Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Remembering Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001)

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Remembering Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001)

Article excerpt

It was at the Second Vatican Council--during the second session in 1963, to be exact--that my dear Karen and I first met Bob Brown, newly appointed Protestant Observer at the Council. We liked him immediately, a man with the openness and easy humor of the Midwest (born in Illinois in 1920), a serious man, a witty man, with a keen analytic mind. We were delighted when he agreed to accept our invitation to join us for a weekend trip up to Assisi in our new white Volkswagen Beetle. He was good fun all the way. Karen and he got on especially well, for her family roots were in the Midwest, too, in Iowa, and she had family roots back in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where Bob and his wife Sydney had built a summer cottage near the cottage held by Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr.

Assisi has a special air of holiness still hanging over it, and Bob, although finding Catholic piety, statues, and candles a tad disquieting, felt the reverence as much as we did. The buildings and the reminders of the simple and brave St. Francis--the poor little man--sank more deeply into one's soul than one had expected. The beauty and peacefulness of the surrounding fields and villages and low hills are still fresh in memory.

We grew very close to Bob during the weeks of the second session of the council, the most dramatic and decisive of all four sessions (1962-65). Having studied theology in Rome for two years not long before, I could serve as a guide to certain key players and their thinking. Karen was an artist, just then working very hard on completing seventeen lithographs on the Apocalypse, the first artist since Durer to do so--an artistic project that fascinated Bob. The three of us took many meals together, and on occasion he came to the sitting room of our pensione near St. Peter's to enjoy the observations, serious and playful, of the Jesuits Gustave Weigel and Donald Campion of America and others, including Sister Fleurette and John Cogley. It had become a late afternoon cocktail hour, after most work of the day was done.

Bob had access to the Council's daily sessions, as did Weigel, but most of us did not; they could report some of the surrounding conversational chatter inside St. Peter's. I remember Weigel coming over very weary after a long session briefing the American bishops on the issues at stake. He collapsed into his chair, swished scotch in his glass, sighed, and said, "You don't know what hell is until you try to teach some theology to bishops late in the afternoon."

It was fun to watch Bob day-by-day becoming more sympathetic to the Catholic Church, even as strange as it must have looked to his Presbyterian eyes, and we all became more and more impressed by him and the fire of Christian faith that burned in him. These were the early days of the ecumenical movement when it began to include Catholics, and Catholics were at last glad to take part. Sometimes we all proceeded carefully, unwilling to hurt anybody else's feelings. Gradually, as we all became so familiar with each other and trusting of each other, we hardly needed to be careful about anything.

Karen and I came back to the council for the third session (I for only its beginning, Karen for the whole session to work on a set of prints of T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday.") Then in 1965, Bob saw to it that we were invited out to Stanford, California, for a series of meetings with deans and professors who were considering whether to extend me an invitation to join the budding Religion Department there. I was the first Catholic to be so invited, and I have always felt indebted to him for pushing this appointment. By the next semester I was teaching with him, quite literally--jointly teaching one class in theology and literature, and later one in Christianity and ethics that was almost exclusively social ethics.

Karen and I accompanied some of my students from those classes and others to a large protest outside the Selective Service office across the Bay in Oakland. …

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