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Brown had few equals even in an age of giants


Halfway through the opening Eucharist of the recent Catholic Biblical Association meeting, I was informed that Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown had died suddenly of a heart attack. After Communion had been distributed, I announced the sad news to the more than 300 scholars and teachers present. A collective moan of pain and shock ran through the congregation.

For virtually all of us he was mentor, colleague and friend. No American Catholic scholar has had a greater impact on the life of the modern church than Raymond Brown.

Still vigorous at 70, he had just published an Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1998), another of those massive volumes that were his trademark. It has all the virtues of his more than 40 books published over a lifetime of extraordinary erudition: intellectually vigorous, encyclopedic in scope, fair-minded, balanced and clear as a bell.

Just a few weeks ago, Catholic Theological Union had the privilege of conferring on him an honorary doctorate -- the last of 30 he had received. I had asked him to give the commencement address to our graduates. He didn’t like honors, but he accepted this one, “Because,” he told me, “you honor me not only for my scholarship but for my Catholic faith.”

He spoke without notes (which was also typical of him) and from the heart about the values he held dear: the beauty of language (first encountered while reading Dickens as a boy); the importance of being open to others (learned while living abroad and from friendships with people of other faiths); humility about the limited perspective of one’s own views; and the need to search lifelong and earnestly for God’s wisdom.

Raymond Brown embodied the absolute best of Catholic scholarship. Part of that was the sheer impact of his great work. For nearly 30 years, Raymond Brown was easily the best known Catholic biblical scholar in the world. His publications -- even the technical ones -- sold more than any other author, and most of them became reference points for his fellow scholars. He graced the pages of Newsweek and Time and The New York Times on a regular basis.

He was president of the two largest and most prestigious ecumenical professional biblical societies in the world: the Society of Biblical Literature and the Society for the Study of the New Testament. He was president (and one of the guiding lights) of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. His fingerprints were on practically every major publishing project undertaken by biblical scholarship in this country, including the Jerome Biblical Commentary, the Anchor Bible and a host of other standard reference works.

But Ray Brown embodied Catholic scholarship in another way. Publicly and privately, without artifice, he identified himself as a priest and faithful member of the church. He always wore his Roman collar for his public lectures, no matter what the scholarly setting. For Ray it was not a reaction to anything but meant as a testimonial that rigorous scholarship and deep Catholic faith were not incompatible: “I am a faithful priest and I am not afraid to think,” his manner seemed to say.

Ray also cared deeply about the pastoral life of the church and worked tirelessly to bring good biblical scholarship into Sunday homilies, pastoral letters and college biblical courses. He loved to preach and did it well. He worked hard to maintain good relationships with the American bishops and earned their trust until the day he died. Pope John Paul II appointed him to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (the second pope to do so).

Raymond Brown was a “churchman” in the best sense of the term and perhaps more than any single person in American Catholicism was responsible for the strong endorsement of biblical scholarship that still exists in our contemporary church. He also, by the way, was a treasure chest of ecclesiastical lore and enjoyed conversing about it, with his unmistakable New York accent and with a bemused smile.

Ray Brown paid a steep price for his leadership role. I think it safe to say he wore himself out. He worked at his desk from morning till night, often skipping lunch. And when he wasn’t reading and writing, he was on the road lecturing in every corner of the nation. His Sulpician provincial, Fr. Ronald Witherup, kidded that Ray had hesitated about taking up a computer until he learned that with a laptop he could work while vacationing on the beach.

But something else ate at Ray Brown’s energy. For years he had been the target of those in the church who believed that rigorous biblical scholarship was the enemy of Catholic faith. I could never figure why, because few people I knew were more faithfully Catholic than Ray Brown. Maybe it was because Ray was so visible and because he had such influence. Maybe his critics never took the time to understand how responsible his scholarship really was or how unfair and cruel their attacks on him were. Whatever the reason, some reactionary Catholics hounded him, often in the harshest personal terms. They heckled him at lectures; they wrote scurrilous attacks in the press. These relentless attacks pained him greatly, but he never flinched and he never stopped.

Slowly, inexorably, time is stripping the American church of that extraordinary generation of scholars and church leaders that guided us through the profound and sometimes turbulent awakening of the American Catholic church that has taken place in the past 40 years. I think God gave us an extra share of truly great men and women to help us through. But even in that extraordinary company, Raymond Brown had few peers.

May he rest in peace.

Passionist Fr. Donald Senior is the immediate past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America. He is currently president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he is also professor of New Testament studies. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the Bible.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998