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Remembering Father Michael Himes, a brilliant scholar and an exuberant, smiling priest

The Rev. Michael Himes, a renowned theologian and charismatic priest who died on June 10, was a high school senior when I first met him in the summer of 1964. He answered the phones and doors at the rectory where I was assigned for a time. My only recollection was of someone with a smile that revealed an exuberant spirit. And when he didn’t have to respond to calls, he read.

The next time I met him might have been about 10 years later, when I was working in the Vatican and he showed up unexpectedly in my office with several other priests from Brooklyn. Their shoes and trousers were caked with mud. Under Michael’s guidance, they had been to visit the ruins of Augustine’s Hippo in northern Africa during a heavy rain storm, then rushed to the airport without a chance to clean up; after arriving in Rome, they came directly to see me. Once again there was that exuberant smile.

Michael’s knowledge of the Christian tradition was deep and vast, but he always related that tradition to the concrete pastoral needs that the students would face.

In 1979, I left Rome to teach at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y., on Long Island. When I walked through the front door, standing next to the rector was Michael Himes, welcoming me with exuberance.

We were to teach together for the next nine years. As a team, we conducted courses on ecclesiology and sacraments. The students were seminarians from the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre as well as laity. I cannot remember any occasion when Michael lectured without energy, order, concreteness, wit—and, of course, exuberance. Michael covered the historical development of doctrines. My own training at the Gregorian University in Rome had led me to recognize the historical contexts in which doctrines developed, and so we shared the kinship of the importance of historical consciousness in doing theology.

I learned so much from him. I had read the works of Johann Adam Möhler long before meeting Michael, but it was in hearing Michael lecture on Möhler that I came to a much fuller awareness of the significance of Möhler in the history of theology. Michael’s knowledge of the Christian tradition was deep and vast, but he always related that tradition to the concrete pastoral needs that the students would face. In fact, I would say that this was Michael’s methodology in teaching, lecturing to other audiences and preaching: What are the questions being asked today in the church and world? What are the questions being asked by this group in front of him? As a lecturer, he was dialogical—and always exuberant.

That exuberance came from his love of the tradition. Michael read intensely, not to produce learned monographs (though he was certainly capable of that) but to share the richness of the tradition with those who search for and want to communicate truth and wisdom today. He also read widely beyond theology. We often had dinner, and when I brought up a particular topic, he would say he didn’t really know too much about it; then he would talk about it for 20 minutes, never condescendingly, always with typical modesty—and exuberance.

As a lecturer he was dialogical—and always exuberant. That exuberance came from his love of the tradition.

He was enthusiastic about priesthood. On Holy Thursday morning, he would visit the rooms of all the priests on the faculty of the seminary to express appreciation for their ministry. He celebrated Mass in parishes every Sunday, and to this day I meet parishioners who, after several decades, still remember him and are grateful for the impact he had on them. But that was Michael’s pastoral commitment, the theologian at the service of the questions and concerns of God’s people.

Another instance of that pastoral service: During his time at the seminary, he would meet monthly with Bishop John R. McGann of Rockville Centre and the auxiliary bishops there to discuss specific theological issues and books that he would assign for their reading. A tribute to Michael—and the bishops!

Michael left us in 1988, first going to the University of Notre Dame and then a few years later to Boston College. We saw each other when he was back in New York for vacations. But perhaps the greatest contact I had with him was through the children of friends who attended Notre Dame and Boston College speaking of oversubscribed courses and the standing room only Masses at which he preached. At those universities, he brought the same exuberance, the same desire to share the Gospel and the Christian tradition, the same goal to respond to the questions and concerns of the people of God today.

Michael was at his best talking about the gratuitous and superabundant love of God poured out upon us—the self-giving of each person of the Trinity sweeping us up into their circle of infinitely exuberant love. I believe that was the foundation of Michael’s exuberance, and now he rests forever in that circle of love.

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