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Flowers for Father Rahner

 

I recently undertook a personal pilgrimage to the burial niche of Fr Karl Rahner in the crypt of the Jesuit College church in Innsbruck in the Tyrol region of Austria. At my wife’s insistence, I took with me a flower. I was much surprised by what happened next.   

Rahner had been a consultant and ghost writer to the Bishops at the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). Some commentators jokingly called him the Holy Ghost writer. During the Council, the great Dominican Yves Congar noted in his Journal of the Council that Rahner spoke ‘in magnificent Latin...given with total human conviction.’ So it was that Rahner helped shape Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s key document on the Church in the Modern world. And so also, indirectly, he helped shape Pope Francis’s vision of a Synodal Church. As Pope Francis told the Italian bishops in 2022, synodality is ‘nothing more than making explicit’ Vatican II’s teachings on the Church.

Rahner died of heart failure forty years ago on 30 March, 1984. I remember the moment very well. I was teaching a course on twentieth-century theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. We were beginning a week on Rahner’s theology, and I started the class by passing around a hand-out which began ‘Karl Rahner (1904-     )’—leaving a space for future students to note when Rahner might die.

It was a small, informal class of advanced students. One of them, who had never met or seen Rahner, and who knew little about him, astonished me by saying something like this: ‘Karl Rahner appeared in a dream to me last night and spoke with me.’ I registered some astonishment, but this was not the time for a conversation on dreams. It was a three-hour class and, in the morning tea break, I went downstairs to the office to check on mail and messages. ‘Karl Rahner,’ I was told, ‘has just died.’ I went back up the stairs and told the students to insert his date of death in the hand-outs. But what to make of the student’s dream?

I had lived in community with Rahner in Munich for a short time in 1980. He was both gruff and amusing. For example, he was almost always the first one into the refectory for meals, where he would stand in silence, slightly bowed, with his fists clenched on a corner table, waiting for others to arrive and for Grace to be said. He was also said to remove other people’s plates at the end of the meal—even if they had not finished eating—so he could get back to work. A young American Jesuit sat next to him and asked him if he was still writing big books for people to break their heads on — Rahner had produced some 4,000 publications, given various translations and editions — ‘I am,’ he replied, ‘just an old man waiting to die.’

When he occasionally watched the evening news, however, while sitting among his older Jesuit friends, his commentary on the events of the day often caused laughter. In the German broadcasts at the time, ‘Sport and Culture’ were reported together, ranging from athletics to ecumenism, and the irony was not lost on Rahner.

I remember one day Father Rahner was looking for someone to drive him from Munich to Innsbruck for something that needed his attention. Because of his heart condition he was not permitted to drive. ‘Do you have a driving licence?’ he asked a young Jesuit. ‘Yes Father Rahner.’ ‘Do you drive fast?’ ‘Oh no Father Rahner’ came the reply. At which Father Rahner made faint French horn noises with his pursed lips and went off in search of a less cautious companion. Harvey Egan tells a similar story in his reflection on ‘Karl Rahner’s Theological Life’:

 

Father Rahner had an uncanny ability when it came to finding money, food, clothing, and shelter for the needy and downtrodden who sought him out. He possessed the knack, too, of shanghaiing others into assisting him with his practical works of charity. One of the thigs I remember most vividly is how we two went grocery shopping in a large supermarket and drove two hours to take the food to a widow and to find her a place to live.

 

One particular morning in Munich two quite extraordinary things happened. First, there was a girl about ten-years old with an enormous bouquet of flowers, almost half her size, looking rather lost in the middle of the courtyard at the entrance to the Jesuit college. Nobody else was around, so I asked her in my bad German if I could help. ‘I have flowers for Pater Rahner — Father Rahner,’ she said in her very good German. Not Professor Rahner, you might note. I remember the flowers were abundant and colourful, more like wildflowers than roses. I took the young girl up to Rahner’s office and knocked on the door.. ‘Herein — come in,’ came the short reply. I brought the girl into the room and explained, again in my bad German, that she had these flowers for him. He was beautifully attentive to the young girl, reading the note that came with the flowers, coming down to her height, asking her name, and conversing with her in words I could not follow. What was extraordinary here was his warmth and patience. There was also the mystery of who would send such an extravagant gift.

The second extraordinary thing that happened — more for nerds than romantics—is that while this conversation was going on, I noticed that Rahner’s immense desk was completely bare except for a single journal, which was folded upside down in the middle of the desk as if he had been reading an article in the journal and had turned it over when he heard the knock on his door. The journal had a very distinctive yellow cover. I was possibly the only person in Munich who immediately recognised that it was the leading British journal Philosophy. What was extraordinary here was that Rahner was often criticised for knowing nothing of Anglo-American philosophy, with its emphasis on logic and language rather than on transcendental or existentialist philosophy, and yet here he was giving British philosophy his sole attention.

