January 26, 2001
volume 12, no. 26

Truly, the last shall be first!

    With all respect to his great-grandfather who was Secretary of State under President Benjamin Harrison in the 19th century; with reverence to his grandfather who was a respected Presbyterian minister and professor of theology; with all consideration to his father who was Secretary of State and had an airport named after him in Washington, D.C.; and in courtesy to his uncle who was CIA Director, the greatest honor for the illustrious Dulles dynasty will come on February 21, when Father Avery Dulles, S.J. is presented the scarlet biretta by Pope John Paul II in Rome. It is an honor that far surpasses any thing he could ever have hoped for or achieved in secular life while he pondered his future at Harvard back in the 1930's.

    The magnificent career of Fr. Dulles might have taken a different turn had it not been for the grace of God. He had been brought up in a staunch Presbyterian family with lineage stemming back to John Watson Foster who served the country as Secretary of State from 1889 to 1893. His grandfather Allen Macy Dulles was a well-known, influential theologian at Princeton and this quest for intellectual accomplishment was passed down to his father - the famous John Foster Dulles. He was in on the ground floor of the formation of the United Nations when it was a noble organization.

    The great depression of the 30's was upon America and Avery was fortunate and privileged, because of his circumstances, to attend prep school in Switzerland and then Harvard University. But, as is the wont of youth searching for answers, he rejected his reformation religious roots and turned to a more modern ideology, which, in essence was relativism. It is something that permeates society today and Fr. Avery can attest, it doesn't work. He recalled his epiphany in an interview with a reporter from Our Sunday Visitor a few years ago, "I had a relativistic, materialist view of things. Everything resulted by chance and collision with molecules that accidentally resulted in the production of life. So there we were, strangers in a meaningless universe." With an outlook like that you can see how he leaned toward agnosticism and pessimism. But he was determined there was more. He came to that reality when he began to study various religions, philosophies and ideologies. He discovered, as many have before and since, that, when you apply the syllogistic principles to the truths, there was only one Faith that totally contained what he was seeking - Roman Catholicism.

    It was a stunning discovery that shook the foundations of the Dulles family when he wrote them a letter in 1940 announcing his intentions to not only become a Catholic, but that he had aspirations to the priesthood. John Foster and his wife Janet Avery Dulles were stunned. What was this world coming to that their own flesh and blood was going to become a Papist. What would their friends say?

    While they were shocked and dismayed, they were loving parents and they did not disown him. Rather, they cautiously counseled him to think this over carefully and, if he still felt that way, he had their blessing. That speaks volumes of the calibre and character of the Dulles clan.

    World War II came calling and young Avery enlisted in the Naval Reserve as an information officer, leaving Harvard behind. While at sea he wrote his first book, "A Testimonial to Grace," published in 1946. Like another of his generation - Thomas Merton, he heard the whisper of the Holy Spirit growing louder and stronger. Rather than returning to Harvard, he traded in his bellbottoms for a cassock, enrolling in the Jesuit Novitiate in New York. His parents were aghast and felt he was rubbing salt in the wound by his becoming a facilitator of the medieval Church.

   But time and love heals all wounds and his mother and father attended his ordination in St. Patrick's Cathedral by Cardinal Francis Spellman in 1956. At first it was something John Foster was slow to acknowledge, but he found it beneficial when working with foreign leaders as Secretary of State under Dwight David Eisenhower from 1953 to 1959. Specifically he was able to bridge the great Atlantic gulf and the mistrust between Germany and America in the aftermath of the war in his dealings with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who warmed to John when they both shared that each had a son who was a priest. In time, both John and Janet came to appreciate Avery's decision. Rather than being a millstone around their social necks, they saw him as a light to the world that opened new vistas in a global community that was becoming smaller in range as technology began its climb. Avery's father had a special plane which was basically an office in the sky in his trips around the world for the U.S. More than once a priest accompanied Avery's father as a good will ambassador to countries in Europe and the Philippines during his world travels. Avery still cherishes the photo on his wall at Fordham of Pope Pius XII welcoming his father in Rome.

    John Foster passed away on May 24, 1959 and Fr. Avery's mother followed him into eternity ten years later on May 14th. By then the world was changing and Fr. Avery's attention had turned to the metamorphosis taking place within the Church. He chose to take the middle road, becoming noted for giving both the Right and the Left their due and their say. He became a respected professor of Theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., at Woodstock College in Maryland, and finally at Fordham University in New York. Over the years, he has seen the fruits sown by orthodox thought, and the dissension wrought from those who want to establish an alternative magisterium.

    Born on August 24, 1918 during the fourth year of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV and during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, he has seen the highs and lows of a nation and a Church. He has studied papal teachings and, just as he did at Harvard six decades ago, has come to the conclusion of the truths embodied in all John Paul the Great has embraced and conveyed to the universal Church. Because of this, and his deep spirituality, he has become an unyielding defender of the Magisterium and the unbroken line of Peter, while always expressing calm, candor, and compassion. He cautiously counsels all to take care in not polarizing moral goodness by our rhetoric that could stir hate and dissent. Like a man who went before him and was a moral giant during his father's glory days - Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, he offers a moral compass for all to follow. He has authored 21 books, served tenure as a visiting professor at 15 other Catholic institutions of higher learning, and received 21 honorary doctorates as well as countless education and theology awards and kudos.

    But none of them will compare to the moment he receives his prestigious red-hat, shedding his Company black for the red robes. He will receive it in all humility and gratitude and he will receive it from a man who, like his father, had a tremendous impact on history. Both fought communism diligently and with purpose. Both were successful. And so, too, is Cardinal-elect Avery Dulles, S.J. for, when he kneels before the Holy Father, it will be the exclamation point of the final chapter of an illustrious dynasty. He will have completed the bridge between Church and State that has spanned three centuries in America.

    Like President George W. Bush who is destined to become greater than his father President George H. Bush, Cardinal-elect Avery is, in God's eyes and the Church's, greater than his father John Foster Dulles, a great man who produced an even greater in the manner of Saul and David.

    At 82, Father Avery knows his days are numbered, but he's not about to retire and take it easy. When he passes to his Heavenly reward I doubt they will name an airport after him, or even a church, but you can be relatively assured that his name is already being reserved in bold letters on the entrance to one of God's great mansions. The Vicar of Christ knows this. In the great Communion of Saints, maybe even his parents know this. They might even be regretting a little that they named him Avery because it is not a saint's name. But, as Avery's life has proven, God works in mysterious and wondrous ways. From the testimony of those who know him, from the countless souls he has touched and lives changed, they all are in concert that, God willing, maybe, just maybe, someday there will be a St. Avery!

    Fr. Avery was the last to be named by His Holiness when he made the announcement of 37 cardinal-elects during his Sunday Angelus this past Sunday, an exact month before his Eighth Consistory on February 21st. It's wise to keep in mind Our Lord's words in Matthew 20: 16, "Even so the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen." Fr. Avery heard the call sixty-one years ago and now he is among the few who have been chosen. Truly, the last shall be first!

Michael Cain, editor

For past editorials, see CATHOLIC PewPOINT Archives

January 26, 2001
volume 12, no. 26
CATHOLIC PewPOINT commentary
Return to Today's Issue