by Fr. Dwight P. Campbell, S.T.D.
Today, June 18, 2012, marks the 98th anniversary of the Servant of God, Father John Hardon’s birth, and the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination.
Father Hardon was many things – a priest, a faithful member of the Society of Jesus, a university professor, an author, a retreat master, a founder of various apostolates; but more than anything else, I think he will be remembered as a catechist.
This vocation as a catechist seems to have been foreordained by God. In his Spiritual Autobiography he tells us: “After being ordained to the priesthood in 1947, . . . I was told that my vocation would be to prepare men to train priests. . . . [This] would mean long preparation and understanding the Catholic faith, and I mean understanding the Catholic faith.”
In this text from which I just quoted the word “understanding” used the second time appears in italics. And any of us who ever heard Father Hardon speak know how he liked to stress certain words and concepts by repeating them, with emphasis – a good method of catechesis.
A good catechist must be able to communicate to the listener or reader the truths of our Catholic Faith in such a way that they are able to be grasped in the full depth and beauty of their meaning. And to accomplish this noble task, a good catechist must clearly define the terms he uses.
Father Hardon was a master at both of these tasks. Having a thorough grasp of the Faith from his years of dedicated and arduous study, he always articulated Catholic truths clearly and simply.
But it was not only his study of the Faith that enabled him to lucidly present these truths. His marvelous insights were also the fruit of prayer. I remember hearing him say that he prepared his talks and other works, whenever he could, on his knees before the Blessed Sacrament. And this is evident in the plethora of works he produced for the instruction and edification of the faithful.
Moreover, I think we all know about his personal vow never to waste a minute. Time was precious to him, a great gift from God, and only God knows how much time he spent on his knees before Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist preparing his talks and other written works.
Father Hardon saw his writing as a true apostolate, as an opportunity to evangelize and spread the truths of the Catholic Faith. In his Spiritual Autobiography he says: “With God’s grace, I have been motivated since my young years to write for publication. . . . The single strongest motive in my priestly life has been to put ideas on paper and make them available to potential readers.” He says that his “underlying motive for doing so much writing has been to reach as many souls as possible.”
Father Hardon encouraged other people to write as a means of learning better the Faith and growing closer to God. I recall hearing him say that by writing, we clarify our thoughts. As a priest I have tried to follow his advice, in preparing homilies, talks, and various works for publication.
Father Hardon always encouraged his listeners to write down what they heard him say during his talks. Ever the good teacher and catechist, he knew that in the process of writing, one internalizes the truths and concepts one learns. And this is why Father Hardon always spoke slowly and deliberately – to the frustration of some, admittedly, but to the pleasure of others like yours truly who desired to jot down every word he uttered.
I have a couple of anecdotes here I’ll share. I was blessed to have made my retreat before ordination to the priesthood with Father Hardon at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the seminary I attended. In five days he went through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, speaking in his measured, deliberate manner. I recall it caused some of my fellow seminarians to groan under their breath and to fidget; but I was most pleased, for this enabled me to write down all that I heard him say.
Another little story. Some years ago to priest friends of mine and I were at the Clear Creek Abbey outside of TulsaOklahoma making a retreat. We did not have a retreat master, and we decided to use an MP3 recording of Father Hardon going through the Spiritual Exercises. On this occasion I and the priests with me did not want to write down all that we heard; we only wanted to listen. We were able to play the recording one and one-half times faster than the original speed, which made Father Hardon’s delivery sound like a normal pace – perfect, we thought! We even shared what we had done with one of the Benedictine monks at Clear Creek, and he thought it was a wonderful idea!
What might be Father Hardon’s greatest work, The Catholic Catechism, was written at the request of Pope Paul VI at a time when genuine catechesis was pretty much in disarray. Published in 1975, it provided a safe haven of authentic Catholic doctrinal teaching when little else was available. This work was later complemented by his catechetical courses which he authored first for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and later for the laity; for example, those in Marian catechist apostolate, founded by Father Hardon, use these courses.
Listening to Father Hardon’s talks and reading his written works is always intellectually enriching and spiritually edifying. In whatever work he produced, and I think especially in his recorded talks and conferences, you can always find real gems. Here’s one of my favorites – Father Hardon’s definition of advertising: “Trying to entice people to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have.”
Father Hardon was truly a master at definitions. To define something well, one must be able to capture the essence of the thing and make it intelligible to the reader. Whenever I want a clear definition of some theological term I go to another of Father Hardon’s great works, his Modern Catholic Dictionary.
