When he died at age 70 in August 1979, Cardinal John Wright had been the highest ranking American cleric in the Catholic Church, living out the last 10 years of his life in Rome as an embattled Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. Not an enviable job at any time, least of all at a moment when the priesthood was awash with defections, producing a flow so constant and uninterrupted that not a few of the faithful were left permanently bereft. “What they need,” said Wright with a bluntness few of his fellow prelates dared express, “is to go to Confession, and right away. They made a promise. They should keep it.”
But no one was listening, save possibly the Vicar of Christ, whom he served unstintingly right up to the very end. “He will long be remembered,” St. John Paul II declared on the occasion of his death, “with admiration and gratitude.”
In a moving tribute to his memory, his longtime friend William Clancy recalled a conversation he had had with Wright years before, in which he told him of a Collect he prayed for the first time in Rome soon after his ordination. What especially endeared him to this prayer, Wright said, was that it revealed so clearly the mystery of Christian humanism, a cause to which he was ardently committed. What sparked the discovery was the lovely Latin text, Sic transeamus per bona temporalia; ut non amittamus aeterna, exhorting the soul to pass through the good things of this world, so as not to lose those of the world to come.
“He prayed the Collect in an ancient Roman chapel,” his friend recalled, “and as he prayed the sun streamed upon the marble altar where he stood. He felt at once — and all together — the splendor and the wonder and the joy of life: the pathos of its passing and the glory beyond the passing. He wept,” Clancy continues, “as he often did, rejoicing, and went on with what he had to do.”
And, of course, there was much that he had to do, including the eventual exercise of high episcopal office. But always with that double sense, that splendid tension of which Christian humanism gives such exquisite expression; that while there are wonderful things in this world, things worth having — worth defending, too — we must never lose sight of that other world, the one to which the deepest desires of the heart, joined to grace, beckon us toward. “We seek the city that is to come,” the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us. There is nothing here, in other words, that can finally assuage the appetite we have for heaven, for God.
This surely accounts for the coat of arms he chose on first becoming bishop: Resonare Christum, To echo Christ, who is the source, inexhaustibly rich, of that integration of earth and heaven, human and divine. So, too, his attachment to Catholic France, as seen especially in her great saints, of whom Joan of Arc became the particular, indeed consuming, object of his devotion. One does not amass six thousand volumes, the largest collection outside France, on the Maid of Orleans, for nothing.
This is all worth recalling, it seems to me, as we move through these final days of Lent, picking up our crosses, urged on by the example of so many others who, like Cardinal Wright, have gone before us. We too must soldier on, ever mindful of the world’s goodness, its many excellences, yet resistant to its entrapments, lest they divert us from the journey that leads to God. Yes, the Bridegroom has gone away, leaving us to mourn his passing, but we are to fill the emptiness with prayer and fasting in order to awaken true hunger for his return.
Regis Martin, Ph.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate
with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.