FR. JOHN HARDON
by John Janaro
In order to follow Jesus Christ, and to embrace the whole reality of the message of salvation, the believer must be attentive to the voice of Christ teaching, ruling, and sanctifying in a singular fashion through the office of Peter, the apostle to whom He gave the unique and universal commission: "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17).
For a priest, who wields the power Christ gave to his apostles, Peter stands as the center, unifying force, and director of his priestly ministry. "Simon . . . you in your turn must strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). Such recognition of the Holy See has always been the special charism of the Society of Jesus, and the crown of the Jesuit vocation is its specific loyalty to the Pope.
The concerns of Peter in his unique apostolic service have comprised the substance of the vocation of Fr. John Hardon, SJ. Fr. Hardon is a man whose priesthood is shaped by a desire to respond to the needs of the Universal Church as they manifest themselves in the various circumstances of the Church in the United States. In all these circumstances he permits himself to the directed by the successor of Peter, thus insuring that his priestly vision and activity will be truly pertinent, truly universal, and truly Christian.
"The hardest thing in the world is to submit our will to the will of God," Fr. Hardon reflects. Nevertheless he has strived to make this submission the guiding principle of his life. But the will of God—or the will of anyone else for that matter—was a troublesome point for a fiercely independent boy who grew up in the shadows of the industrial mills and factories of Cleveland, Ohio.
John's father was an iron construction worker, and at the age of 26 he suffered a fatal accident, falling from a scaffold while on the job. The year was 1915, and young Anna Hardon found herself a widow with very little money and a one-year old son.
She was, however, a woman of deep faith, a Franciscan tertiary who embraced her poverty and her difficult circumstances with courage and grace. Anna Hardon never remarried, but she raised and supported her only child by working as a cleaning woman, mopping, sweeping, and cleaning offices in the city. She would often work nights, spending her days keeping an eye on John. The boy was willful and self-possessed; he was determined that no one was going to tell him what to do.
Yet as he grew he also became deeply devoted to his mother, and her religious sense—which filled the home and dominated John's upbringing—made its mark upon him. Upon entering the house John or his mother would always say "Praised be Jesus Christ" to which the other would respond "Now and forever, Amen." There was a statue of the Virgin Mother of God, and always holy water by the front door. As is so often the case, the wealth of Christ that enriched their small home was accompanied by the poverty of the world. Mother and son could not afford a telephone; in fact they seldom bought a newspaper.
". . . correct them and guide them as the Lord does" (Eph. 6:4). Anna Hardon was determined to raise her son as a dedicated and devoted Christian, imbued with a full appreciation for God's salvation and an abiding love for the Church. John was taught especially to love the priesthood, and to have a sense that priests extend the mission of Christ on earth. This vision of the priesthood, combined with his mother's unceasing example of life in the Spirit of God, drew John to reflect upon his own place in the pilgrimage of faith. His mother never openly suggested the priesthood to him; nevertheless from his earliest years it was a path that seemed particularly challenging. He desired to be of service to others, and the priesthood embodied the highest expression of service.
John Hardon was a boy with a strong desire for achievement, and with abilities that made all sorts of achievements possible. In school he excelled, consistently receiving the highest grades, and he developed a variety of interests. Priesthood, however, was always a factor, and as he grew he became aware of the different ways of dedicating oneself exclusively to the Gospel; ways that were a response to Christ who invites total commitment: "If you would be perfect . . ." (Mt. 19:21).
As an eighth grader, John first heard of a way that seemed particularly inspiring to him. In his Church History class, he was struck by the story of St. Peter Canisius who preached the Gospel in the midst of a crisis of faith in 16th century Germany. St. Peter's life and work—so vibrant and so full of achievement—drew strength from his special commitment to a religious congregation called the Society of Jesus. "Grow strong in the Lord, with the strength of his power" (Eph. 6:10).
