On TV and in life, Fr. Richard McBrien made religion accessible

It's Sunday evening, and I'm in Rome, reading the news of Fr. Richard McBrien's death. I'm here completing a four-week course of study with my St. Mary's College of California students.

Today, we had front-row seats at St. Paul Outside-the-Walls to witness Pope Francis at the closing of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Afterward, my co-teachers, Fr. David Gentry-Akin, Ginny Prior, and I went to Il Bocconcino, a favorite restaurant of mine. David had the spaghetti carbonara.

This may be a most unusual way to begin a remembrance. However, for Dick, carbonara was a passion of his, much the result of his Italian-American mother and his Rome theological training. So for a certain period in our lives, Dick and I rated restaurants on the basis of spaghetti carbonara alone.

In fact, 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, and 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, saying: "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 at the time taught at Boston College. Dick's response was an instant yes. I never looked back, nor did my bosses. Dick had just sent in the completed text of his theological masterwork, Catholicism, and only by sheer coincidence, a division of CBS Corp. published it.

The top CBS brass and the workers in the newsroom loved Dick's candor, his way of 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 know. He treated journalists with respect and was so willing to learn from those gathering news, and he knew 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, and 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 does not lend itself to a pat sound bite. Dick handled the difficult and the mundane with equal ability and in a friendly and affable manner. He had critics, many among the growing conservative wing of hierarchy under John Paul II.

Typically, I took the telephone calls from irate CBS viewers. I recall one gentleman who ranted about McBrien in the most vulgar terms. This sweet soul admitted that ordinarily he would not use such language and would be forced to confess this sin on Saturday to his own parish priest. I listened and did not let on that I, too, was an ordained Roman Catholic priest.

I remember the time 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 came 30 dimes, just the amount to make a point about the "30 pieces of silver" noted in the Gospel.

On TV and in life, Richard McBrien had the ability to argue with the best of them. To my dismay, he even appeared with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News. Like two Irishman in a Dublin bar, they were fighting over who was most to blame for the sex abuse scandal. For O'Reilly, it was the "liberal priests," and for 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 the negative comments from viewers and the other more nuanced and highly placed theological opinions in the last few years, I have asked friends, "What does Richard McBrien have in common with the late Andrew Greeley, David Tracy, J. 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 be of help in creating the kind of Second Vatican Council dialogue that Pope Francis has now called for. In the pope's exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," and at the Synod of Bishops 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.

In so many ways, Pope Francis has echoed some of our concerns, namely those of us who have held firm to our faith inspired by Vatican II, despite the many years out of favor by traditionalist powerbrokers among the 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 with Pope Francis, the quest for unity among churches is real.

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 to make real the post-Vatican II expression of who we are as a church community, not just the hierarchy's vision alone.

Tomorrow morning, I have my last seminar here with my students, and our discussion will focus on St. John XXIII, the "good pope."

Clearly good 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 whom 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.

[Fr. Michael A. Russo teaches political communication and the news of religion at St. Mary's College of California, Moraga, where he is a professor.]

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