NEW YORK, (Zenit.org).- Cardinal Avery Dulles was born into a devout and powerful Presbyterian family in 1918. He converted to the Catholic faith at Harvard University, joined the Jesuits and was ordained a priest in 1956.
On Wednesday John Paul II made him a cardinal, the first-ever American theologian to be so honored. Before the consistory, the then Father Dulles spoke with the National Catholic Register.
Q: How did you first come to find out you had been named a cardinal?
Father Dulles: I first came to know it when I got a call from [papal nuncio] Archbishop Montalvo on Friday afternoon just before the announcement. He told me that the Holy Father had named me a cardinal and would announce it Sunday noon at his Angelus. So I had about 36 hours notice. There had been rumors beforehand, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to me.
Q: What led you to convert the Catholic faith?
Father Dulles: Well, I was raised in a generally religious atmosphere and I knew something about the Bible and had to go to church services at most of the schools that I attended, boarding schools and so forth. So I had a vague knowledge of and experience of Christianity before I went to college. I don’t think I had any particular religious beliefs at that time, but I had some background and knowledge.
And then I really got to know Christianity through my courses in college. Mainly what I learned was Catholic Christianity. It was sort of pre-Reformation Catholicism in my studies. Then I found that was a very living reality in the contemporary world in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts. And that’s how I came to Catholic Christianity.
Q: Who were the big intellectual influences at Harvard at the time?
Father Dulles: There weren’t many, except indirectly. I’d say the influence of Étienne Gilson was quite strong. He had taught at the Harvard Tercentennial in 1935, so he was very much esteemed. I think only one of my teachers was Catholic so far as I can remember. I didn’t have any particular personal influences of individuals I had met. I learned my Catholicism mostly from books.
Q: Do you remember your first contacts with the Jesuits?
Father Dulles: The first Jesuit I ever met was when I was being instructed in the faith. I went into a Catholic bookstore and I said, “How do I get into the Catholic Church?” They said, “Well, you have to be instructed.” I said, “How do I get instructed?” They said, “Well, you’ll have to find a priest.” I said, “I’ve never met a priest,” which was true. So I said, “How will I find one?” They said, “Well, we’ll find one for you.”
They found a graduate student at Harvard, in classics, who turned out to be a Jesuit. That’s the first Jesuit I ever met. He wanted to know if I was serious. He wasn’t going to waste his time on me if I was just curious. I indicated that yes, I was serious about it -- that I was seriously thinking about becoming a Catholic.
Actually I had pretty much made up my mind by that time. He went through a catechism with me for six weeks. He went through the main headings to make sure I knew what I was getting into. Then he said, “OK. You’re ready.” I was received into the Church at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge in the basement in one of the chapels.
Q: How did your family react to your conversion? Was there a sense at all that it would reflect badly on the family name?
Father Dulles: I think possibly. Catholics were kind of on the lower echelon of society at the time, educationally and financially and socially. They weren’t quite up to par with the Protestants.
And there was a certain feeling that Catholicism was a rather superstitious, decaying religion and [that] it wasn’t quite up to date. I’m putting words in their mouths, but I’m trying to articulate what I think they felt. So it was a bit of a shock to them. As far as my family could trace they had all been Protestant. They were Presbyterian on both sides. My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.
Q: Did you ever discuss with your parents why you had become Catholic?
Father Dulles: I did. After I wrote to them that I was becoming a Catholic, my mother telephoned me and said they would like to discuss it with me. I came home for an overnight and met with my father in the library and talked with him for several hours, I imagine. After he saw that I had thought it through and that it wasn’t a passing whim, he said that I was of age. “You can make your own decisions.” He didn’t want to interfere.
Q: How did the rest of your family respond?
Father Dulles: I don’t know. It was hard to tell. They were polite. I had a grandmother, the wife of the Protestant minister, my father’s mother. She was very ill and really dying already and some people wanted me to delay my entrance into the Church until she died.
Well, I was a rather impatient young fella, and I said, “No, I wouldn’t delay it.” I had the grace to do it now. What would happen if I didn’t use the grace of the moment?
But I said I’d write to her, so I wrote her explaining my reasons. I got the nicest letter back. She said she was so happy that I had found religious faith in Christianity, that so many young people today were losing their faith.
Then she talked about her experience with Catholicism when she was a girl in Madrid. Her father had been ambassador in those days. She said she had a Catholic nurse who was taking care of her who had read prayers to her, and asked if I could find a prayer book for them to read together. She was quite blind. So I did. I found a volume called "Prayer for All Times” and sent it to her. She was absolutely delighted. After finishing it she wrote to me asking for another prayer book.
Q: When you wrote your book "A Testimonial to Grace" in 1946, was that a way of explaining to your family and the other people that knew you why you had converted?
Father Dulles: Yes, it was. It was kind of a personal memorandum. While my memories were still fresh I wanted to write something down. I didn’t really have any idea of publishing it when I wrote it. It was more to myself and I thought I would distribute it to close friends and family, of the journey I had made.
I showed it to a priest and without even telling me he sent it to (publisher) Sheed & Ward. They told me he had sent it to Sheed & Ward. It wasn’t published until I had entered the Jesuit novitiate. I had kind of disappeared from the world and I don’t remember what correspondence I received, but I wasn’t receiving many letters in the novitiate.
Q: As a novice, whom did you most admire?
Father Dulles: I suppose my master of novices. I was 27, almost 28 years old when I entered. It wasn’t a matter of finding role models particularly. I had my own personality at the time and was kind of incorrigible I guess. I had a very fine master of novices and I had learned something about how to pray. It was a very good two years.
Q: You were in the public eye long before you converted. Was your family name more an incentive or an obstacle to becoming a priest?
Father Dulles: At the time I became a Jesuit my name was not a household name. My father was certainly well known in certain circles, but the average American had probably never heard his name. So I wasn’t that much of a celebrity.
By the time I got ordained, that was 1956, my father came to my ordination and to my first solemn high Mass. There was a good deal of press coverage. It made the first page of most of the New York papers.
For more on Cardinal Avery Dulles, we recommend our editorial of January 26, 2001: Truly the last shall be first!