John was impressed with the Jesuit spirit, and he wanted to attend a Jesuit High School. His mother, however, barely made enough money to support the two of them, and the Jesuit school was simply too expensive. So he attended the diocesan high school of Cathedral Latin. Here John's thoughts of the priesthood became somewhat submerged in a host of other concerns. His mother's health began to fail, and he was convinced that he would have to build his future around the responsibility of caring for her. So he considered various professional careers, keeping in mind always his two driving—and perhaps at times conflicting—ambitions: to be of service to others and to "make his mark upon the world."
Teaching appealed to him; it certainly provided the opportunity to share knowledge and wisdom—even the depths of his faith—with others. Then there was the stage; John embarked upon an acting career while in high school that continued all the way through college. His interests in the sciences, however, as well as his interest in helping people attracted him to the medical profession.
Thus when John entered college any interest he had in the priesthood had to contend with his concern for his mother, his desire for a career and the various professions open to him, and finally—an interest that had been developing all along—his thoughts of eventual marriage and family. There was a girl he had known since his boyhood days who was intelligent, familiar, and devoted to the same ideals he himself possessed. She, it seemed, would make a very fine wife, should John decide that he wanted to get married. In facing all of these varying directions for his life John had one firm rule: no one else was going to make his decision for him.
"You know me through and through" (Ps. 139:14). In reflecting on these years, Fr. Hardon notes that a vocation "is a very special grace given by God to certain men." This grace, however, requires human cooperation or it will not come to fruition; in fact it may never even be discovered. In order for a man even to be aware that he is called to be "another Christ" he must respond to the purposeful movements of the Spirit.
Such "movements" became more compelling for John during his years at John Carroll University. He had at last obtained his wish to attend a school run by the Society of Jesus, and the Jesuit presence had a profound impact on him. There was a certain strength about the Jesuits, a "manliness" that John had never experienced at home because he never knew his father. Also their mental discipline impressed him; it motivated him to major in Philosophy and it began to shape his approach to spirituality through the direction of Fr. LeMay, a brilliant and discerning man who saw in John great potential.
Entering the Society, however, seemed out of the question. His mother's health was getting worse and John simply could not imagine leaving her to take care of herself. He had also applied and been accepted to Ohio State Medical School. And then there was the possibility of marriage....
As a senior in college John had pretty much made up his mind that he was not suited for the priesthood. The two biggest influences in his life, however, caused him to reconsider. Fr. LeMay did not agree with John's assessment of his situation. After three years as his spiritual director, Fr. LeMay had reached a different conclusion: that John did indeed have a priestly vocation.
His mother had also discovered the depth of John's consideration of the priesthood. She had no intention of standing in the way of God's will for her son, and was confident that He would provide for her just as He does for all who seek His Kingdom. Knowing very well John's sensitivity about being pressured into doing anything, she never once urged him to become a priest. Instead she simply took him aside and informed him that he must not allow his mother to stand between him and the will of the Holy Spirit; indeed the very same God who was calling him would guard every hair on his mother's head. "Have a little more trust in my faith," she told him. "If any man is thirsty, let him come to me" (Jn 7:37).
John had reached the moment in his life when a decision had to be made. The strength of the Jesuits, their intellectual vigor, and their commitment to teaching seemed to embody all the things that John was looking for in a life of service, and a unique opportunity to share the faith; even the thought of marriage and family was overwhelmed by a realization of the spiritual family that springs up around a priest who brings the life of Christ to so many people.
Therefore John became determined to enter the Jesuit novitiate. There remained the very difficult matter of informing "the girl" of his decision; it appeared as though she was hoping they might get married, and in fact marriage had been discussed on several previous occasions. Less than a week before he was to enter the novitiate, John took her out to dinner at a nice restaurant in downtown Cleveland. There he revealed to her his plans and the mysterious and persistent call that had begun to mold his life. "I should have waited until the end of the meal," he recalls. She was understandably upset, but eventually she came to see the wisdom of his decision, and years later she remarked to him that he had "made the better choice."
