By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
My first overseas trip as a reporter came in the 1990s, when the National Catholic Reporter dispatched me to Austria to cover a national assembly of the Catholic Church. While in Central Europe, I also went to Slovakia and Hungary to interview leading churchmen there. I was accompanied by Hubert Feichtlbauer, a veteran Austrian journalist and commentator on Catholic affairs, who has since become a good friend. I recall sitting in the train on the way to Budapest preparing for an interview with Cardinal László Paskai, while Hubert caught up on some back copies of NCR.
At one stage, Hubert – no slouch himself in terms of literary tradecraft – looked up from his reading and exclaimed: “My God, this Unsworth fellow can write!”
The reference, of course, was to the legendary Catholic writer Tim Unsworth, a longtime columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. As I was returning from Rome this week, the sad news reached me that Tim had died of heart failure at 78 after a long illness.
Others who knew Tim longer and more deeply, especially his fellow Chicago Catholics, are better positioned than I to pay tribute to his memory and to chart his impact on Catholic conversation. In this space, I simply want to honor the memory of a man who was a colleague and a friend, and whose unique voice will be sorely missed.
The reaction of my Austrian friend on that long-ago train ride was, for me, an education in the power of the printed word. Solely by the dint of his passion, his sense of humor, and his remarkable capacity to turn a phrase, Tim Unsworth’s writing reached around the world and dazzled people he had never met, and who often knew precious little about the local situations he was describing. He had the gift of extracting universal human insights even from deeply idiosyncratic experiences. I saw that reaction to Tim’s writing time and again over the years, as I watched people laugh with him, get mad at him, and nod heads in vigorous agreement with him. Tim was one of those rare writers one didn’t just read – you experienced him, and he never left anybody indifferent or bored.
A former Christian Brother, Unsworth is probably best known for his biography of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, titled I am Your Brother Joseph. Many of his other works, however, are also classics, including a series of profiles of priests called The Last Priests in America. Tim’s last book, his sixth, coincidentally went to print on the day he died. Tim Unsworth: Articles from the National Catholic Reporter is due out soon from ACTA Publications.
Though Tim had a strong point of view and a keen nose for news, he was far more than a pundit or an analyst. Reading his work, one had the sense of coming into contact with a personality that literally leapt off the page. An 800-word column from Unsworth was like a magic carpet ride for the mind, transporting readers for a moment into a parish rectory or a local watering hole in Chicago, sipping a glass of Scotch and listening to a master story-teller bring the drama of the Catholic Church to life. His column made us feel like we were at the table during a particularly spirited session of the club Tim jokingly described as his “Romeo” society: “Retired old men eating out.”
I confess more than once feeling a twinge of professional jealousy about Tim. I could labor hundreds of hours on a meticulously reported story, yet if Tim published even a whimsical column in that week’s paper, one for which he hadn’t made a single phone call or conducted a single interview, it was still the odds-on favorite to be what got people’s attention – because, as Hubert said, the man could flat-out write.
(Make no mistake: Unsworth also had a prodigious work ethic, and could put in shoe leather with the best of them when he was on the trail of a news tip. My point is rather that he was the complete package – a relentless reporter who also knew how to make his stories dance on the page.)
Whatever envy I might have felt was always more than offset by Tim’s joviality, his self-effacing style, and his incredible generosity with his time and expertise. Tim and his wife Jean, a talented artist in her own right, repeatedly went out of their way to be kind to me over the years, as they have to so many others.
Tim was an unabashed Catholic liberal, and his particular theological views are probably not everyone’s taste. That’s the point of a columnist, after all – to make us think, perhaps occasionally to make us mad. His bent for poking fun at ecclesiastical foibles and pomposity, however, always struck me as anchored in a love for the Church that cut to the very core of who he was. I’d suggest, in fact, that one would have to look long and hard to find anyone with a deeper sense of what is today often called “Catholic identity” than Tim Unsworth. His life-long romance with Catholicism is something to be celebrated and cherished, even by those who might draw different conclusions about where the Church should be headed.
A memorial Mass for Unsworth will be held at 2:00 PM on Sunday, May 25, at St. Clement’s Church in Chicago. I invite prayers for Tim, for his wife Jean, and the rest of the Unsworth family.