There’s something providential about the fact that we celebrate Thanksgiving during November, the month when we especially remember the dead. This reminds us that we should thank God not only for the things we have been given, but also for the people who helped make us who we are – the people who were instruments of God’s grace in our lives, and whom we believe continue to pray for us united to God in union with the resurrected Body of Christ.
I was reminded of this the other day when a group of friends – friends being one of those gifts from God for which we should be most grateful – were reminiscing about the late, great Ralph McInerny, the legendary professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, author of some 126 books, including the Father Dowling mysteries and the invaluable A First Glance at Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists – the man Alasdair MacIntyre once called “the most important philosopher in the history of the Philosophy Department at the University of Notre Dame,” a group that included, rather notably, Alasdair MacIntyre himself. Among many other things McInerny created, he also helped found The Catholic Thing and wrote for it brilliantly for several years before passing in 2010.
Whenever I read about Aristotle’s “great-souled man,” I think of Ralph McInerny. Not only was he an important philosopher, he was also a gifted writer with an unmatched command of the Catholic literary tradition. It’s rare to find someone who can with equal facility quote Aristotle, Aquinas, Dante, Kierkegaard, and Newman, but also Graham Greene, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor. He was truly “a man of letters,” but also a “man in full.” If there was ever a man who embodied the phrase, “Hail fellow, well met,” it was Ralph McInerny. Several stories must suffice to give a sense of the man.
Several years after graduation, a former student met him, said hello, and reminded him that he had taken his course on Aquinas. Ralph replied, undoubtedly with that slightly mischievous Irish smile: “Ah yes, well you will be happy to know it is all still true.” Another former student, now a priest, recalled meeting him as a naive undergraduate and saying: “So, Professor McInerny, I have some teachers telling me that there is no such thing as truth.” Ralph chuckled and said, “Well, is that true?” Whenever Ralph forgot some little detail, he would say it was “Irish senility: you forget everything but the grudges.”
One of Ralph’s dearest friends at Notre Dame, whom he had known since his years in the St. Paul seminary, was Fr. Marvin O’Connell, a historian, author of the definitive biography of Fr. Edward Sorin, and a superb writer himself. At a dinner honoring Fr. O’Connell’s retirement, Ralph introduced him as “my oldest friend – in every sense of the word.” O’Connell laughed, but not to be outdone, when he got up to speak, he said, “I am honored to be introduced this evening by Ralph McInerny, the second-best writer at Notre Dame.” Ralph laughed, and O’Connell proceeded to give a talk so beautiful it made the man sitting across the table from me weep. (A sampling of O’Connell’s eloquent essays can be found here; the cover shows the two old friends sitting next to one other.)
In one sense, I’m not really the appropriate person to laud Ralph McInerny, not only because I’m no Alasdair MacIntyre, clearly a more appropriate person to sing his praises, but also because he was not a big fan of mine. He, like many others, found me – well – to quote him, “annoying.” I am told that, after a while, I “grew on him.” Thank God for that. But even though he found me not exactly to his taste, when I went to him in need of financial support and a new dissertation director, he took me on. For Ralph, helping students abandoned by others was simply a matter of justice; it was what the “great-souled man” would do. And so he did. I think of him every time I have to deal with a student who annoys me. “To whom much has been given, much will be expected.” Much was given. It’s a debt I can never repay.
How many of us have debts of this sort to people who gave us, not just things, but their time and talent. Without them, we would have been lost. Although these debts can never be repaid to them, when we acknowledge them with gratitude, we recognize they are gifts we are called upon to “pay forward.” We try to carry on their work, if not with their excellence, at least with a devotion that honors their memory and spirit. At “The Catholic Thing,” Robert Royal works tirelessly to do that. He has also now lent his invaluable services to help keep alive one of Ralph’s last projects, originally called “The International Catholic University.” One of our best loved courses has always been Ralph’s introduction to Aquinas.
Ralph was fond of this little couplet by Hilaire Belloc: “When I am dead, I hope it may be said,/ his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.” One of the great things about great authors is that their books live on long after they’re gone. Many of Ralph’s books are still in print. But to get a quick sense of the sublime beauty and profundity of which Ralph McInerny was capable, may I suggest this piece he wrote in remembrance of the death of a child of one of his students: “Mementoes Never Die.”
Ralph’s son, the redoubtable Daniel McInerny, says that Ralph McInerny’s last written words, on a piece of paper on his death bed, were: “I offer my soul to God.” And he did. Every day of his life. And for that, we should be thankful – thankful enough to do the same.
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