University of Notre Dame
Jacques Maritain Center   

Father John La Farge

[From a typewritten manuscript.]

The French translation of Father John La Farge's autobiography has been entitled, according to his own wish Un Américan comme les autres. This American like others is a man like no other. He probably has some Inkling of the fact -- does he not insist on the necessity of knowing our neighbor "in his own singular being, his own incommunicable singularity of being" (An American Amen p. 174)? But who could describe the blend of smiling irony and deep humility which is peculiar to Father La Farge's cast of mind? Under a "manner" that "is ordinary" be conceals an extraordinary grandeur of the mind and the heart.

I am not speaking only of his superior natural gifts and the versatility of his genius, a particular evidence of which may be found in his native affinity with music and his ability to speak innumerable tongues. I am speaking of an exceedingly more profound reality: his deep spiritual experience, his natural and supernatural wisdom, his own kind of humanism, which has no frontiers because it is rooted In the Gospel, -- the way in which he in interested in everything human, has for everyone he meets a "préjugé favorable", and likes, as Socrates did, to learn from men and a perpetual conversation with them, because he had his own hidden criteria in the internal recesses of his personal relation to the Absolute.

It would be utterly presumptuous to try to say anything about the inner life of this saintly priest. Yet it seems to me that in his latest book, An American Amen, he has involuntarily betrayed some of his secrets. So I shall take the liberty of quoting here a few passages from this book.

" . . . I see the universe", he says, "as a work of the Creator's 'art', but one in which man cooperates with the Creator in working out the ultimate plan." (p. 82)

Among the many things that are entailed in the implied "philosophy of decision", "relating my own inner liberty to the Liberty of the Creator working with me in the world" (p. 108), Father La Farge makes the following one clear: he can "see no nobler aim for any person than to strive to bring about a reign of justice and law in this world" (P. 3).

Speaking of his office an a priest of Christ, he says: "Precisely as a priest I am first and foremost a man who, in a quite special and interpretative manner, is identified with the particular Work of the Creator in His creation: the work of the divine Liberty done In historic time for the liberation and ultimate triumph of mankind. How then do I conceive my own office? I conceive it first and foremost as the office of a mediator, one who serves to pass on to others certain goods and certain forms of knowledge with which he has been entrusted." (P. 78). "This office, then, means that as a priest I live habitually in a threefold dialogues with the Creator who has commissioned me; with my fellow human beings, to whom and with whom I have been commissioned; and with myself, asking myself habitually whether and how I shall fulfil the task of mediation. I find from time to time that I don't ask myself this question as searchingly as I should; nevertheless, I do ask it." (p. 79).

"If the mystery of man-with-God is consummated In the example of love between the Creator and the creature, there is no surer way to grasp this idea than to practice that love In the very tangible form of the Second Great Commandment of the Law . . . Yet action alone is not the Vision nor the source of the Vision. It Is simply the condition under which a Vision can be communicated. For this reason, I see the need of developing this contemplative faculty if we are adequately to meet the challenge of the ideologies," (p. 222). And answering an imaginary interlocutor afraid that emphasis upon spiritual contemplation may distract us from the terribly urgent task required in the field of scientific research and applied technology, Father La Farge states: "On the contrary, the very fact that we are now turning ourselves inside out to catch up where we previously lagged, is the very reason we need now as never before to develop the contemplative side of our nature. It is the whole human being, the completely developed human being, who alone will win out in the present contest." (p. 235).

After reading tbase lines we can perhaps catch a glimpse of the actual source of Father La Farge's exterior activities, and of the most celebrated among them, his admirable work In the field of racial justice and in the development of interracial understanding, friendship and fraternity.

The first needs of this work are to be found in his experience, during the years of his pastoral ministry in rural Maryland, with the communities of poor whites and Negroes who were his cherished people. At the origin of a huge apostolic task which began quite humbly, and which remains always humble while expanding in a wonderful manner, there was, in the heart of a magnanimous priest, the steady contemplation of the mysterious interaction between divine liberty and human liberty, and the attention to man in the light of God's love, and the revelation of the "singularity and authenticity of others" "through that which is most authentic and singular" in ourselves (p. 186); there was the sense of the universal bounty of God, Who respects His creature and fosters everywhere all kinds of energies which make mankind more aware of its own dignity, -- and the conviction that "beneath the crude shell of materialism there lies in most men an innate longing for the spiritual and the eternal (p. 53).

Henco it is that the Catholic Interracial Council lives on an inspiration which quickens all the more its temporal activities as it transcends them infinitely. The CIC is neither just "another study group" or "another pressure group" concerned with interracial problems. It is destined to be a fraternal community vivified by the same Spirit which in the soul of the Church. As Reverend Thurston N. Davis put its the CIC "is intensely interested in the world of science, in the whole broad horizon of the intellectual life, in the beauties of Christian art and the liturgy, in the variegated works of the huge missionary enterprise of the Catholic Church. In my opinion, the stamp of such catholicity has boon put upon the CIC by the genius and example of Father La Farge, whose many-sided mind and heart is clearly reflected in the many facets of the organization he created and followed. (Interracial Review, May 1959).

If and when this organization, which reached its Silver Jubilee In 1959 is brought one day, as we hope, to the level of an international apostolate, it will still bear the mark of its great founder, who knows the secret of living fully among men in solitude with God.