1940, Avery Dulles’s senior thesis, a study of the Renaissance figure Pico della Mirandola, won the Phi Beta Kappa essay prize and was published by the Harvard University Press. His latest book, The New World of Faith, came out last autumn. Between these two titles there have been some 20 other books and more than 650 articles, essays and reviews, including 45 in America.
Several of his books have already achieved the stature of classics. According to a survey conducted a dozen years ago, the people staffing the offices of the U.S. archdioceses were most often choosing Avery Dulles’s Models of the Church (1974) as the book they found most helpful. He has been chiefly interested in questions of faith, ecclesiology and ecumenism, but has dealt with hundreds of specific topics. And everywhere he has managed to combine depth with clarity and style.
In a speech he gave in 1978, this cardinal-designate said, It has been my good fortune to be a priest, a Jesuit and a theologianthree vocations which I have immensely enjoyed, however imperfectly I have lived up to them.
That triple vocation has also been everyone else’s good fortune, because it has, in fact, been lived so well--so very well.