I spent two years of my doctoral studies reading most of Rahner’s writings on the foundations of theology. I was particularly interested in his use of pairings of mutually opposed concepts which are also inseparably interconnected — concepts like soul/body, spirit/matter, divine/human, and love/knowledge. I once asked him if he was aware of the overlaps between his theology of unity-in-difference and the theory of complementarity in quantum physics, where mutually opposed concepts like wave and particle are also inseparably connected. He replied that through his stupidity — he used the word Dummheit — he knew nothing of science. But, as I found out from his writings, he knew a lot about the reciprocity of spirit and matter, and had certainly learnt something about the complementarity of knowing and loving. While his early studies had been about the human desire to know, and about an intelligent if ineffable God being disclosed as the completion of the human quest for understanding, his later writings were more about the human desire to love and be loved, and a loving God being disclosed as the completion of our desire for perfect union.

Long after Rahner’s death, I was a minor presenter at a national Catholic conference. After one of the keynote international speakers had made some disparaging remarks about both Rahner’s theology and his personal life, I introduced myself and said I had lived in community with Rahner, knew his theology, and disagreed with his comments. ‘But he had a girlfriend,’ the international speaker protested, as if that settled the matter. ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘he had more than one—he had several women friends, and two or three were at his bedside when he died.’ This did nothing to assuage the international speaker. Rather, he seemed horror-struck, as if I had more than confirmed his worst fears. I wonder what he thought of the ‘many women’ who ‘had followed Jesus from Galilee’ and stayed with him at his crucifixion: ‘among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee’ (Matthew 27:55-56 NRSV).

Rahner’s friendship with the German novelist Luise Rinser was perhaps the source of the international speaker’s concern. The friendship has been much-publicised, though the nature of the relationship has not been much-respected. It certainly was not an exclusive relationship—Luise Rinser was recently remarried — and Rinser described it as a spiritual relationship. Rinser has published her account of the friendship, which reveals that Rahner wrote her an inordinate number of letters in its early years. It seems that Rahner fell in love with her early in in 1962, a year before the opening of the Second Vatican Council. When she came to visit him in Innsbruck they used to meet for lunch in a hotel called the Grauer Bär — the Grey Bear. This modest hotel sits directly opposite the Jesuit College church and courtyard, now called Karl-Rahner-Platz. If theirs was a clandestine romance, they were not making a very good job of it. While their correspondence cooled after a few years years, they remained in touch, and they spoke together on the phone shortly before Rahner’s death.

Is there something wrong with a priest falling in love with another person? What perturbs me is that those who criticise Rahner for this friendship also dislike the openness of his theology to the modern world while, on the other hand, they never say a word against the heavenly theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who also enjoyed a close friendship with a woman, the marvellous Adrienne von Speyr, doctor and mystic. It seems to me that, for both men, the women improved their theology.

I made my pilgrimage to Rahner’s resting place because of a deep inner desire to mark the influence of his mysticism and metaphysics on my life, and also in memory of the little girl who had brought Father Rahner flowers in 1980. There is a florist at the Innsbruck railway station, and my wife and I sought her advice. ‘Some flowers for the tomb of an old man who has died,’ we said, and then in answer to her question, ‘No, not a family member....a good friend.’ She gave us a solitary yellow rose. We went directly to the Jesuit Church — the door was open — and to the crypt underneath. A shaft of sunlight through a tiny upper window guided us to Rahner’s resting place. To our surprise, there was a vase of flowers on the floor in front of Rahner’s niche. Not only that, to our even greater astonishment, there was also a beautiful dark red rose that had been freshly placed behind the wooden panel marking his life and death. We added the yellow rose.

On the following day, we attended Sunday Mass in the same church, overflowing with young and old. The music ranged from a Latin Gloria sung from the choir-loft to a motet from a young soprano from the lectern. It turned out this was her first solo performance. There was not a thurible in sight, but a bowl of incense gently smouldered at a front corner of the sanctuary throughout the sacred liturgy. Women and men were present about the altar, and the presiding celebrant sat among them as one of them. Why can’t it always be like this?

After the Mass had finished we revisited the crypt. We stood by Rahner’s niche and said a prayer. There is some holiness there. Then it dawned on me, to my embarrassment, that some people were patiently waiting in a line behind us—two women, perhaps of middle age, independent of each another, both bringing flowers. The Australian theologian Richard Lennan, now Professor of Systematic Theology at Boston College, later told me that ‘In all of my visits to Karl’s grave — and I went very often during my time in Innsbruck — there was ALWAYS a vase of fresh flowers at the grave.’

