April 1, 2007
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.
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