Thousands Acclaim Jesuit's Global Vision: Events at UN., Elsewhere Mark 50th Anniversary of Teilhard's Death

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Thousands Acclaim Jesuit's Global Vision: Events at UN., Elsewhere Mark 50th Anniversary of Teilhard's Death


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


Many wondered aloud what he would make of it. In his lifetime, if people had heard of this priest at all, they probably had tripped over his long French name--Pierre Teilhard de Chardin--with the title paleontologist alongside it.

Paleontologist--one who studies rocks or at least life forms existing in past geologic periods. Not usual priestly work. But then this was no common cleric. There were other titles grouped against his long surname, shortened by most cognoscenti to "Teilhard." Among them: geologist, cosmologist, philosopher, mystic and Jesuit in all endeavors.

The priest, with a resume gathered long after he had been interred to the earth he so loved, bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. A half-century after his death, he was being remembered by a few thousand fans here and in Washington as a genius well acquainted with the challenges and afflictions already apparent in the 21st century.

Commemorations began April 7 at the United Nations and continued there on April 8. Teilhard's life and work were also celebrated at Fordham University, where the first U. S. conference on the priest scientist occurred in 1964. There were gatherings too at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Manhattan, at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. and at Georgetown University on April 11 and 12.

As crowds of young people, academics, diplomats, agency representatives, clerics and religious gathered to mark the 50th anniversary of his death on Easter Day, April 10, 1955, in New York City, they recalled his humility and his humor. Some reckoned he would be puzzled by the large turnouts, the vast sweep of expertise among panelists discussing his worth for our age.

Others who had studied and written of him for decades thought he would bring a smile, perhaps even a joke to the gatherings. Those who had read deeply his work and his heart, knew Teilhard resided in the zone of zest and spent little time in the realm of bitterness, despite the Vatican's and the French Jesuits' refusal to permit him to publish much of his work in his lifetime or to teach in France.

In a message read to participants at the United Nations from Jacques Chirac, the French president said Teilhard "would be delighted to see energies being mobilized, a global conscience emerging and taking shape with the ambition of setting up global political governance, asserting universal value and the enacting of rules on a planetary scale."

Many in attendance still found it ironic that after a quick death, a short obituary in The New York Times, a dozen friends at his funeral at St. Ignatius Church on Park Avenue and a two-man escort to his burial plot in Hyde Park's St. Andrews-on-Hudson cemetery--on the grounds of what was then the Jesuit novitiate, now the Culinary Institute of America--there would be such an outpouring five decades later.

The diversity of the crowd was most apparent at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in upper Manhattan where dancers, singers, scholars and religious of many faiths gathered. From the rich tones of Paul Winter's soprano saxophone to the depths of Eugene Friesen's cello playing and Tim Brumfield's organ peals, the setting and sound recalled Teilhard's vision of the universe.

"We do today what human beings have always done. We gather in a cavernous place.... We are not alone.... We are awake ... and recognize our earth is in grave crisis," said St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean of New Orleans. She spoke of cancerous cells, of polluted circulatory systems, of the death of songbirds and the clearing of the rain forests.

But like Teilhard, she found hope for the future in "building consciousness together." Prejean said she had learned new appreciation for the Earth by reading The Universe Story by Brian Swimme and Passionist Fr. Thomas Berry and by tilling the soil at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, N.J. She drew cheers when she said: "We gather and say: 'I will do my part. …

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