Rahner would not let you speak of the resurrection of the dead: he would remind anyone who used such words that Christian faith is in ‘the resurrection of the body.’ His was an embodied faith, a fully human faith of flesh and blood. Forty years after his death, Rahner was being remembered with love. How many lives had Father Rahner blessed? What to make of all this?

The young student in the Rahner-class in Melbourne, to whom Rahner had unexpectedly appeared in a dream, had been a searching Roman Catholic at the time. She later became an Anglican, was ordained a priest, and now, among many other ministries, is an occasional lecturer in theology. Father Rahner would, I think, be delighted.

What to make of all this? Dreams and stories are no substitute for cold hard facts, some might say. But cold hard facts offer few clues about love, and God is love. I suspect it was love that gave ‘total human conviction’ to Rahner’s theology, and which drew people to be with him at his death. They would have brought flowers then, and perhaps it is their children who continue to bring flowers for Father Rahner today.

 

 

 


John Honner edited A Common Philosophy: Karl Rahner and Michael Leunig and, among many other articles, produced ‘Speaking in New Tongues: Karl Rahner’s Writings from the Grave.’ He is currently attempting to complete a book on Nature, Science, and the God of Love for Paulist Press.

Main image: The author in Innsbruck (supplied).  

Topic tags: John Honner, Catholic Church, Rahner, Innsbruck, VaticanII

 

 

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Existing comments

Three things about this delightful article. 1. Fr. Rahner ‘spoke in magnificent Latin…given with total human conviction’ at Vatican II. 2. His behaviour in the refectory and 3. Rahner’s practical works of charity. What a resume. I am truly hopeful there are some works by Fr. Rahner in my parish library.


Pam | 03 April 2024  

It seems inevitable that controversy surrounds thinkers as dedicated to philosophy and theology as Karl Rahner SJ - even Aquinas was no stranger to it.
Thanks to John Honner for illuminating a side of Fr Rahner - something of the person behind the ideas - not evident in many photographs of him nor in the stern portrait that accompanies John's article.


John Kelly | 04 April 2024  

Thank you so much John for that wonderful insight into Karl Rahner. I especially love his emphasis on the resurrection of the body and the grace-filled presence of God in the material world. And the fact that he loved a woman. Paul Collins.


Paul Collins | 05 April 2024  
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Thanks Paul, much appreciated,
keep going,
John


John Honner | 11 April 2024  

John – thank you for taking the time to place a flower and share your reminiscences of Karl Rahner on his anniversary.

In a remarkable essay featuring the role the journal, Theological Studies, has played in the reception of Vatican II, Gerald O'Collins SJ pauses his flow to acknowledge a Rahnerian observation concerning the Council. Collins writes “In that address he divided Christian history into three periods: the Church at its origins in Jewish Christianity; the Church of European culture which lasted for many centuries; and the Church of all nations which started with the Second Vatican Council itself.” [TS 2020 Vol 81 (1)] No small claim!


Bill Burke | 05 April 2024  

I am very grateful to John for his beautiful article on Karl Rahner as theologian, pastor and simply as a human being, including some 'warts'. My own theology is not particularly influenced by Rahner, though I have benefited from some of his writings, but there is an impressive openness in whatever I have read. I was moved by John's account of visiting the crypt and of the mass he attended. It reminded me of my own response to a beautiful mass in the 'Frauenkirche' in Munich, which was very impressive and warmly inviting. Many thanks, John, I'm glad to see that you still write very well.


Chris Mostert | 05 April 2024  
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Thanks Chris, lovely to hear from you, John


John Honner | 11 April 2024  

Your story of the Catholic female theological student who had a dream about Karl Rahner, which led to her becoming an Anglican priest led me to remember another story, John. It was about an equally enigmatic figure, Barry Marshall, an Anglican priest and the longtime Dean of Trinity College, Melbourne. Barry was, in many ways different to Rahner. However, there was a similar incident. One of his spiritual proteges claimed his mentorship led her to embracing Zen Buddhism.


Edward Fido | 09 April 2024  

Thanks for this, John. I remember staying in Rahner's community in Munich in 1974 when (ostensibly!) I was brushing up my German at a summer school conducted by the German scholastics. Rahner was gruff but very hospitable and very interested in Australia, particularly the animals specific to Australia: platypus, echidna, kangaroo etc. He went out of his way to ensure I had everything I needed - a real gentleman. Thanks for your tribute.


Bill Uren | 11 April 2024  
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Thanks Bill,
keep writing,
John


John Honner | 11 April 2024  

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