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A Memorable Man


The tides of time run with terrible rapidity these days; once left behind, one is soon forgotten. It is therefore pleasant that friends of Fr. Gustave Weigel, at the instance of another friend, Mr. Thomas P. Coffey, should have wished to put together these memorabilia. He was a memorable man. Characteristically, he disappeared suddenly in midstream; he was no man to find an end in the shallows or backwaters.

It was in 1930, when both of us were first-year theologians at Woodstock, that my friendship began with the tall, very thin, awkward, angular young man from Buffalo, with the sloping shoulders, then erect, which were to bow with the years. It was an unlikely friendship, between two men who were in almost every respect quite different; but it grew over the years to extraordinary depths of understanding and loyalty.

One fact stands out. In the years between 1930 and 1964 he changed greatly — only to become more like himself, the man whom first I knew. Only one significant thing was added — the wry ironic sense of humor that was so characteristic of the older man. I do not remember it present in his youth. He was serious to the point of intensity, a completely dedicated student, averse to all athletics as he always remained), not inclined, as I was, to run with the "cowboy set," as it was called in the slow old days (most of the cowboys are dead now, and they have left no heirs). The wider and deeper humanity, of which the later humor was the sign, was wrought into Gus by the passing years and by the experiences which filled them, not all of which were pleasant.

During his study of philosophy he had worked extensively in Emmanuel Kant and then in Marechal. The imprint remained. I never could fathom his epistemology or even parts of his theological thought. It might be too much to say that he was a Platonist, save in the general sense in which every man is either Platonist or Aristotelian. Surely he was what the Germans call a Soseinsdenker, one who constructs his world of thought in categorical terms. (It was one of the interesting contrasts in his character that in the world of community, as distinct from the world of theory, he was an uncompromising realist.) He had none of the talents of the historian — the ability and inclination to piece together an era or a man in dependence on the available evidence.

This lack was later to occasion him trouble. During our undergraduate days we had worked together on the era of the Semipelagian controversy — he on Faustus of Riez, I on the lesser figure, Prosper of Aquitaine. He chose to continue this work for his doctoral thesis in Rome. The first part of his lengthy dissertation purported to be a reconstruction of the history of the controversy. The trouble was, as his readers pointed out respectfully but firmly, that he had written the history as it ought to have been, not as it was. To the end of his life this categorical mentality perdured. History — not to say exegesis — always remained what Gus's scheme of thought required it to be. At that, the rejection of the first part of his doctoral thesis (the second, analytical part was accepted with honors) had one providential result. He had been destined for a professorship at the Gregorian University; instead he was sent to Chile — and to all the brilliance of his career there.

The strength and the independence and the confidence of his intelligence were early apparent, and these traits grew more marked with the years. His ideas were wrought out by himself, never in argument with others. In fact, in the beginning as at the end, it was almost impossible to argue with him. Even if there were agreement, he would normally state it by saying, "Let's put the matter in these terms" —his terms. If there were disagreement, that was the end. Except once. I recall that in our student days we clashed on some issue or other (I have forgotten what it was). It was one of many clashes, but this time the outcome was unique. He had argued for position A, and I for position B, far into the night. The next morning he came to my room just before I went to his. "John," he said, with wonted directness, "I've been thinking. You were right and I was wrong." It was the very thing I was about to say to him. We then began the whole argument all over again, having changed sides — and this time with the usual outcome.

Collective thought was not for him; he would have no part of it. He would sit, for instance, through a whole faculty meeting and say nothing — until afterwards, when he would tell me what he thought. The point is that he would tell me; it was not a matter of argument. This disposition to withdraw from the process of collective thinking increased according to the subject matter. Once at a conference in Cambridge which had to do with moral problems he sat for two days without a word. Finally, the chairman addressed him directly. His reply was: "I take no interest in morality." That was true — and that was the end.

