A conversation with Fr. George Rutler

"In my experience," says the accomplished and prolific priest and author, "there are few things less common than common knowledge.”

Father George William Rutler commands respect and attention with his grounded demeanor and calm, confident disposition. Those who have followed his career know well that when he opens his mouth, puts pen to paper, or steps in front of a camera, what follows is sure to be insightful, edifying, and educational.

George William Rutler was born in 1945 to Episcopalian parents, raised a practicing Episcopalian, and eventually would serve as an Episcopal priest for nine years, even being the youngest Episcopal rector in the United States while serving a church in Pennsylvania.

In 1979, Fr. Rutler answered the call beckoning him home, and was received into the Catholic Church. He was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood, being ordained to the diaconate in 1980 and the priesthood in 1981. Both of his parents were received into the Church in 1982.

Having received an honors degree from Dartmouth, Fr. Rutler has received advanced degrees from Johns Hopkins University, the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, the University of Oxford, and others. He was even made an Honorary Texan by then-Governor George W. Bush in 1996.

Fr. Rutler was honored by the City Council of New York for the help he provided to victims and first responders on September 11, 2001, and the City of Dallas made him an honorary firefighter.

He is the host of several programs on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), author of countless columns in his parish bulletin (which is then syndicated throughout the blogosphere), Crisis magazine, and others, as well as over a dozen books. He also happens to be the pastor of a vibrant parish in Manhattan.

Fr. Rutler’s new book from Ignatius Press is He Spoke to Us: Discerning God in Events and People. He recently spoke with CWR by telephone in a wide-ranging interview.

Reflecting on some of his previous books, Fr. Rutler mused about their central subjects. “Ignatius Press published a book I did on hymns [Brightest and Best: Stories of Hymns]. Now Sapphire Press has taken it and is reprinting it,” Rutler says. “At this point, I could easily do a similar volume on bad hymns, too,” he laughs.

“I also did a book called Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive—the only qualification was that you had to be dead.” The book recounts tales of some remarkable people with whom Fr. Rutler has been close, and how they profoundly affected his life.

Two of his books are primarily focused on historical coincidences, and are chiefly comprised of material written before: Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 and Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections.

Some of Fr. Rutler’s books have been compilations of pieces previously written, many of them for Crisis, but sometimes from other sources. For He Spoke to Us, some of the essays are lectures, while of a couple are homilies. 

How is he able to find the time to write so prolifically? “Being a parish priest, not an academic, I don’t have a lot of free time, or research assistants,” Rutler said. “Every week I write a 480-word essay for our parish bulletin, which I am meaning to bring together in a book at some point.” Beyond that, he occasionally struggles to find the time to write. But he has a massive portfolio of vignettes, sketches, and essays.

“I have many other essays I have written, strewn all about; it would be good to bring them together in a book,” said Rutler. “Publishers are sometimes hesitant to publish essays, but these have a unifying theme, which makes them more approachable when collected in a single volume.”

The latest book is titled He Spoke to Us because of the story recounted by St. Luke of the Lord on the Emmaus Road. “Did not our hearts burn within us,” his disciples say, “while he talked to us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk 24:32).

The essays are on many different subjects, but do have a unifying theme. “The essays are about how our Lord, through His Resurrection, speaks to His people—some of the essays are about how people get God right, or how they get God wrong.” There are essays on liturgical feasts, biography, and historical sketches.

Fr. Rutler discussed the problems and blessings of writing in the essay format. “When an essay is written,” he said, “it can have a short shelf life. If it is dealing with current events, it may not have lasting appeal. Even so, they can have timeless application.” And so Father Rutler continues to reign as master of the essay form, communicating the truths of our faith in as succinct a way as possible.

One of the objectives he hopes to accomplish with his work is to educate the ignorant, to bring a better understanding of history. “I love history,” he said. “Clearly a tragedy of our culture is its ignorance of history.” Fr. Rutler related a story of a friend’s father who fought in World War II, and was invited to a school to give a talk. “The teacher—apparently being unacquainted with Roman numerals—said he had fought in ‘World War Eleven.’ Similarly, Peter Kreeft was once giving a lecture to Harvard freshmen. One student asked him, ‘Why do they say second world war? Was there a first?’”

It’s easy and understandable to be frustrated at the apparent ignorance of history within the broader culture, but we mustn’t forget that few, if any, are completely exempt. In the true spirit of Christian charity, Father Rutler dulls the point of this sword by observing that no individual or group is solely guilty of such ignorance.

“Everybody is ignorant. There is an important distinction between ignorance and stupidity.” Does he have an example, to illustrate the point? Certainly. Rutler has a friend whose great-great-great-great grandfather was President Rutherford B. Hayes. It is commonly said that Hayes would not allow a telephone in the White House because he was afraid of it. And so Alexander Graham Bell visited the White House and installed a telephone himself.

“This is an example of ignorance. Ironically, such [erroneous] information is typically handed on person to person, and becomes known as ‘common knowledge.’ In my experience, however, there are few things less common than common knowledge.”

Fr. Rutler is a man of great wit and wisdom, articulate tongue, and sophisticated yet grounded sensibilities. His writings have a tendency to open insights into the world which the reader—at least, in my case—had not considered or fathomed, in much the same way as was accomplished by G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Hilaire Belloc, and Evelyn Waugh.


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About Paul Senz 53 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.