National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

-- NCR file photo

Fr. Karl Rahner
Light enough for us all

Remembering Karl Rahner on his centenary


In these days between the 100th anniversary of Karl Rahner’s birth on March 5, 1904, and the 20th anniversary of his death at age 80 March 30, 1984, I have been thinking back especially on several visits I had with him in his last years in the Jesuit residence at Innsbruck, Austria. He is buried nearby, in the Church of the Holy Trinity.

From the beginning Karl felt comfortable during this “third time” in Innsbruck (1981-84). After retiring from the University of Münster in 1971, he had moved back to Munich and lived at several Jesuit residences. Then, on Nov. 19, 1981, he returned to the city where he had first taught before and after World War II. Now, he wrote to a friend in the United States, he was “looking for a place to die.”

These last years, however, were amazingly productive, not least because of the editorial assistance of Paul Imhof and the great support, as Karl himself said, of “the best secretary I’ve ever had,” Elfriede Oeggl. Two further volumes of his Schriften zur Theologie were published, along with smaller volumes on Christology and ecumenism. And it was Karl himself who often wrote his own letters late into the evening.

He also continued to travel widely. In 1982 he gave lectures in 18 different cities, among them a trip to Tübingen May 14 to receive the Leopold Lucas Prize from the Evangelical Theological Faculty there. That year also saw two significant anniversaries for him, his 60th year as a Jesuit on April 27 and his 50th as a priest on July 31. On the first of these occasions his homily posed some of his typical, searching questions: “But when after so many years we look back on our life, then we don’t really know in the end what all we have failed to do, what tasks we passed by in guilty blindness and left undone, tasks that we might have addressed only if we had an entirely different attitude with which to master the deeds and suffering of our days. How much time that could have borne eternity did we leave empty, what might all have come to be that didn’t come to be? Haven’t we often been silent in a cowardly way, when we should have spoken, or spoken loudly? … When we think of our martyrs, didn’t we come too easily indeed through the Nazi time? Haven’t we sometimes in fact understood the aggiornamento of the [Vatican] Council too much in the sense of our own mood and comfort?

“In this sense one could still ask many questions,” he continued, “and so an uncanny feeling comes upon us.”

In 1983 he traveled to 20 cities for lectures, including a trip to Paris to be presented with the French translation of his Foundations of Christian Faith. That October I called him from Rome to tell him that Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach had been elected the new Jesuit superior general at their 33rd General Congregation. (“Is he a nice fellow?” he asked on the phone.) I then journeyed to an already wintry Innsbruck to tell him about the congregation. We walked through the snowy town beneath the great mountains and talked about the mission of the Society of Jesus, letters from Rome, everyday faith. He was encouraged to hear about the courage and fidelity of Jesuits around the world.

By the first few months of 1984 he had already given a retreat for priests in Italy and spoken on various occasions in Germany, England and Hungary. It seemed particularly fitting that on his 80th birthday he was able to receive the first printing of Prayers for a Lifetime.

But the day I treasure most in Karl Rahner’s company was Ash Wednesday of that year, a story I’ve told in part before in Bilder eines Lebens (1985). On Monday of that week, friends from far and near had gathered to celebrate his birthday. A man with distaste for any cult of personality whatsoever, he had nevertheless appreciated the outpouring of admiration and affection, just as he had 20 years earlier when the massive two-volume festschrift Gott in Welt was published in honor of his 60th birthday.

After lunch on Wednesday we took his car first to Schloss Tratzberg, where he had been under quiet house arrest with the Enzenberg family after the Nazis closed the Innsbruck Theological Faculty in 1939. It was late winter, pearl gray, and the view down into the valley of the Inn River was as beautiful as it must have been when Kaiser Maximilian hunted from the castle. Karl was visibly tired but insisted on driving on to Schwaz before we went on to Lans for supper.

Schwaz had been an important center of mining, and a number of imposing buildings bear witness to its former prosperity. In the early 16th-century Franciscan cloister, the frescos of the life of Christ had just been restored. One scene, though hard to make out, impressed me especially. Finally I realized that it was the Lord “descending into hell to save the souls of the dead.” “No, no,” Karl corrected me, “their bodies!”

But I remember still better another moment from the gathering shadows of that evening. Karl wanted to show me the Church of Mary with its unusual double nave: one for the nobility and the bourgeoisie, the other for the miners. While his typical interest in revealing historical detail impressed me, I was still more struck by something he did as we walked through the darkening north nave. Stopping at a painting of the Virgin and Child before which dozens of votive candles burned, he took a coin from his wallet and added a light. I began to do the same, but he stopped me and said, “No, one light is enough.”

Yes, indeed, great theologian, holy priest, servant of the Lord and his church, dear friend, you were truly light enough for us all.

Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University and visiting professor of theology at Fordham University.

A look at one of Catholicism's great thinkers

One of the most prolific and influential theologians of the 20th century, Karl Rahner is thought by many to have been the greatest Catholic theologian since John Henry Newman. He wrote primarily as a dogmatic theologian but also addressed philosophical, historical, political, pastoral and spiritual questions with originality and passion. The correlation of human experience and God’s self-communication was at the center of his thought, which always meant to serve the church and the needs of contemporary men and women.

Rahner was born in Freiburg im Breisgau and entered the Society of Jesus in 1922 several years after his brother Hugo, who also became a distinguished theologian. During his education in the Jesuit order he developed an Ignatian spirituality of “seeking God in all things” and was introduced by the writings of the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal to the thought of Immanuel Kant and later of G.W.F. Hegel and German Idealism. He also did intensive reading in patristic sources and medieval mysticism. Ordained to the priesthood in 1932, he began a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1934 and attended Martin Heidegger’s seminars. When his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Aquinas’ theory of knowledge was rejected by his director as insufficiently traditional, he left for Innsbruck and there completed the requirements for teaching dogmatic theology at the Jesuit faculty.

Closed by the Nazis in 1938, the faculty reopened after the war and Rahner rejoined it and began a series of influential publications that were eventually collected in 16 German volumes that have been translated as Theological Investigations (23 volumes). His probing analyses of human existence in a world permeated by divine grace had an explosive power. His commitment to the church was evident in the editorial labors that began at this time and continued almost to the end of his life.

While serving as coeditor of the major German Catholic theological encyclopedia, Rahner was also a peritus at Vatican II (after having been subject to a preliminary censorship regulation from Rome in 1962-63). He continued to publish the Theological Investigations, addressing new issues such as evolutionary science, the question of world religions and utopian views of the future, and helped to prepare a new multivolume Handbook of Pastoral Theology. With Heinrich Schlier he initiated the series of Questiones Disputatae and was also a founding member of the editorial committee that planned Concilium, an international theological journal.

Among the important themes in his later thought were Christology from below, a universal pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit), and reform of the church as a declericalized, more democratic and socially critical community of service to the world. His major work of the period was Foundations of Christian Faith, which, while not an adequate synthesis of his thought, does present his thinking on central themes of Christian doctrine. He also wrote many beautiful shorter essays, gave numerous interviews and lectured widely.

For someone reading Rahner for the first time, a good place to begin would be one of the books of prayer that he himself prized highly: Encounters with Silence (1960), On Prayer (1958), or Prayers for a Lifetime (1985). Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt have edited a fine anthology, The Practice of Faith (1983), and many students and general readers have found helpful A World of Grace (1980; reprinted 1995), which I edited as a commentary on Foundations of Christian Faith and a general introduction to Rahner’s thought.

-- Leo J. O’Donovan

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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