This disposition to think by himself and not with others may explain why it was that in the pre-conciliar period and at the Council itself he took no part, and wanted to take no part, in the work of the sub-commissions of the Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to which he was attached. Not for him was the bruising business pf composing a text in collaboration with other minds. I chided him, for instance, for his disinclination to put an American hand to the drawing up of the two pre-conciliar texts on religious freedom. He simply remained disinclined. His work at the Council was in another area. And there is ample evidence in this volume, and in the larger memory of all the Protestant observers, of the competence and devotion with which he did it.

Our ways parted after graduate studies. He never wrote to me from Chile, nor I to him from Woodstock. But in 1949 we took up exactly where we had left off, in the confidence of a reciprocal loyalty. That was probably the most difficult year, in a spiritual sense, of his whole life. His ejection (the term is not too strong) from his adopted land, which he loved, had aspects of both substantive and procedural injustice. This has to be said now. But I never once heard him cry out. He was not the cry-baby type which has curiously appeared in the post-conciliar era. In fact it was only gradually that I learned the whole story; he was most reluctant to talk about it (not from him would the story ever have been gleaned, if in those days the National Catholic Reporter had existed).

At that, his difficulty was not in bidding the past goodbye; the glory of it — and there was much glory in it — meant nothing to him. His difficulty was to find himself in the present. He was at a loss — in fact, lost. A year at Woodstock as professor of cosmology and lecturer on German literature was no more than a stop-gap.

(Incidentally, speaking of his German, I recall some mutual German friends at the Council saying how "quaint" it was. He spoke the language with fluency, but apparently he never lost the Alsatian accent and twist of idiom that he had picked up at home as a child. I might add that to have known the father and mother, as I did slightly, was to understand the son. The father was a grave gentleman of great dignity; the mother was a peasant woman 'full of warmth and kindness. Often I teased Gus about the peasant quality in him; he always gloried in it. I remember too his grief when his mother died while we were in Rome; he wept.)

In 1949 he was stripped of all distinction; he was no longer a name. And he needed to be a name, not out of personal vanity, of which he was devoid, but simply because he was himself, conscious and confident of his powers. Fortunately, I was able to point to one way out of the void. Theological Studies had been looking for a specialist in Protestant theology. He plunged into the area with mounting zest. The first results were two articles in the 1950 volume of Theological Studies, "Contemporary Protestantism and Paul Tillich," and "Protestant Theological Positions Today." With something less than fifty pages he made a name for himself. The further result was his ensuing career as a pioneer in ecumenism. In the summer of 1950 I attended the founding meeting of the Catholic Ecumenical Conference at the marvelous Greek-Latin Basilian abbey in Grottaferrata. Most of the meeting was given over to reports from various countries on the state of ecumenical affairs. In my turn I had to report that there was no ecumenical activity in the United States, and that no one wanted any, least of all the Catholic bishops. That was the situation into which Gus strode with all his force of intelligence and sympathy of spirit. He, more than anyone else, initiated the change.

At the same time he threw himself into his new work as professor of ecclesiology. He wrote his own treatise on the Church (it came to be known to his students as the Golden Book, by reason of his yellow covers). As a work of theology it would not do today, but in its moment it was what the French call a "realisation," a highly personal synthesis—with, I must say, a few Platonist overtones marked by those who affectionately referred to "Gus's Church," in contrast to the real Church which functioned in the parish at the foot of the Woodstock hill.

In this moment of ongoing activity he was struck down. For nearly three months he lingered in the valley of the shadow of death, and there were longer months of slow convalescence. I should prefer to draw a veil over the whole painful episode — a major operation, a pulmonary congestion, a renal failure, an intestinal obstruction, a second major operation, a lengthy healing, a final surgical procedure. The light that shone from out the shadow was his own immensely fearless fortitude; ask a nurse, for instance, to tell of a patient who for weeks never once flinched from a single one of countless "needles," not to speak of greater agonies. This claims a place among the memorabilia.

But there is something else which is harder to describe. The night before his first surgery he was quiet and serene, free of all apprehension. But I also came away with the strange impression that he did not want to live and did not intend to. He later corroborated the impression; but he never explained his sense of having reached the end. In some psychological sense it was a reaction to what he — a strong man who had never been ill — considered an aggression and an injury. In the deepest sense I think it was a resignation ,— to the point, as it were, of a capitulation — to the will of God. An instinct for the will of God was the cornerstone of his spirituality, on which was erected an edifice of striking simplicity and enormous solidity. But for once he had forgotten the hypothesis.

