A Fisherman on K Street

This column is adapted from remarks delivered on October 26, 2017, at the Catholic Information Center dinner in Washington, D.C. The occasion was the honoring of former CIC director Rev. Arne Panula, who died on July 19, 2017, and was posthumously given the CIC’s annual John Paul II Award for the New Evangelization.

During his last couple of months among us, I was privileged to share a number of conversations with Fr. Arne about all manner of subjects. Tonight I’d like to relay one anecdote that seemed especially evocative of his mission among us, one that explains why this room overflows tonight to honor his memory.

One afternoon some months ago, after he’d been sent home on account of cancer to hospice care, I asked Fr. Arne for the story of how he became a priest. In retrospect, he said, it began in his sophomore year at Harvard in the mid-1960s. Fr. Arne – who was not “Fr.” then, of course, but just Arne – was manager of the crew team that year. He befriended one particular rower, with whom he liked to talk about English literature. This friend ended up dropping out of Harvard, and entered the military. Fr. Arne last saw him in uniform. His friend was soon killed in Vietnam.

Fr. Arne said, and I quote, “It bothered me that I hadn’t talked to him more deeply about faith while we were at college. I wondered whether I could have made a difference to where he ended up after death. That was my first conscious thought of spiritual fatherhood.”

Tonight, this room is full of people to whom Fr. Arne did talk deeply about faith, both literally and figuratively. For some, he was a spiritual director of the very first order. For others, he was the most fatherly of confessors. Still others would have met him, as I first did, through the CIC’s intellectual circuits.

He had the most small-c catholic mind imaginable. As many of you know, our friend was an invigorating, and sometimes mischievous, conversationalist. His aesthetic tastes ran toward the classical, guided by his preference for “elegant austerity.” He had a lifelong devotion to the Romantic poets, especially Keats. As for Shakespeare, his particular favorites were Hamlet, King Lear, Henry IV, and the sonnets. In music, he favored Bach, Beethoven, Mozart; in architecture, the Romanesque.

And of course he devoured books. My notes from one of our last conversations alone include references to works by Henri du Lubac, Rene Girard, Urs von Balthasar, Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, and Cardinal Robert Sarah. All that was in an hour before lunch. Entirely modest, Fr. Arne no more flaunted his prodigious learning than he did his prodigious workings here and there and everywhere among powerful people in Washington. But for idea-dropping, by contrast, he couldn’t be beat.

Father Arne Panula

This priest was also an athlete and devoted gardener – a Renaissance man who, amusingly enough, found many of the most famous paintings from that era over-the-top and ostentatious. I know this because a few weeks before he died, I stopped by for a visit and found him poring through a box of small papers with pictures on them. “I hope you don’t think I’m being macabre,” he said, “but I’m picking out the illustration for my funeral cards, and it’s frustrating. All of the paintings are masterpieces from the Renaissance! I can’t find anything simple enough.”

Such cultivation, and plenty else, he wore lightly. His adroitness with philosophy and theology was reflected not only in conversation, but brought to life in the CIC’s lecture series and the Leonine Forum’s speaking program – both of which remain among the most consistently interesting intellectual venues in this city, and likely any other.

Then there were the ways that Fr. Arne spoke figuratively, both through the power of his example, and via the institutionalization of good and serious ideas at the CIC and Leonine Forum. Most vital of all was his esprit de corps. At a time when many traditionalists are filled with dread for the present and future, he and the CIC have radiated not only joy, but hope.

Fr. Arne made sure the CIC was in it for the win. He understood elementally that Catholicism has become the new counterculture. He persuaded more and more of us that the CIC and the Leonine Forum are now indispensable – because, as he remarked in conversation a few weeks before he died, “The lack of transcendence in secularism is its greatest weakness, alongside its carnality and its hubris of man-as-god. It fails to satisfy what’s deepest in us.”

Like Fr. Arne, the institutions he guided exist to exploit that weakness, and to offer everyone, especially though not only young professionals, a more ennobled, elevated, transcendent, charitable set of purposes in life.

In short, Fr. Arne was a virtuoso trickster who would use anything he could – a book, an idea, an introduction, a matchmaking effort, a joke, a party, and whatever else came to hand – as an instrument that might bring people to truth. That was the legacy we’re all now charged to continue on his behalf, by working with Fr. Charles Trullols and team to bring related joyful subversion to new generations.

In a town where many games are played, Fr. Arne never stopped playing the longest game of all. He never stopped learning the lesson of his friend at Harvard. He never stopped working to affect where every single one person in this room, and many others besides, would end up. Nothing would have pleased him more than to think that everybody here has now made this same mission their own.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.