by Paul Likoudis
Detroit — Jesuit Fr. John Hardon, this country’s foremost theologian and catechist, died December 30 at the Colombiere Retreat House in suburban Detroit. He was 86.
“He was a one-man army of God,” said Wanderer publisher Al Matt, Jr., on hearing the news of the theologian’s death after a long illness. “He was a model priest and his parish was the world. It always astonished me to hear one day that Fr. Hardon was in Russia, the next in India, then giving retreats and talks in California or Michigan. He consistently affirmed the work of The Wanderer, and if it is now commonly understood that there are ‘two churches’ de facto if not de jure — Amchurch and the Catholic Church — in the United States, certainly that is thanks to Fr. Hardon, who did so much to form real Catholics spiritually and intellectually, equipping them to see reality, at a time when Amchurch’s official machinery is making pseudo-Catholics.”
Fr. Kenneth Baker, a fellow Jesuit and theologian who had known Fr. Hardon for more than 30 years, characterized the best-selling author as a “beacon of light in a stormy sea, a great defender of the Magisterium. His teaching, his writing, his spiritual guidance for hundreds, rather thousands of people, make him one of the most important priests of this century.
“He was a true scholar in the Jesuit tradition, always doing research, writing books, teaching. He was a true missionary in every sense of the word, always helping every Catholic regardless of rank, including two Popes — Paul VI and John Paul II — and numerous bishops, priests, religious, and laity.”
Fr. Hardon’s Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church, just one of his more than 40 books, published in 1975 by Doubleday, sold more than 150,000 copies in hardback. Total paperback sales of the 623-page book, now in its 26th printing, have exceeded one million copies and is still selling strongly.
Fr. Hardon’s catechism paved the way for the Holy See’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, for which he served as a consultant.
Among his various apostolates to religious communities, including Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, to homeschooling families, to individual Catholics working in every profession, as retreat master, perhaps the closest to his heart was his work for Eternal Life of Bardstown. Ky., founded by retired businessman William J. Smith, for whom he recorded nearly a dozen sets of audiotapes on various topics, including The Apostles’ Creed, The Eucharist, Catholic Sexual Morality, and Angels and Devils.
“Fr. Hardon was a master teacher,” said Mr. Smith. “The two things that impressed me most were his holiness — he went to Confession every day, prayed for hours before the Blessed Sacrament every day — and still wrote prodigiously — and his encyclopedic mind. Once people met Fr. Hardon, they were hooked on him. For tens of thousands of Catholics, he was a very, very important person in their lives.”
Among those Fr. Hardon influenced was Ed Wolfrum, a Motown music engineer who produced records for The Supremes, The Temptations, and many other Detroit musicians. Wolfrum digitally remastered all of the audio cassettes Fr. Hardon produced for Eternal Life to make his weak voice more audible.
William Smith began working closely with Fr. Hardon in 1988, after Fr. Hardon helped bring Mother Teresa to Louisville for Eternal Life’s Church Teaches Forum, recalled the meticulous attention the priest paid to his time.
“He kept a strict account of everything he did, of every moment he spent. He wanted to account for every moment of his day. He limited his sleep to the point where his superior ordered him to take at least six hours a day. He spent at least three hours before the Blessed Sacrament, writing all his letters and books on his knees. Calculating from what he has told me, I would be very comfortable saying he spent 50,000 hours before the Blessed Sacrament as a Jesuit.
“After he produced his first set of Truth Crusades tapes on how contraception greased the skids for the culture of death, people began clamoring for more of his solid teaching. They wanted full lessons, so we started with his 12-tape set on the Ignatian Exercises. Thanks to Mr. Wolfrum, we produced exceptionally clear digital recordings, to take out any noise and excessive pauses, so there are truly a series of tapes good for people well into the next century.
“I truly doubt there is anyone who came even close to him in his ability to touch people’s hearts and making Catholics more faith-filled and zealous.”
Fr. Hardon’s books have been translated into Japanese, German, and Spanish; he founded several Catholic organizations, including Inter Mirifica (named after Vatican II’s decree on social communication) and the Marian Catechists a catechist formation program based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, served as an advisor to many Catholic organizations, including Catholics United for the Faith, and contributed to six encyclopedias.
“I’ve always regarded him as one of the best and most distinguished theologians in the United States,” said James Likoudis, who began working with Fr. Hardon in the late 1960s, in the early days of Catholics United for the Faith.
“When the word ‘theologian’ has been so terribly abused in our day as a cover for anti-magisterial dissenters, Fr. Hardon brought new luster to the term. He was a truly holy man who never let his tremendous intellectual gifts give way to pride. From his earliest years as a teacher and professor of theology, and director of many spiritual apostolates in the Church, he always encouraged lay people to live the faith, to study the faith, defend the faith, in the examples of his father in God, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and his spiritual mentor, St. Robert Bellarmine, on whom he did his doctoral dissertation.”
In Fishers of Men, a book about contemporary priests, John Janaro profiled Fr. Hardon, describing him as “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.”
Fr. Hardon was born in 1914 in the shadows of the iron and steel mills in Cleveland. Young John Anthony was one year old when his mother, Anna, was widowed after her husband was killed in an industrial accident.
Anna, wrote Janaro, was “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…
“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….
“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….
“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.”
He went on to the Jesuits’ John Carroll University, where, Janaro wrote, “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….”
