The challenge I faced in writing a review of a book of this immense depth of insight and Christian faith, was not so much in knowing where to begin, but when to finish. The simple truth is that The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler, edited by Newman scholar, Edward Short, which includes a really excellent introduction, is an unprecedented treasury of knowledge from a prolific author who, first and foremost views the world and salvation history from his own simple reality as a Catholic priest. I first encountered the writings of Fr. Rutler in the early 1990s when I was a regular subscriber to Homiletic and Pastoral Review. I found his articles highly informative and enjoyable to read. I began the journey of reading each of his books one by one as they were published. And over the years I have returned to them to flick through their pages to revisit those phrases and sentences which I carefully noted. Many of these insights have stayed with me over the last 25 years or more and it has been a pleasure, indeed a grace to share them with others in my own varied apostolates in that time. I do the same today with his weekly column.
Father Rutler writes with such a clever turn of phrase and such intellectual clarity that one finds oneself often re-reading him not just because his priestly wisdom and intelligent commentary is so edifying but because in our “soundbite” culture it is great to be stretched intellectually by language that forces the reader to think more carefully about everything relating to the Faith and current affairs and history. To readers of CWR who will have come across him before, it will be no surprise to hear that he has often been likened to a modern day “GKC” and most certainly as a priest whose gift for oratory and apologetics is held in the same parity of esteem as the renowned Monsignor Ronald (Ronnie) Knox.
Edward Short has done more than assemble together a collection of passages of the writings of Fr. Rutler. He has done us all a great service by piecing together what he rightly calls a ‘distillation of a lifetime’s writing.’ Short is generous in his acknowledgements for all those at Sophia Institute Press who collaborated with him on the project and one can see why. Thanks to the book’s detailed index, one can easily navigate its ocean of ‘wise and witty meditations on the Faith’ Moreover, in the book’s introduction, he sets out the purpose of the publication itself; ‘to edify the faithful, the unfaithful and the would-be faithful for many years to come.’
Some might say, as Short argues, that Rutler proclaims Christ primarily to Christians, not non-Christians—but as Short also points out, Fr. Rutler might as well be addressing a largely non-Christian audience because so many in the Church are, as he puts it, ‘pitiably uncatechized.’ This is why this anthology is so timely, given the unprecedented crisis of faith the Church finds herself in, whilst facing a world turned upside down by a global pandemic. Indeed, so many both within and outside the Church are so fearful at this moment of intense crisis over the present and future “normal” that the one thing that the writings of Fr. Rutler can provide is a beacon of light, and reason and hope and intellectual integrity amidst a growing and sometimes menacing darkness of thought control, groupthink and ideological colonization.
In a world where so many, claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious” this anthology reminds us that religion truly is a virtue [the praise and worship and honor to God which is His due] and that the true religion really is what the Catholic Church has always said it is. “Everyone wants to go to Heaven” writes Fr. Rutler, “even those who consciously deny its existence,..for Heaven as the state of perfection, is the soul’s ultimate good.” It really is that simple, and in a myriad of ways, Edward Short provides evidence of where GWR has time and again articulated the beauty of this truth in poetic language and prose that doesn’t just capture the imagination but compels the reader to drink in more and more of these spiritual, theological delights from the pen of this extraordinary pastor.
I have deliberately avoided the temptation to pepper this review with a string of my own favorite passages or quotations from this book but if there is one golden thread in the collection or at least many of the writings of Fr. Rutler it has to be his admiration for St. John Henry Newman. Fr. Rutler resembles Newman in so many ways but perhaps the best way is in his recognition of the importance of holiness. . This is beautifully summed up in his description of the ‘Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit’ [p239-40] Like Newman, Fr. Rutler’s wit and wisdom highlights the place of the human imagination in spiritual development. His encyclopedic knowledge of history, politics, personages famous and infamous all go to illustrate that what is at work in these pages of anecdotes, insights, learning and faith is something the apologist in Newman would approve. Fr. Rutler, in other words, is a great Catholic apologist precisely because he makes the case for the Faith like a lawyer in a court room absolutely certain of his case. The Foreword by Anthony Esolen is a tribute to this gift.
One deeply moving passage is Rutler’s eye witness account of the dead body of a chaplain to the NYC Fire Dept being laid before the altar of New York’s oldest Catholic church by the firefighters who knelt in silent prayer before returning to the chaos and devastation of the massacre that was September 11 2001. “September 11 gave an indulgent world, and even delicate catechists, an icon of the priesthood.” And it is first and foremost as a priest that Rutler strives to teach and catechize according to his God given talents as an extraordinary writer. He is as Edward Short so eloquently describes, dedicated ‘not only to the teaching of the Faith but to cura animarum, the salvation of souls, and it is this that gives all of his writings its missionary force.’ In that spirit, I shall conclude with Fr. Rutler’s own words;
All that I write is written as a parish priest, and I am happy that is all I have ever been, and so I have had the privilege of being edified by souls in the daily traffic of their lives. If various passages in my essays are pedestrian, my one defense is that the men on the Emmaus road were pedestrians and the Man who walked with them was kind enough to explain that He had planned each step they were taking.
Father George Rutler is that rare priest and sincere Christian who takes his faith deadly seriously but not himself, which is why his wit is full of wisdom and he is as humorous as he is wise.
The Wit and Wisdom of Father George Rutler
Edited by Edward Short
Sophia Institute Press, 2020
Paperback, 352 pages
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