The aftermath had its amusing aspects. With wonted irony and no less wonted affection he used to blame me for having brought him back. He liked to recall what may have been true — that I once said to him: "Gus, if you die on me now, I'll never speak to you again." He even remembered how, in a moment when he had all but gone his way, I had shouted at him in German (oddly, only in his earliest familial language was it then possible to get through to him at all). The wry detached humor never left him even in the worst moments. Fr. Joseph Murphy, the Rector of Woodstock (whose devotion to Gus during those months was endless) and I were once summoned in the middle of the night, to find a dozen doctors and nurses laboring over him. Almost unconscious, he caught sight of us and growled with gasping breath, "It was hardly necessary to call out the Marines."

This spiritual aspect, so to speak, of his illness needs to be understood in order to understand the ten years that were left to him. He had a sense of living on borrowed time. It made a subtle difference. I might state the difference quite simply — perhaps too simply — by saying that he more and more abandoned the world of theory, which had been his first love, and went over more and more completely to the world of community, in which his final achievements were to be wrought. He went back to the classroom; he read and wrote. But for the most part he lived on his accumulated intellectual capital, which was considerable. For instance, he came soon to realize that the Golden Book was out of date, but he never brought himself to revise it. He was aware, of course, of ongoing trends in ecclesiology; his last lecture before he died was on the notion of the pilgrim Church. But the enterprise of scholarship as such was somehow beyond him, or behind him. He put himself increasingly at the service of others, to do what any-body asked him to do.

The motivation was complex, as human motivations always are. Part of it was his sense of the will of God, which for him was concretized in the task at his elbow, in the call that came from someone. Part of it was related, in some way I cannot explain, to a sense that his own life, lived under the impulse of inner dynamisms, had come to an end. Now the dynamism had to be exterior, in the form of demands made on him from without. The demands were many and they multiplied in the last years. Invitations to speak poured in on him, and he accepted them whenever plane or train schedules made it possible. He met his classes faithfully, but more often than not without preparation. I used to remonstrate with him and protest his lack of discrimination; he spoke on many important occasions but also on trivial ones. But he was unwilling to discriminate; each invitation was a call from someone — and that was enough for him. Did he enjoy it all? I think not. But the question itself was irrelevant. His fundamental disposition came out in a remark that he often made when confronted with something he did not want to do but had promised to do: "I've married the witch of Endor; I'll be faithful to the witch of Endor."

I saw little of him except in passing, during the second session of the Council when we were in Rome together. We lived apart and were differently engaged. Tributes to his work have been recorded with great sensitivity by those who were its immediate beneficiaries, the Protestant observers. I need add nothing to the tributes, though I must express my own gratitude for them. One morning as the second session was drawing to its rather dismal close I encountered Gus in the Basilica. He said: "John, I shall not come back for the next session." I do not know whether he was being consciously prophetic; at the time I thought he was speaking out of exhaustion and, out of a concomitant depression, which most of us shared. Perhaps he knew that he bore his death within him?

At any rate, it showed up on a chest x-ray that he was prevailed upon to have taken by a distinguished radiologist at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, a week before his death. The technical details do not matter; they had to do with an advanced arteriosclerotic condition of the aorta (as well as I remember). The condition argued the possibility of instant death from a dissecting aneurism, at a moment that was unpredictable. The doctor was a close personal friend who knew Gus and his temperament; therefore with wisdom and tact he did not disclose the seriousness of the condition. There was nothing to be done about it, and Gus himself was not likely to do anything — or rather, to stop doing any of the things to which he had committed himself. I saw him that same evening, asked him the results, and was told that all was well. In the offhand way that we affected between us I said: "Please don't think you are out of the woods." He answered: "I never was in the woods." They were the last words we exchanged. He was not a man of the darkling woods, the selva oscura. He was "light in the Lord" (Ephesians 5:7), lightsome within his own being and a light for the community around him.