Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ralph McInerny by Ellen Rice

Ellen Rice says:

My first acquaintance with Ralph McInerny was not with him personally, but with a curious fairy tale, “The Frozen Maiden of Calpurnia,” published by Juniper Press back when I was in grade school. I remember the important moral of the story, “Many are cold, but few are frozen.” My second acquaintance was, also as a child, reading his book on miracles, which overcame my fifth grade intellectual skepticism about signs and wonders. Never did I dream that this Renaissance (or rather, Medieval) man would become my teacher, the person who best taught me the Catholic faith, and a wonderful boss-- indeed, the last boss who has ever given me a $500 Christmas bonus every year just for existing. Or rather, because he believed in Christmas and still believed in what the world calls fairy tales… or what the faithful call miracles.

As a boss, he was a great inspiration because he went to Mass every lunch but didn't make his staff go or pry into anyone's spirituality. He taught, but he didn't harangue. He believed he was witnessing a miracle at Mass and that was that. His office was fun-- I think there's something about a boss who wears jeans and refuses to take himself seriously.

Chris Kaczor’s tribute on the First Things blod recreates the entire, living scene of the
Maritain Center. Dr. McInerny really was kind without being indulgent, and treated us all to the best opportunities, repeated lunches at the University Club and Great Wall (which I forgot until I read Chris's article), unlimited coffee and true indulgence with the company telephone which I irresponsibly wore out with long distance phone calls to and from beaux. But everyone did that, whether it was a certain student calling some guy he needed to talk to in Rome, or the famed Latin translator Jean Oesterle calling her nieces, or other, meeker folks who would seek honest pretences to use the phone. We were all treated to endless junkets and Catholic conferences and fed a lot of great banquet food. It was really a great world! In fact, it was a junket with a purpose-- the purpose of knowing God and enjoying life. I appreciate it so much more in retrospect when I see how well everyone was treated. When Jean was too old to edit properly, we cooked up a subterfuge where she edited one set of proofs, I edited the other, and she never found out. Nobody lied there, nobody lied then, everyone really was honest because with him at the helm and Alice keeping everyone honest, there was no need, and no tolerance for, con artists. It was so important to know there was goodness in the world. (And no, Xeroxing an extra set of proofs for his benefactress, the 85 year old widow of the man who brought him to Notre Dame, is not a lie—it is a kindness. It is great respect. If you can’t tell the difference, please see St. Thomas’s Prima Secunda on ethics.)

I think the most important things I learned from him were these:
1. If you want something done, ask a busy person.
2. If something's too hard you might not be good at it.
3. He taught me, as he put it, "I could make a magazine ex nihilo," aka, self-confidence. This confidence goes to work with me every day.
4. When you are around a writer you are his material.
5. The most complicated intellectual tasks are simple if you pray and attend daily
6. Young years are formative. Ralph McInerny was who he was because he was a minor seminarian and cared about real things since childhood.
7. Never truly embarrass anyone, ever, especially someone who is dependent on you. (To be distinguished from Irish needling.)
8. If something doesn't exist, and it should exist, you need to create it.
9. If people aren't happy they won't accomplish anything.
10. Without a sense of humor life is miserable but humor makes everyone happy.
11. Take the help to lunch, give them bonuses, free books, and unlimited coffee.
12. Thomism is clear, and most other systems produce wooly-headed thinking.
13. Philosophy is not enough.
14. Don't waste your time reading dissertations or senior theses. Speed read them.
15. Philosophy and Catholic learning are for everyone, and McInerny's summer camp was a great place to get up to speed on Basics of Catholicism.
16. If you're bored, stuck, or otherwise can't do your work, take a book off the shelf and start reading it.
17. The letter of Vatican II is one thing, the so-called "spirit of Vatican II" is not the Holy Spirit.
18. Someone who trusts grad students and kids to work on his books and magazines has a lot of humility and does not take himself too seriously.
19. Never walk into the office looking grumpy. He never did this once.
20. The best way to learn a language is to take the Bible and try to figure out familiar passages in the new language.

Last but not least, if you need to end a conversation gracefully, take out your hearing aid and start playing with it as if it is broken.

His autobiography was entitled, “I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You.” Rev. Marvin O’Connell referenced this phrase, pointing out that in the Old Testament Book of Job, when the devil began to try Job and take away all his family, his cattle, his possessions, each time, there would be devastation, but one witness would escape, recount the story to Job, and say, “I alone have escaped to tell you.” Ralph McInerny inhabited a bygone world, but he alone escaped to tell us. He told us the truth of Catholic philosophy and theology, and he taught us with his example and classy leadership and kindness. Someday, as in the story of Job, this patrimony and this world of Christian gentility will be restored twofold. Miracles still happen. Ralph McInerny, rest in peace, until that day.

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