"Ecce sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo," the choir sang: "Behold the great priest who in his day has pleased the Lord."
It was very much a Roman afternoon, softer and warmer than even the Italians expected for February. And it was very much a Roman place: Gesù e Maria, a high-Baroque church designed by Carlo Rainaldi for the Augustinians in 1670, out along the Via del Corso toward the old city gate, a block below the Piazza del Popolo. Into that ornate riot of Roman taste—where gold-gowned priests and mitered bishops bowed beneath the bronze and marble, the gilded crucifixes and glowing frescoes—walked Avery Dulles, the great priest, as tall and thin as a split rail, with a face of sharp-cornered granite. He looked as much the opposite of Baroque Rome as it is possible to imagine. He looked like stern New England, deep in winter.
He looked like what he is: eighty-two years old and the end of a long line of American Presbyterians; the last heir of the old northeastern American establishment, incongruously turned Jesuit priest and dressed in the scarlet cassock, sash, and mozzetta of a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. The ceremony at which Dulles took possession of Gesù e Maria, his titular church, was held on February 23, the third day of celebrations in Rome for Cardinal Dulles—the first American theologian ever raised to the cardinalate.
In January, when Pope John Paul II announced the latest elevations, three Americans were on the list. The first two, Edward Egan and Theodore McCarrick, the recently named archbishops of New York and Washington, were no surprise. How could the head of a major American archdiocese not become a cardinal these days? Besides, Egan and McCarrick are Irish, like most of the Church hierarchy in the United States. One can read in their faces the history of American Catholicism—primarily a tale of Irish immigration, struggle, and rise to wealth and power, with the Italians and now the Hispanics in supporting roles.
In Avery Cardinal Dulles's face one can read the history of the other world—the world from which those Irishmen long felt excluded. It wasn't simply money and status that the Dulleses possessed (though, Lord knows, they had enough). Their primary gift was assurance. Behind them, like perpetual graces, stood Princeton and Harvard, weekends on sailboats, grand tours, a house out on Long Island, a summer place upstate, the Navy, the foreign service. Avery Dulles's great-grandfather, John Watson Foster, was President Benjamin Harrison's Secretary of State. His great-uncle, Robert Lansing, was Woodrow Wilson's. His father, John Foster Dulles, was Dwight Eisenhower's. His uncle, Allen Dulles, headed the CIA from 1953 to 1961. His aunt, Eleanor Dulles, wielded influence as a State Department officer and a Washington hostess.
And behind that modern establishment stood earlier American establishments: the long line of New England intellectuals who discovered transcendentalism in the pages of Emerson, the longer line of Protestant ministers who preached Calvinism from the Second Book of Kings. Avery's grandfather, Allen Macy Dulles, had been a Presbyterian pastor and a co-founder of the American Theological Society. John Foster Dulles—coming to believe that only the Gospels and international organization could preserve world order—gained wide notice as an expert on international affairs by chairing a 1941 peace commission for the Federal Council of Churches.
Still, Avery Dulles described himself as an agnostic when he arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate, in 1936. The subsequent decade was a time of prominent Catholic conversions, particularly intellectual and literary ones. Thomas Merton gave the classic account of those days in The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), the tale of his progress from Columbia University to a Trappist monastery. But even for his generation, Dulles's conversion was curiously intellectual. It began when he decided that Catholic philosophy provided a more complete account of the world than others did. Acceptance of the philosophy compelled acceptance of the theology, which in turn compelled acceptance of the faith—except, of course, that intellectually accepting faith isn't the same as actually having faith.
But then, in 1939, "on one grey February afternoon ... in Widener Library," Dulles wrote in his conversion memoir, A Testimonial to Grace (1946),
I was irresistibly prompted to go out into the open air ... The slush of melting snow formed a deep mud along the banks of the River Charles, which I followed down toward Boston ... As I wandered aimlessly, something impelled me to look contemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds ... While my eye rested on them, the thought came to me suddenly, with all the strength and novelty of a revelation, that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing ... That night, for the first time in years, I prayed.
By the fall of 1940, in his first year at Harvard Law School, Dulles was ready to tell his family of his faith and to be received into the Catholic Church. After a tour in the Navy, during which he won the Croix de Guerre for liaison work with the French navy, he returned to Boston in 1946 and joined the Society of Jesus to become a priest.