Rome, Sunday January 25, 2015
This evening I’m in Rome, reading the news of Father Dick McBrien’s death. I’m here completing a four-week course of study with my Saint Mary’s College of CA students.
Today we had front row seats at Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls to witness Pope Francis at the closing of the Week of Christian Unity. Afterward, my co-teachers, Father David Gentry-Akin, Ginny Prior, and I went to Il Bocconcino, a favorite restaurant. David had the spaghetti carbonara.
Whatever one’s preference for pasta, this may be the most unusual way to begin a remembrance. However, for Father Richard McBrien, carbonara was a passion of his, and much the result of his Italian American mother and Rome’s theological training. So for a certain period in our lives, Dick and I rated restaurants based on spaghetti carbonara alone.
Our very first dinner of spaghetti carbonara was on the CBS News budget, at a bistro in the belly of the Citicorp building in New York City, as I was preparing Dick for the next day’s live broadcast of the death of Pope Paul VI, in August of 1978.
I was the producer/researcher for the CBS News Special Events Unit. I had recommended Dick to work the anchor desk as an analyst alongside Harry Reasoner for the duration of the live-special event broadcasts. My bosses trusted me in those days, and I wrote a long-detailed memo about what we would have to know when a pope died, complete with a chapter on who to contact for interviews or more long term who among the field might work best on camera in a studio or on-site broadcast.
A truth worth admitting, Dick was not my first choice. When I described the task over the telephone to a gray-haired priest scholar, he declined to say: “Too much trouble, I can only make mistakes, and, by the way, I have a full-time job as the editor of a distinguished Catholic Theological Journal.”
So I pressed on and opted for the younger Father McBrien, who taught at Boston College at the time. Dick’s response was an instant, yes! I never looked back and nor did my bosses. Dick had just sent in the completed text of his theological masterwork entitled “Catholicism.” And only by sheer coincidence, it was published by a division of CBS, Inc.
The top CBS brass and the workers in the newsroom loved Dick’s honesty, making the news of religion accessible to viewers, and his ability to make connections about the world of politics, movies, and sports. He knew more about public life and read more of a daily newspaper than most journalists had time to read or understand. And he treated journalists with respect and willingness to learn from those gathering news, and how to reply to even the most difficult theological question.
At the time of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, Dick was on a live TV remote from Denver. Despite the prearranged question, Dan Rather began by asking, “By the way, Father McBrien, why would God permit this horrible act?” Not a simple question, and the answer to which does not lend itself to a pat sound bite. Dick handled the difficult and the mundane – with equal ability, and in a friendly and courteous manner. He had critics and many among the growing conservative wing of hierarchy under John Paul II.
Typically I took the telephone calls from angry CBS viewers. I recall one gentleman ranted about McBrien in the most vulgar terms. Almost like a confession, this sweet soul admitted that ordinarily he would not use such language, and would be forced to confess this sin on Saturday to his parish priest. I listened and did not let on that I, too, was an ordained Roman Catholic priest.
Or the time when Dick received an overnight mail envelope with something moving inside the pouch. What could this be? I opened the enclosed letter – with ramblings about Father McBrien, and how he had betrayed the Church, and with the envelope came 30 dimes, in just the amount to make a point about the “thirty pieces of silver” noted in the gospel.
On TV and in life, Richard McBrien could argue with the best of them. To my dismay, he even appeared with Bill O’Reilly on Fox TV. Like two Irishmen in a Dublin bar, they fought over who was most to blame for the “sex abuse scandal.” O’Reilly was the “liberal priests” and McBrien, of course, “those nitwit American bishops.” In a way, his discourse, and ability to defend a position gained him followers and invitations to conferences of church groups and college campuses in the United States and around the world. He had contact with leading theologians everywhere.
Despite comments from viewers and the more nuanced and highly placed theological opinions in the last few years, I have asked friends what does Richard McBrien has in common with the late Andrew Greeley, David Tracy, Bryan Hehir, and Charles Curran?’
None of these priests are Jesuits, Dominicans, or Franciscans; instead, these Roman Catholic priest theologians and thought leaders are diocesan priests — at the service of their diocese, their bishop and the Church. These were the kind of minds that could stir ideas and help create the sort of Vatican II dialogue that Pope Francis has encouraged.
Both in the pope’s exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” and most recently at the Synod on the Family, the pope is fulfilling the kind of fruitful dialogue so essential in discernment over complex issues facing the Church and the world. Francis has expressed our concerns and has reached out to those inspired by Vatican II, despite the traditionalist powerbrokers in the Church’s hierarchy.
So many of us saw in Dick McBrien, a genuine spokesman for our ideas and aspirations about a Church, composed of the local parish of ministers, catechists, and laywomen and men.
This morning David Moxon, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the Holy See, gave a sermon at the Caravita community of the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. He quoted Pope Francis: “Do not think that this idea of Christian unity is a distant goal. Rather the gift has already been given.” To my mind, you can say this about Vatican II as well. After the Mass, Archbishop Moxon told me privately that the quest for unity among Churches is real with Pope Francis.
Richard P. McBrien’s ideas about the Church at its best – are not a distant goal. His was a gift at the service of a people – so to make real the post-Vatican expression of who we are as a Church community, not just the hierarchy’s vision alone.
I have my last seminar with my students tomorrow morning, and our discussion will focus on Saint John XXIII, the “Good Pope.”
The right timing for me since Angelo Roncalli was Dick’s all-time favorite pope. Dick wrote extensively about John XXIII’s vision for the Church and prayed to the pope who Pope Francis declared a saint.
These are the popes — along with Dick McBrien, who could enjoy a large plate of the pasta carbonara, with a good bottle of Simi chardonnay.
Villa Irlanda, Irish Pontifical College, Rome, Italy.