Avery Cardinal Dulles’s earthly life, which ended last week, was like something out of a Henry James novel. The scion of a fabled family–his father, John Foster Dulles, was Secretary of State under President Eisenhower–and educated at élite schools, he left his Presbyterian roots for the Roman church and, worse, the Jesuits. (Newsreels covered his 1956 ordination; the footage is now on Youtube.) During World War II, the young man joined the Navy, and won the French Croix de Guerre.
Dulles’s conversion from agnosticism came during his undergraduate years at Harvard. As described in his autobiography, his turn to God was half in response to philosophical inquiry, half in response to noticing a tree in springtime, its little buds “in all innocence and meekness” following an unseen law that called to the student. His subsequent career as a Jesuit priest and theologian was, by all accounts, extraordinary. By the time of his death, he had written roughly 800 scholarly articles and 23 books; was considered the dean of American Catholic theologians; and was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II–the only American Jesuit ever to receive that honor.
Over the last ten years of his life, I was fortunate to come to know a serious scholar who did not take himself too seriously. In October 2001, I was asked to accompany the great man to Boston, where he would receive one of his many awards, at a fundraising dinner. Before we boarded the train near Fordham University in New York, where Avery taught theology, I asked how he felt about the accolade. “I haven’t really done anything to deserve it,” he said. What about the books, the articles, the lectures? “I suppose,” he said, “But I still feel awkward.”
We arrived in Boston with barely enough time to dress in the Jesuit community where we were lodging. “Come by my room when you’re ready,” he said. An hour later, I knocked on his door. When he opened the door he was resplendent in his cardinal’s black cassock with red piping, and the grand ferraiolo, or scarlet cape. At age 82, Cardinal Dulles couldn’t reach the lowest buttons of his cassock so I knelt down to help. “How do I look?” he said with a sly smile. “As my mother would say,” I told him, “you look very handsome.” His patrician bearing was evident no matter what he wore; that night, the lanky Jesuit looked like Cardinal Abe Lincoln.
The next morning we caught the 8 a.m. train back to New York. (His Protestant work ethic, undimmed by his Catholicism, opted for the earliest train we could make.) Back at Fordham, a few Jesuits asked how things were in Boston; the country was still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks. “People in Boston were upset that two of the planes that hit the World Trade Center came from Logan airport,” I explained, relating what I heard the night before. Avery said, “How do you think I feel? One of them came from Dulles!”
That was one of the rare times he referred to that place, out of humility. Once, during a stay in Washington, D.C., a young Jesuit was assigned to drive Avery to the airport. He asked, “Which airport are we going to, Father? National or…?” Father Dulles said, “The other one!”
Given his lightheartedness, it seemed appropriate that, in 2001, during the Vatican ceremony when he was made a cardinal, Pope John Paul II placed the customary red biretta on Avery’s head, and it toppled into the pope’s lap. No one enjoyed telling that story more than the new cardinal. And he enjoyed recounting a tale from his Navy days, when as officer of the watch, he ordered his ship to fire on a German U-Boat in the Caribbean. When dawn came, Ensign Dulles realized that had bombarded a coral reef.
Avery was quietly generous to me, as to so many others. When I wrote about a topic I thought might prove controversial, Cardinal Dulles, in his late 80s, patiently read through a 400-page manuscript. He didn’t have to tackle the whole thing, I explained, worried about the demands on his time. If he wanted, he could read only the part in question. “Of course I want to read the whole thing,” he said. “How else will I understand it in its full context?” A few weeks later he sent a gracious note saying that all was in accord with “faith and morals.” Later, in a phone call, he said the old teacher couldn’t resist making a few minor corrections: Was I sure about the spelling of the name of St. Thomas Aquinas’s mother? He signed off his calls with Naval precision: “Over and out!”
Avery was a model Jesuit. During a 2001 interview for America, he told me the he felt being a cardinal betokened a responsibility to accept more speaking engagements, even at his advanced age. The son of John Foster Dulles taught his friends what it means to be, in Jesuit lingo, a “man for others.” Or, to use two old-fashioned words, what it means to be humble and kind. Or, in more common parlance, what it means to be a Christian.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is associate editor of America magazine and author of “My Life with the Saints.”