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Death of Avery Dulles, SJ

Avery Cardinal Dulles SJTributes from around the world have been paid to the late Avery Dulles SJ, one of the world’s most renowned Jesuits and a Cardinal since 2001. He died at 9am on Friday Dec 12th, aged 90. Son of John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State after whom Dulles Airport in Washington is named, Cardinal Dulles converted to Catholicism in 1940 and became a Jesuit in 1946. He was the most distinguished theologian the Church in the United States has produced, and he was the first American theologian to be named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Read more on his theology and on his links with the Irish Province.

Avery Cardinal Dulles SJ: an Irish perspective

Dulles’ best-known work is undoubtedly Models of the Church (1974) where, according to Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggia, “in the aftermath of Vatican II, he explored the inexhaustible richness of the mystery of the Church by clarifying different models or approaches: Church as sacrament, as community, as herald, as servant.” Avery was elevated to Cardinal by Pope John Paul II, and the present Pope Benedict XVI, a great admirer of Dulles, was thought to have played a role in that appointment. On his three-day visit to New York last April, the Pope requested to meet Avery and, when he did, greeted him with deep affection.

Avery was a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC from some time in the 1970s until approximately the late 1980s/early 1990s. During that time, while living in professors’ quarters at the university, he was attached to the local Jesuit Community, Carroll House, 1225 Otis Street. Irish Jesuits Fergus O’Donoghue, Frank Sammon and Jim Corkery lived at that community during their postgraduate studies in Catholic U. and so would have known Avery, who came to the community – mostly to dinner – from time to time.

Frank Sammon’s licentiate thesis was directed by Avery Dulles; the topic concerned the meaning of the phrase ‘the signs of the times’ that was used at Vatican II (see Gaudium et spes, n. 4) and prior to the Council by Pope John XXIII.

Jim Corkery’s licentiate thesis was also directed by Avery Dulles; the topic was “The Social-Structural Dimensions of Grace and Dis-grace in the Theology of Leonardo Boff.” Dulles was not an enthusiast for liberation theology, yet the freedom he gave to Jim in the pursuit of this topic was remarkable. With Dulles, both in seminars and written work, a student could say what he/she liked as long as he/she could back it up; if they couldn’t, his disappointment was evident.

Avery Dulles visited Ireland at least twice, once in the early seventies (I think) and during the 1990s also (around the mid-1990s, as far as I remember). He came to drinks at Campion House in Hatch Street, meeting Derek Cassidy, the then superior, and some members of the community. Present also were Fergus O’Donoghue, Frank Sammon, and Jim Corkery, with whom he went out to dinner afterwards in Snipes Restaurant in Ely Place, where a lively conversation took place. Following a glass of wine or two, the talk was animated and the work of various theologians around the world was discussed. When a certain name was mentioned, Jim said (a bit too spontaneously): “Oh, that guy is very con….” And before he got any further, Fr. Dulles interrupted: “Yeah, he’s even more conservative than I am!”

He had a good sense of humour and could poke jokes at himself too. When the airport outside Washington, named Dulles Airport after his father, former US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, was performing poorly, a campaign was launched to get more people to use it. Bumper-stickers were issued with the words “Fly Dulles” on them; Avery put one on his own car (an old banger given to him by his own NY Province).

Joe Little met and interviewed him on the roof of the Jesuit curia in Rome in April 2005, at the time of the conclave that elected Benedict XVI. Chatting with him informally, Joe found that he remembered well the Irish Jesuits he had known in Washington.

Jim Corkery proof-read one of his books, The Reshaping of Catholicism, after which he gave Jim a copy with a dedication that read something like this: “To Jim Corkery, who must share in the praise for the absence of any typographical errors and in the blame for their presence.”

Whenever one met him, he talked in the present tense, asking “what’s happening, what’s going on?” He had a huge interest in life around him and never became a person who reminisced about the past. Students liked him a lot, with his gangly Lincolnesque features and his wry humour.