On September 1,1936, John Hardon entered the Society of Jesus, but less than two months into his novitiate he began to experience doubts. He felt once again that he had abandoned his mother when she most needed him. Troubled in spirit, John wrote to Fr. LeMay. The reply was swift and direct: "John, you belong in the Society of Jesus. What you are experiencing is a temptation. Put it out of your mind."
Thus advised, John set about banishing the temptation with stubborn determination. The intimate bond between him and his mother, he reasoned, obviously needed to be subordinate to the voice of the Spirit. Therefore after his novitiate—although they continued a frequent correspondence—John went seven years without visiting his mother. He finally broke this period of separation only because his superior ordered him to do so while he was a scholastic.
John's dedication to his seminary formation remained steady once his initial doubts were resolved. Within this formation he discovered a love for theology, and further developed his love for teaching. In 1941 he published his first article, on the study of Latin. That summer, during a lakeshore vacation, one of the scholastics drowned. His death touched John very deeply, and he told his superiors that he did not think that he could ever take another vacation. And he hasn't, to this very day.
Constant activity and corresponding achievement characterized John's years of theology at West Baden College in Indiana. He developed a profound desire to write and teach, but he also became very familiar with his strong self-will, and recognized the dangers it posed to the pursuit of his vocation. In light of this recognition, John was determined not to request further theological study; he would leave the determination of his future completely in the hands of the Holy Spirit. Thus his love for theology would not become an obstacle to his service to God.
On June 18,1947 that service was sealed for eternity in the mark of the priesthood. "Greater works than these shall you perform" (Jn. 5:20). John Hardon was called to participate in the highest achievement in human history: the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His participation, however, was such that the achievement was not a result of his own powers and determination of will. Rather his role lay precisely in his submission to the will of Jesus, in whom he would find his dignity and fruitfulness. In this way Fr. Hardon was required to embrace totally the very thing that he identifies as "hardest in the world"—following the will of God straight through to his very identity as "another Christ." It is to this Christ that he must attribute all accomplishment, yet in this Christ such accomplishment knows no limit. In the priesthood Fr. Hardon had found the union of his high ideals—and his high hopes—with the demands of holiness.
Anna Hardon saw her son ordained to the priesthood and rejoiced that God had brought so great a blessing into his life. A year later she died, but not before she heard that the Jesuit superiors had decided to send her son to Rome for advanced theological study.
The pursuit of Fr. Hardon's great love was destined to be a reality, and the fact that he had not initiated or suggested theological study convinced him all the more that the direction of his superiors was the will of God.
From 1949 to 1951 he studied graduate theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, receiving his S. T. D. and writing a dissertation based on his extensive research into the thought and writings of St. Robert Bellarmine. Fr. Hardon would have loved to remain in Rome to teach, but health problems forced him to return to the United States in 1951. Here he took a position on the faculty of West Baden College, and began to teach Jesuit theology students.
Fr. Hardon had hopes of doing missionary work, perhaps as a teacher at the newly opened Jesuit University in Tokyo. For health reasons, however, he was told by superiors to "forget about the missions." Nevertheless he was determined that, if he could not reach missionary lands in person, he would at least get there by the force of his teaching and writing. So he began to work a great deal in the field of comparative religion; in the study of oriental religions Fr. Hardon found not only areas that were compatible with Christianity but also sections of thought that were clearly influenced in a direct manner by contact with the Christian message.
Fr. Hardon brought the fruits of his extensive research into the classroom, teaching future Jesuit missionaries about the religious traditions and cultures that were waiting for them in the Far East. Thus he reached the missions in spirit, and fostered an increase in the understanding and evangelical zeal that anticipated the work and vision of the Second Vatican Council. "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God unrivaled" (Is. 45:22).
During this same period Fr. Hardon began a study of the Protestant denominations that have built America's religious tradition. In 1956 he published a book, Protestant Churches in America, that gained such a high reputation for thoroughness and scholarship that it is used as a text in Protestant seminaries to this day.
