Dick McBrien, free at last

When word came of the death of the distinguished theologian Richard McBrien, the famous phase of oppression finally lifted, and deserved freedom won rang like a Sunday carillon in my head. Few people I know, or know of, have been asked to bear a series of serious illnesses as long as Dick did. Now he is indeed free at last of time's unforgiving grip and at home in the eternal with which he was so familiar from a lifetime of meditation on, and experience of, every day in his work. He spent a lot of time in the eternal precincts, and his papers were in order as he was waved through, no inspection needed, free at last and home for good.

It would take a lot to misunderstand Dick and his columns and books. Yet mysteriously, the word was out that he was a dangerous dissident, and his excellent column was banned in many diocesan newspapers. Curious, I called up the editors of about a dozen Catholic papers, all of whom gave the same answer to my question about why they did not use his column: "I am under orders from the bishop not to use it."

His columns, which continued over 30 years, were perfectly orthodox, the product of a master teacher who knew how to make complex issues clear.

I did not understand how much he was feared, however, until I stopped in the bookstore of a grand Midwestern cathedral. I was told by a man who obviously felt that his fate, temporal and eternal, depended on his answer, "We don't carry any of his books here."

My mistake was in telling him that they should, especially Catholicism, his masterly work on church teaching.

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"I'm calling security," he responded, reaching for his telephone. I left before security arrived but with a new impression of the terrible irony of those in the official church who were afraid of Dick or the plain truths about faith that he taught. Maybe both. Those officials who trembled at Dick's work resembled the man who buried his gifts in the ground in the Gospel and explained his behavior, as these officials would to their superiors, "I knew that you were a hard man, and I was afraid."

I remember Dick best as a priest and pastor. We referred to him as pastor of our home on Lake Michigan, about an hour from Notre Dame, where a generation and more of our visiting nephews and nieces grew up attending Mass, a central part of our family celebrations, said by Dick, often joined by the late Jesuit moral theologian, Dick McCormick, and regularly in recent years by emeritus president of Notre Dame, Ted Hesburgh. His devoted assistant and loving caregiver, Beverly Brazauskas, helped in preparing for each of these Masses.

Dick was not a great theologian as much as a parish priest to these many children, many of them adults now. One Sunday, one of them seemed hesitant at participating. Without making a scene of it, Dick took the person away from the gathering crowd. A few moments later, he returned, followed by our now peaceful and smiling nephew.

That, for all who falsely feared his truthful words or banned him because they were afraid of their superiors, was Dick McBrien, a great priest who took on the challenges of time and is now at home, free at last, in eternity.

[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University Chicago.]

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A version of this story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: Dick McBrien, priest and pastor, is home in eternity .

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