REV. JOHN R. BECKER JR., SJ (1925–2008)
When I was in college, a Catholic friend once asked me what more he could do, besides pray, for someone who admired Christian belief, had heard most of the best arguments for it, but still, somehow, couldn’t bring herself to believe. Maybe I should have told him what Gerard Manley Hopkins told Robert Bridges when Bridges asked him how he could acquire faith, which he found beautiful but completely alien: “Give alms,” Hopkins told him. But I hadn’t heard that story when I was in college, and I’m not sure how well I would have understood it then. Instead, I advised my friend to introduce the would-be believer to someone who was holy—surely he must know someone, a nun from home, a grandparent, anyone. The expression on my friend’s face suggested that he found this advice interesting and alien.
When I remember this today, it seems to me the advice I gave was much wiser than I was, that its logic extended further than I could then have understood. The example of holiness is no doubt more important than any manual of apologetics in attracting people to the church; but holiness also attracts those who already believe, and surely its example has sustained at least as many of us as it has converted. When our reasons for faith, or for hope, appear to fail, sometimes it is only the irrefragable evidence of personal sanctity that can save us.
I speak from some experience. I speak of my friend Fr. John Becker, SJ, who died this January at the age of eighty-two. Fr. Becker was my freshman-year English teacher at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix. He taught grammar and punctuation with an apostolic, if sometimes unorthodox, zeal. He had us recite reams of verse, not all of it very good. (I am not ashamed to have forgotten all but the first line of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”) Students who liked his bloody-minded, pun-drunk sense of humor loved him right away. Those who didn’t like it—and there were always a few—wondered if he wasn’t beginning to show signs that he really was, as he always insisted, “the oldest priest in the world.” He had all his freshmen read “the great Mexican classic, Tequila Mockingbird,” and at least once every year he pretended, in the middle of class, to have cut off one of his fingers with the paper-cutter. It was all in the delivery, at once dry and theatrical and slightly devilish.
If I had learned nothing more from Fr. Becker than what he taught me in his classroom, I would have reason enough to be grateful. He taught me how to write and what to read. And most of my arguments for faith, such as they are, I learned from him, directly or indirectly. A common theme of many of the novels and poems he introduced me to was holiness, in the broadest sense of the word: the beauty that would save the world was an extraordinary but usually inconspicuous goodness. Not that he had anything against conspicuous goodness; St. Edmund Campion’s “Brag” was one of his favorite texts, and he loved Evelyn Waugh’s biography of that half-forgotten martyr.
Most of what I learned from him, though, had nothing to do with school. Halfway through my freshman year, I was hospitalized with pneumonia and missed several weeks of class. The hospital was on an air force base about fifteen miles out of town. Fr. Becker, who may not have been the oldest priest in the world but certainly wasn’t the youngest, rode his bicycle to the hospital to deliver a used copy of the book my class was reading. Goodness doesn’t get much more conspicuous. Much later, after I had graduated from college, he led me in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which meant spending a few hours with me every day. And years after that he flew, unbidden, across the country just to have a conversation at a moment in my life when every reason for faith looked like wishful thinking. I don’t remember that conversation very well now. I don’t think he told me anything I didn’t know, but he didn’t have to. The mere fact of his presence was the best argument he had.
There are other stories I could tell, and many more that others could tell, as I was reminded the weekend of Fr. Becker’s funeral. Former students came from all over the country, all eager to say what the old priest had done for them, and all amazed that he could have been as generous to anyone else as he was to them. Mixed with the gratitude and sorrow was a certain amount of discomfort, for few of us had felt equal to his friendship. If you ever asked him for anything, he never said “maybe,” or even just “yes.” He said “of course,” or “I’d be like a firefly in the rain: delighted.”
Less famous but no less powerful than his proofs for the existence of God is Aquinas’s beautiful explanation of why a self-sufficient God created the world. Goodness, he says, is diffusive of itself. Blessed are they who prove it.
John R. Becker Jr., SJ. Requiescat in pace.