Over the next several years Protestant seminaries and colleges began seeking Fr. Hardon as a visiting professor. Curiously enough, they wanted him to teach Catholic theology; they knew that he was familiar with American Protestantism and also that he was committed to an uncompromising Catholic perspective. While continuing his full-time post at West Baden, Fr. Hardon also accepted visiting professorships at a variety of Protestant schools, including Bethany School of Theology, Lutheran School of Theology, and Seabury-Western Divinity School. In this work he saw an opportunity to share the fullness of the faith with those baptized in Christ who, because of the circumstances of history, time and place, or culture, had yet to receive a complete understanding and appreciation of the Christian faith and of the Church that extends the power and presence of Jesus Christ. "Who do you say I am" (Lk. 9:20)?
Fr. Hardon's experiences in the Protestant seminary were very fruitful. Though his teaching alone did not often bring individuals into a full communion with the Catholic Church, he did find that his Protestant students gained a greater understanding of the Catholic faith, and even began to grasp the sense of the Catholic priesthood. He hoped that they would bring this understanding to bear upon their own Protestant ministries, thus leading their people to a deeper appreciation of the Gospel and a longing for a complete union with the Church; the union that Christ wills for all who are baptized in His name.
Moreover, Fr. Hardon's work in Protestant seminaries was in some respects monumental and ground-breaking. When he first accepted the position at Seabury-Western Divinity school, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury sent a personal representative to Chicago to commemorate the event: for the first time in history an Anglican/Episcopalian seminary had appointed a teacher who was a member of the once hated and feared Society of Jesus.
Fr. Hardon thus anticipated, and later fulfilled, the call to ecumenical dialogue expressed by the Second Vatican Council, and he did so in a manner that preserved continuity with the fullness of Catholic faith and embraced a fresh vitality; elements easily recognized before and after the Council by those attentive to the Spirit of Truth. "For a man's words flow out of what fills his heart" (Mt. 12:34).
For Fr. Hardon, the voice of the Holy Spirit had a particularly intimate connection to the words of the Vicar of Christ, not only as a loyal member of the Church but also as a Jesuit. In 1953 he pronounced his final vows, including the special vow of unwavering fidelity to the See of Peter. Henceforth the directives of the Pope took on a new and more deeply personal significance for Fr. Hardon in his vocation as a Jesuit priest. He must be one heart with the Holy Father, always seeking to work for the Universal Church within his own sphere, and in the particular churches he serves.
This work became particularly important in the years following Vatican II. From 1962 to 1967, Fr. Hardon taught Roman Catholicism and Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University, where he completed and published his book, Religions of the World, in 1963. In 1967 he returned to teaching Jesuit scholastics at two Jesuit theological schools in Illinois and he later added a visiting professorship at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, teaching missiology to missionaries on furlough. During this whole time the Church in America was undergoing a period of immense trial. Two areas of the Church were particularly affected: consecrated life and academic life. Both were afflicted by numerous temptations against the unity of the Church, a sense of Christian purpose, and faith itself.
"The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness" (Rom. 8:26). In the midst of this disturbance of mind and heart, Fr. Hardon—steeped as he is in both the consecrated life and the academic life—discerned the key to weathering the storm. It is the same unifying component that directed his own vocation and that, ultimately, is the central element in the call of every Christian to conform his will to the will of the Father in Christ Jesus; the key is loyalty to the Bishop of Rome.
In 1967 Fr. Hardon began regular consultation with the Congregations for Religious and the Clergy in Rome. Sensitive to the needs of the Church in America, Fr. Hardon cooperated with Congregations in searching for ways to implement an authentic ecclesial renewal in the United States. Fr. Hardon accepted the task of assisting in the organization of several important projects that touched upon religious life, academics, and catechesis.
