Austin Vaughan

 
Preparing for my priestly ordination, Bishop Austin Vaughan (1927–2000) conferred the ministries of lector and acolyte with such unassuming dispatch that one forgot the man was possibly the smartest bishop in the nation. Nothing seemed quite to fit him; he appeared not so much to be dressed as to be in the process of dressing, and the mitre sat askew on top the elegant brain. Since student days in Rome, rumors followed him that he had scored the finest academic record since St. Alphonsus Liguori dazzled his examiners. An eclectic curriculum vitae listed presidencies of the Catholic Theological Society and the Mariological Society, as well as vicariate of the prison apostolate for which he had distinguished credentials, as the first bishop of the land to have been arrested nobly. Our jaded judiciary found him flawed by statute, and judges sentenced him many times for protesting outside abortion clinics. "I’ve been in some of the best jails in the country." He would fall limp and make it difficult for the police to haul his frame into the wagon, but as an inmate with a rosary he charmed convicts and shamed guards.
 
During two vacancies in New York it is believed that he was consulted about accepting the archbishopric, from which he demurred as "a bad organizer." He had done the same when he was rector of the archdiocesan seminary. Cardinal Cooke persisted and made him auxiliary bishop in 1977. As vicar for Orange County and a pastor in Newburgh he was maître d’hôtel of a four-star soup kitchen and, among many unpublicized acts, housed and boarded a score of refugees from an apartment building fire. The Latinist ministered to his flock in five languages, including a dash of Polish.
 
There must have been pain when he resigned his allegiance to the Democratic Party in 1988—"the party of abortion," as he put it in an open letter that rebuked Gov. Mario Cuomo, who claimed that Vatican II had "done away with Hell." More hurtful was the opprobrium he endured as seminary rector in his defense of the articles of Humanae Vitae in 1968, and worldwide travels in support of Paul VI were his yin to the yang of the pope’s subsequent agonized silence. The bishop’s material poverty was a radical instinct, and it took a moral dimension when he was neglected by many he had counted as colleagues.
 
Vaughan understood that not every meeting is or should be Nicaea, and even a bishops’ conference can bounce between platitude and error. True to his prediction, lengthy and heady national pastoral letters on economics and war and peace that danced on the grave of reason are relegated now to the cabinet of failed curiosities. Metastasized bureaucracies, even clerical ones, risk becoming bottom feeders of culture if they conjoin inanity, which has no cure, and cupidity, which shrinks from cure. In that ecology disquieted by precise thought and courage, the prophet is a pest. Only once in my presence did he marvel, ever so gently, that successors to the apostles could be in communion with Peter but not in empathy with Peter. That scandal may have been his hardest mortification. One triumph over committees was to thwart a defective translation of a book of prayers, delivering a critique to each bishop before the day of voting, but in consequence he was patronized as an eccentric by the self-centered.
 
The lustrous mind and unflagging frame endured the final humiliation of a long, speechless infirmity from a stroke, and when he could no longer say Mass he made himself an altar of sacrifice. Among his few possessions was a letter of support written to him in prison by another fine theologian named Joseph Ratzinger, and a higher power arranged that he be buried on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been the day of his ordination as a bishop.
 


Rev. George W. Rutler is pastor of the Church of Our Saviour (www.oursaviournyc.org) in New York City.

Fr. George W. Rutler

By

Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

Crisis Magazine Comments Policy

This is a Catholic forum. As such:

  1. All comments must directly address the article. “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter.” (Matthew 12:36)
  2. No profanity, ad hominems, hot tempers, or racial or religious invectives. “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
  3. We will not tolerate heresy, calumny, or attacks upon our Holy Mother Church or Holy Father. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
  4. Keep it brief. No lengthy rants or block quotes. “For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
  5. If you see a comment that doesn’t meet our standards, please flag it so a moderator may remove it. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)
  6. All comments may be removed at the moderators’ discretion. “But of that day and hour no one knows…” (Matthew 24:36)
  7. Crisis isn’t responsible for the content of the comments box. Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God… So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10, 12)
MENU