The wit and wisdom of a superlative priest-writer

Fr George William Rutler: intellectually edifying and spiritually fortifying

A sense of adventure and charity marks Fr George William Rutler's books

A Year with Fr Rutler
By Fr George William Rutler
Sophia Institute Press, 744pp, £200/$250

About time last year I flew to New York with a single purpose: to ask Fr George Rutler to write an “Agony Priest” column for the Catholic Herald. Considering Father’s decades as a columnist, television host, and general man-of-the-cloth about town, it wasn’t the sort of business I should attempt to conduct over email. This was the first time we’d met, and I quickly realised the legends were all true.

Father, dressed in his cassock and a cozy Irish sweater, found me shivering on the stoop of that grand five-storey townhouse he calls a rectory. I followed as he glided past the piano and up the spiral staircase, with its Persian carpeting and stately balustrade. We moved through one room that he used as a studio for his paintings. Then we passed through the library, where I spied a bust of the saint-to-be John Henry Newman. We settled in the smoking room, which is decorated with a few stuffed heads of big game. I counted some dozen pipes in stands.

It strikes me now that this smoking room is the most Rutlerian of all. The elk head (which Father didn’t kill: “I prefer to use my bare hands, but this I cannot do with animals larger than myself”) evinced a mixture of good taste and male vitality that’s hard to find in the priesthood today. On every pipe, from the cheapest corncob to the most ornamental Meerschaum, there was a black halo around the bowl, signifying it had long kept Fr Rutler company. The true pipe-smoker, like the true oenophile, isn’t a snob. And Father – for all his erudition, his wit and even his name-dropping – never puffs himself up.

Indeed, Fr Rutler the writer is indistinguishable from Fr Rutler the parish priest. It’s the job of the priest – homilist, confessor and evangelist – to use language that’s both impressive and readily comprehensible. Their words ought to be majestic in their simplicity, as Christ the Word is majestically simple. “Complications indicate that we have yet to understand the whole universe,” as Fr Rutler himself quipped. I think also of St John of the Cross, who wrote in his Sayings: “May there be nothing of worldly rhetoric in them, or the long-winded and dry eloquence of weak and artificial human wisdom, which never pleases you.” Only a good priest could have written those words.

And Fr Rutler is a good priest. Let me give you another anecdote. A friend of mine – let’s call him José – who’s just a few years younger than me (I’m 24) was one of Fr Rutler’s parishioners when he lived in New York. Meeting José, you would hardly think he was Father’s sort: he’s Hispanic, wears hoodies and is obsessed with sports. When he met Fr Rutler he was going through a difficult period in his life. Father found him playing the violin on the streets. He taught my friend the faith, and my friend taught Fr Rutler the violin. Now he’s clean, as sober as a young man should be, and marrying a lovely Catholic girl this coming summer.

There’s a definite charity in Father’s reaching out to José, but also a sense of adventure – both of which make him such an engaging writer. His guardian angel must be particularly vigilant against boredom because the extraordinary situations in which Fr Rutler finds himself – helping a drunken WH Auden into a cab, being told by Mother Teresa not to look at magazines “with the women on the covers”, etc – are all genuine.

William F Buckley Jr used to send Fr Rutler advance proofs of his novels, which he refused to read. In fact, he refuses to read novels categorically. “Every day in real life is more thrilling than fiction,” he explains, which is no doubt true if one happens to be Fr George Rutler.

So it’s advisable to have several volumes of Rutler in one’s home. He should be read once a day to compensate for the lousy preaching one is almost certain to hear at Mass. The Sophia Institute Press has, therefore, done a tremendous service to Catholics by not only collecting Father’s best writings into four volumes but also arranging them according to the liturgical calendar.

No doubt any Christian humanist would agree with TS Eliot’s maxim: “To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.” Fr Rutler is one of our best guides to living that philosophy. Here, the wit and wisdom of his writings lend themselves to the particular moods and morals that follow the rhythms of the Church year.

As for the leather binding and gold leaf, I’m generally partial to cheap paperbacks that I can bend and write in. But these aren’t columns to be studied – they’re pensées to be meditated upon. They’re morally edifying and spiritually fortifying, an aesthetic and intellectual pleasure. Of course they ought to be decked in leather and gold.

Let me give one last, timely word to Father himself. Here he is in the first volume, Advent, Christmas, and Winter: “But even the Midnight Mass of Christmas itself will begin with great solemnity, because the ultimate truth – salvation – is a joy deeper than frivolity can express. It is so glorious that it would frighten us if we saw it face-to-face in this fragile world. Advent exists because to understand the greatness of God’s gift, we must prepare our hearts.”