In 1969 he helped organize the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, a union of religious who are dedicated to their consecrated vocation and its witness of Christian perfection, and who are devoted to the Holy Father and the unity of the Church. In 1973 he helped organize the Institute on Religious Life, which today includes 30,000 members from 135 religious communities.
In 1971 Fr. Hardon and a group of clergy and laity met with Ugo Modotti, a Camaldolese Abbot who had been sent to America by Pope Paul VI with a special commission to establish a Catholic Media Organization. Fr. Modotti grew to trust Fr. Hardon and, one night over dinner, requested that Fr. Hardon take over his commission in the event that anything should happen to him. Two weeks later Fr. Modotti died. Armed with a commission from the Holy Father Fr. Hardon plunged into the media apostolate, assisting in the founding of Mark Communications in Canada in 1972. He also began gathering support for media work in the United States.
Meanwhile there remained much work to be done in the field of education. The Holy See wished to establish a series of Pontifical Catechetical Institutes in the United States in order to insure that religious educators receive a clear understanding of the Christian faith they are called to communicate. Fr. Hardon leant support and assistance to those who worked to establish these institutions, most notably Msgr. Eugene Kevane. And in 1974 Fr. Hardon became a full-time professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine at St. John's University in New York City.
In connection with the need for comprehensive and faithful catechesis, Fr. Hardon committed himself to two significant publications. He cooperated with the Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio to produce a religious textbook series for elementary school called Christ Our Life. Loyola University Press published the first edition in 1976 and a revised edition in 1985. Today the Christ Our Life series is used by over six hundred thousand students throughout the United States.
For adults, teachers, and fellow priests, Fr. Hardon wrote an extensive volume called simply The Catholic Catechism. Published in 1975, this work was written to reflect the authentic implementation of Vatican II and to assist all who desire to present the faith according to the mind of the Church. "This is doctrine you can rely on" (Titus 3:8).
Today Fr. Hardon is well established as a theology professor at St. John's University, and he continues his dedication to catechetical work. In 1982 he participated in the establishment of the Catholic Home Study Institute, which provides training in catechetics all across the country by correspondence and with the aid of audio-visual techniques. And in 1980 he succeeded in forming an organization dedicated to the Media Apostolate. The Catholic Voice of America, affiliated with the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Arlington, Virginia, began operation in October of 1986. One of the prime purposes of C. V. A. is to facilitate extensive training for teachers of religion by means of the media. Fr. Hardon hopes that this organization will fulfill the commission he received from the Pope, through the hands of Fr. Modotti.
"Keep on working at the Lord's work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be laboring in vain" (1 Cor. 15:58). Fr. Hardon recently celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into the Society of Jesus. In reflecting on these years, he focuses on the priesthood that has been given to him. Fr. Hardon notes that the priesthood is not just a job; rather it is "the possession of extraordinary power, especially the power to make the Eucharist and therefore Christ's real presence on earth possible, and the power of remitting sins." It is because of the priesthood that Christ is present on earth both physically in the Eucharist and mystically in the Church. Therefore it is important that, when they are ordained, priests realize who they are. This realization should grow as the priest progresses in his vocation, and should inform all his activities. As a teacher for 35 years, Fr. Hardon has developed a keen awareness of the fact that he is a priest even in the classroom. Because of the power of orders, the priest possesses a special charism—like Christ Himself—to enlighten minds and strengthen wills in the supernatural dimension. Thus he can bring his priesthood to bear upon his teaching and his apostolic work.
Fr. Hardon sees the spirit of the priesthood as an all-encompassing sense of mission. "The priest must want to share," he says, "to wear himself out in sharing." This spirit is truly universal, reaching out to embrace all of God's people, with a profound consciousness of their needs and an appreciation of their destiny in Christ. With the Vicar of Christ as his constant inspiration and source of direction, Fr. Hardon continues to dedicate his life, in a spirit of self-sacrifice, to the service of the Church, making the power of Christ present and the truth of Christ clear for all those who seek eternal life.
Fishers of Men published by Trinity Communications in 1986.
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