How would you define “catechesis”? Here is how the master catechist, Father Hardon, defines the term, in part (his entire definition is too long to repeat here). Catechesis, he says, is “That form of ecclesiastical action that leads both communities and individual members of the faithful to maturity of faith. . . . catechesis is an apt means to understand God’s plan in [our] own lives and in the lives of others. Having come to know this divine plan, [we] can more effectively cooperate with God’s grace and become better instruments for the extension of Christ’s kingdom.”
Some years ago I listened to a set of audio talks by Father Hardon entitled Angels and Demons. His conference on “The Devil as Prince of this World” is a masterful catechesis on the Evil One’s machinations in the modern world. This one talk is worth the price of the entire collection found on Angels and Demons. In this conference Father Hardon demonstrates that he, much like our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI, had deep insight into the philosophical and theological errors of our modern culture which emanate from the Father of Lies. Listen carefully to what Father Hardon says; here I quote him at length:
Since the beginning of man’s creation, the Devil has led millions in an ocean of lies. In our age, he has deceived millions on a most important truth: the meaning of human freedom. This gift of freedom is the greatest gift we have received from God, to enable us to love Him by submitting our human will to His Divine will.
In our age, the Devil, with demonic success, has deceived people to divorce human freedom from dependence on God. This is simply atheism in disguise. Each person’s conscience now becomes the supreme arbiter of moral truth [and] is given the status of the supreme tribunal of moral judgment. The subjective conscience of each person becomes ruler in moral matters, apart from the mind and will of God. Conscience thus becomes for each person the final judge of right and wrong, independent of the laws of God.
What is the result? Now a radical conflict exists between objective moral law and conscience, between nature [or Natural Law] and freedom. The objective moral law is ignored in favor of the subjective judgment of each person for himself. . . .
Once you make your own will be arbiter of what is right and wrong, you become the prisoner of your own sinful urges and thus lose every vestige of authentic freedom. On these grounds, terms such as “freedom,” “liberty” and “choice” are mere words which the Devil puts into the human vocabulary as substitutes for self-induced slavery.
The basic demonic lie, the most fundamental untruth which the Devil has sown in the minds of modern man, is the denial of genuine freedom. The Evil One does not want us to believe that our freedom depends upon the truth.
Christ teaches just the opposite. We are, first, to know with our minds what God expects of us. We are to use our free will to direct the mind to seek and find the will of God. That’s the only reason we have a free will – to direct the mind to learn, first, what does God want? And then to choose the good, that is, what God wants of us. Only if we do this are we truly free.
Would that these wise words be imprinted on the minds and hearts of all the faithful to safeguard them from falling into the errors of the modern age!
At a former parish at which I served, the mother of one of my close friends from childhood who attends Mass there, remarked on a couple of occasions after hearing me preach, “In your homily today you sounded like Father Hardon.” I took that as a great complement! In fact, I admit that I try to imitate this holy Servant of God in making theological points when preparing my homilies.
Father Hardon, like the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas, attributed his great theological insights to the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit. He realized fully that pride – especially intellectual pride – can easily lead one into error. Pride, we know, was the root cause of the fall of Lucifer.
Father Hardon realized that one needs deep humility to be a good theologian, or a good catechist. Let us ask this Servant of God to pray for us that we may be imbued with a true spirit of humility in all that we do, especially in our efforts to better learn and to communicate our Catholic Faith more effectively, in order that we may be true servants of Our Lord in extending his Kingdom.
Father Hardon quite often began and ended his talks with a prayer. I’ll end my homily today by quoting a prayer he composed and which is found at the end of his talk called “The Strategy of the Devil in Demonic Temptations” from the Angels and Demons collection:
Mary, Queen of Angels, obtain for us from your Son the wisdom and the power of successfully resisting the machinations of the Devil in our lives. Your Divine Son has told us that He has overcome the world and the Prince of this world by His life and death on the Cross. Obtain for us the light we need to recognize the instigation of the Evil One; but especially the strength to love the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is by His Cross that Christ overcame the Devil. It is by joining Jesus Christ that we, too will overcome the Evil Spirit in our lives as individuals and as members of modern society so deeply infested by the forces of evil in our day. Amen.
Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon, pray for us, that we may come to better know and defend our Catholic Faith!
 Here we can think of what Pope Benedict XVI calls the “dictatorship of relativism” which permeates our culture.