Under the direction of his Jesuit spiritual advisor, John was led to recognize that he did, indeed have a vocation to the priesthood, so he entered the Jesuit novitiate, breaking the heart of a girl he loved, and loved him in return.
Fr. Hardon entered the Society of Jesus on September 1, 1936, and immediately developed a deep love for theology and teaching. In 1941 he published his first article, on the study of Latin. On June 18, 1947, his birthday, he was ordained to the priesthood, and later sent to Rome for advanced theological study.
Student And Teacher
From 1949 to 1951 he studied graduate theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he wrote his dissertation on Bellarmine, and received his STD. Health problems, particularly asthma, which would plague him for the rest of his life, forced him to return to the United States in 1951. His first assignment was on the faculty of West Baden College, where he taught Jesuit theology students.
He hoped to be a missionary to Japan, but his superiors, citing his health problems, refused to send him. But, wrote Janaro, Hardon “reached the missions in spirit,” and employed his extensive knowledge of the religious traditions and customs of the Far East in training missionaries for the Far East.
He also applied himself to understanding Protestantism, and in 1956 his Protestant Churches in America was published to much acclaim, and remains a standard text in Protestant seminaries to this day.
“Over the next several years Protestant seminaries and colleges began seeking Fr. Hardon as a visiting professor,” wrote Janaro. “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…
“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 dialog expressed by the Second Vatican Council…”
In 1953 Fr. Hardon pronounced his final vows, including the special vow of unwavering fidelity to the See of Peter, which he maintained throughout his long life.
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 worked as a visiting professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa where he taught missiology to missionaries on furlough.
In 1967 Fr. Hardon began his regular work for the Congregations for Religious and the Clergy in Rome, with an assignment to implement an authentic religious renewal according to the documents of Vatican II. In 1969 he helped organize the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, a union of religious who are committed to the Holy Father, and in 1971, he helped form the Institute on Religious Life, which today has some 30,000 members from 135 religious communities.
In 1971 Fr. Hardon, at the request of the Pope Paul VI, began his media apostolate, which led to his founding of Mark Communications in Canada in 1972. Through his work with the Holy See, he was subsequently asked by Paul VI to begin establishing Pontifical Catechetical Institutes in the United States to ensure religious educators receive a proper catechetical formation.
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 this catechetical work, he cooperated with the Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio to produce a religious textbook series for elementary school called Christ Our Life, subsequently published by Loyola University Press in 1976 and revised in 1985.
In 1997, Fr. Hardon celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination at Assumption Grotto in Detroit with a magnificent Mass. The church was packed with his friends, but not a single Jesuit priest showed up for the event — an unfortunate testimony of how little Fr. Hardon was regarded by so many in his order.
Fr. Hardon’s official obituary, released by the funeral directors that handled his funeral, lists his assignments beginning at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati in 1941 through his last place of residence at Colombiere Center in December 2000.
Hardon’s last stint as a paid professor was at St. John University in New York from 1977-84, thereafter he is listed as a “writer.”
The story of why Fr. Hardon never taught in a Jesuit institution the last 16 years of his life has never been reported, at his urging, but he told the sad story with great pain on several occasions to his close friends.
It was while he was a professor at St. John’s that he was asked by a woman what he thought of the enneagram, the New Age device which many think can discern personality traits that was then becoming all the rage in faddish religious circles.
Fr. Hardon wrote an article explaining his objections to the enneagram, that it was not Catholic and could be a danger to the faith. In short order, he was ordered by a priest only identified, by Fr. Hardon, as “my superior,” that he was never again allowed to teach in any Jesuit institution. And he never did after that.
When Fr. Hardon told this story, it was in the context of advising Catholics that they will suffer persecution if they try to teach the faith, and that every serious Catholic must embrace this cross with eagerness. He called it “white martyrdom.”
Although Fr. Hardon was in great demand across the country as a confessor, confidant, teacher and speaker, Fr. Hardon was not much appreciated by the Archdiocese of Detroit chancery. His books were never included in catechetical materials and he was never on the program at conferences and seminars.
In 1994, Fr. Patrick Halfpenny (currently vice-rector of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit) was associate publisher/editor-in-chief of The Michigan Catholic when he revealed his antipathy toward Fr. Hardon.
Upon learning that an article had been prepared for the newspaper announcing that Fr. Hardon was to be the key note speaker at an upcoming conference at a parish nearby, Halfpenny ordered it stripped from the paper.
On page proofs that were ready to be sent to the printer within an hour, Fr. Hardon’s photograph accompanied a short article, which gave details of the conference, sponsored by Eternal Life, the Kentucky-based apostolate, Fr. Halfpenny ordered that the page be redesigned immediately to eliminate Fr. Hardon’s photograph.
Minutes later, in a meeting of the editorial staff, Fr. Halfpenny allegedly stated emphatically that henceforth Fr. Hardon’s photograph was never to appear in The Michigan Catholic, and that Fr. Hardon’s name was never to be in a headline. Indeed, Fr. Halfpenny said, if Fr. Hardon’s name were to appear in the paper at all, he wanted it in no larger type than the smallest used in the paper, for classified ads.
Then reporter and current interim editor Michelle Aguis asked Fr. Halfpenny why he had set this policy for Fr. Hardon. This was the first time, after all, in at least four years that such a policy was established involving any individual priest.
Fr. Halfpenny answered curtly: “He’s divisive,” then changed the topic.