(CNSNews.com) – Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, one of the most influential Catholic priests in America over the last 18 years, died of cancer on Jan. 8 at the age of 72. Tributes to his life and legacy, from America and abroad, are being published almost hourly. As one Catholic leader said of Neuhaus, “He will be sorely missed every single day for years to come.”
Neuhaus was raised a Lutheran and eventually became a Lutheran minister. He was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and was a strong pro-life voice in the culture war through the 1960s and up to the time he died.
He converted to Catholicism in 1990 and launched the Institute on Religion and Public Life and the magazine First Things that year. In 1991, he was ordained a Catholic priest. First Things quickly became one of the most widely read publications among just about anyone interested in religion in America, particularly the topic of religion in the public square.
The purpose of the institute was, as it states, “to advance a religiously informed public philosophy,” and First Things helped to attain that.
“First Things is widely read by priests,” Rev. Francis M. De Rosa, parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Woodbridge, Va., told CNSNews.com.
“Father Neuhaus was a great encouragement to seminarians because of his intellectual prowess,” said De Rosa, who was ordained a priest in 1997. “He bolstered our confidence that we can have something to say ‘in the public square,’ as he put it. He came to the seminary to speak to us once, and we were all bedazzled by his eloquence.”
“He gave us [priests] a focal point for the conservative battle, the culture war,” said De Rosa. “He was an American. He was right here with us. He wasn’t off in Rome. He was close to home and someone we could take pride in because he was a priest – he was one of us.”
Some of the leading voices in America with expertise in the ever-controversial “religion in the public square” debate, as well as public policy in general have praised the life and contributions of Neuhaus.
“His legacy is rich” and Neuhaus “brought America and the Catholic Church closer together,” said Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a conservative group devoted to “integrating Judeo-Christian Truths with Free Market Principles.”
“In the death of John Neuhaus, America has lost one of its most capable and finest interpreters, and the Church has lost (or better, gained for ever) one of her most loyal sons,” said Sirico.
Michael Novak, author and scholar-in-residence at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter of Neuhaus: “His judgment on ideas and events was unusually compelling and often much more on target than that of others,” and he was also “an extraordinary pastor of souls.”
“He influenced, even directed, some thousands of personal voyages through dark and dubious times, and spoke with immediacy to many troubled hearts,” said Novak. “Fr. Neuhaus was the most consequential Christian intellectual in America since Reinhold Niebur.”
Peter Wehner, former assistant to President Bush and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote at National Review that Neuhaus was “one of America’s leading public intellectuals, a man of profound wisdom and learning, and a great champion for the unborn.”
“God does not owe us a thing, but I wish he had given us at least 10 more years of Neuhaus,” said Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. “Seventy-two is too young for him to have left us. There is no one quite like him. … He cannot be replaced and he will be sorely missed every single day for years to come.”
Rev. Thomas Euteneur, president of Human Life International, one of the leading pro-life organizations in the world, told CNSNews.com: “I remember when Fr. Neuhaus converted to Catholicism. … I had read his book ‘The Catholic Moment,’ and it seemed to me that he was on the way to the fullness of the faith.
“He has spent the rest of his years as a Catholic priest doing nothing but synthesizing faith and reason for people and bringing people into the knowledge and fullness of the truth,” Euteneur said.
“I’m not surprised that he passed away just after Epiphany, because he was like that Star of Bethlehem, which drew so many people out of the darkness through faith and reason to the light,” said Euteneur.