By Fr Gerald Murray
Editor’s note: Catholic intellectual Alice von Hildebrand, whose husband was the late Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, died Jan. 14 at the age of 98. Revered as a “tigress” in defense of objective Truth and the Catholic Church, von Hildebrand appeared more than 80 times on EWTN and contributed many outstanding essays over the years to Catholic News Agency. Some of those CNA essays are referenced in the homily below, given by Father Gerald E. Murray at von Hildebrand’s funeral Mass on Jan. 22 at her parish, Holy Family Church in New Rochelle, New York.
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” — Letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans 5:1-2
As we join together in prayer at this Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of our beloved friend and mentor Alice von Hildebrand, known as Lily to her friends, we pray that she who had such deep faith in the truth who is our Lord Jesus Christ, that she who radiated the peace that God bestows on those who love Him, may now see the fulfillment of her hope, sharing in the glory that God bestows on His good and faithful servants who have received the supreme gift of the beatific vision, seeing God face to face.
Before the body of a deceased Catholic is brought to the parish church for the Requiem Mass, the Church offers this prayer at the wake: “O Lord, we commend to you the soul of your servant Alice, that having departed from this world, she may live with you.
And by the grace of your merciful love, wash away the sins that in human frailty she has committed in the conduct of her life.” Lily asked for Masses to be offered for her soul. She was very conscious of the need that sinners have to seek God’s pardon. In December of 2016 she told a friend: “You know, I have lived a long life. I will tell you a secret. I am ready for it to be over.
I think I have done what God wanted me to do. If I died tomorrow, I think I would be grateful. Also, I am a coward: I am afraid of what is coming. I pray for the younger generation. I think we are coming back around in history when people will be killed for their faith. If you are there when I am on my deathbed remind me to say, forgive me my sins, thank you to God and I love you.
Have you ever thought about the words you will say on your death bed? Of course, not; you are too young but for me it is very close.” She was only off by five years in predicting her departure from this vale of tears. Those five years, indeed all her 98 years on earth were a gift from God both to Lily and to all those who loved her. Her gratitude to God for all He did for her in this life never wavered, but rather grew stronger. She marveled at her long life as she marveled at everything that God did for her.
In August of 2017 Lily told a friend: “I love the story of Abraham, how Isaac asked him on the way to the mount where God had told him to sacrifice his son, ‘but where is the sacrifice?’ and Abraham responded, ‘God will provide.’ That is how I feel about my death — God will provide the right people and the right circumstances.”
The Lord did indeed provide for her as Holy Mass was celebrated in her apartment, and she received the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Pardon, on January 13th. She went to the Lord that very night, shortly after midnight.
Her death brings to an earthly close a truly amazing life. Born in 1923, her journey through this world into the world to come took her in 1940 from her native Belgium to New York, in flight from the Nazi invaders. Her first home here was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with her aunt and uncle.
Little did she know then that she would spend 38 years at a nearby secular school, Hunter College, teaching philosophy. It was her love of books and learning that led her to Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart and then to Fordham University, where she studied philosophy under the guidance of the brilliant and courageous Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had fled Munich for Vienna when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took power in Germany.
His writings against the Nazis put him at the top of the Gestapo list of people to be arrested when the German army marched into Austria. He escaped on the last train out of Vienna and made his way to New York, where he resumed his work as a philosopher and as a Catholic writer and speaker who inspired his students and friends with a deep love of Christ, of the Church and, in particular, of the Church’s sacred liturgy.
Lily soon became his secretary, and after von Hildebrand’s wife Margarete died in 1957, he asked her to marry him in 1959. They eventually moved to New Rochelle and were members of this parish of the Holy Family. My family were also parishioners here.
I remember as a grammar schoolboy wondering who this couple was as they sat a few pews ahead of our family at Sunday Mass. I was to find out, to my great benefit, a few years later, when I decided to enter the seminary to study for the priesthood. I discovered the greatness of these two philosophers who defended all that is worth defending so that man may live at peace with himself, with others and with God.
One of the most central themes in the lives of Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand was the crucial importance of reverence if man is to order his life properly and fruitfully in this world.
Lily wrote extensively about matters of faith in various Catholic publications in the years that followed her retirement in 1984 from teaching at Hunter College. Reverence was a central topic. Let me cite three passages from her articles.
- “The curse of modern men is that so many of them have lost their sense for wonder and gratitude. Boredom is a punishment for irreverence. Alas, our mind-boggling technological progress has brought with it the curse of taking things for granted and assuming with blind stupidity that there is nothing we cannot know — nothing that he cannot master.
Having a small gadget in his hand, one feels that he is the master of the universe. He can click on a button and have the world at his fingertips. Regretfully, we never hear homilists say a word about the sin of being ‘blasé.’ It is a sin because it is a consequence of ingratitude — because it is a fruit of pride and metaphysical arrogance. Every sin brings with it its own punishment.” (“Reverence: The Mother of All Virtue,” Catholic News Agency, April 26, 2016.)
“What is ‘reverence?’ It is an uplifting and joyful feeling of awe, a response that man is called upon to give to God’s creation which clearly points to the Creator; it is an ever renewed and grateful discovery of the mysteries of being; it is an overcoming of one’s moral blindness preventing us from perceiving the glories of the universe that we live in.
It is a joy to perceive how marvelous it is ‘to be,’ and consequently, should make us respond with horror at abortion, willingly and brutally denying existence to others (for I doubt that abortionists would have chosen to be aborted themselves had they had a chance of doing it.) They deny life to others, not to themselves. We all should tremble with respect at perceiving a little creature making its dramatic entrance into our world.” (Ibid.)
- “Irreverence is spreading through modem society like a cancer. It is metastasizing and has infected virtually every facet of our everyday life. The authentic meaning of ‘culture’ refers to a refinement, an elevation, a spiritualization of everyday life —that is, it aims to put the seal of the Spirit on our daily activities. Today, however, the word ‘culture’ refers to whatever has been most recently produced. We have forgotten that true culture elevates; it does not drag down. I dare say that much of what we see today is an anti-culture.
- It certainly cannot be read as a sursum corda (Lift up your hearts) — a call to look upward, triggering gratitude in our souls. It was typical of Plato’s genius that he would warn us that one of the main aims of education is to train a child to ‘love what is lovable, and hate what is mean and ugly.’ This is the antidote to the disease of irreverence that is ravaging our society and sickening our culture. When will we avail ourselves of it?” (“The Disease of Irreverence,” New Oxford Review, June 2011.)
Lily’s love for the truth was a fruit of her love for Christ, who is the Truth. She did not speak about Catholicism in the classroom at Hunter, a secular school. She taught philosophy not theology. But her students who heard about the existence of objective truth in her classes were free to ask themselves questions about the origin of truth. And that led a good number of them to seek answers beyond philosophy. Lily recounted one incident that occurred shortly before she retired:
“Not long ago, in my ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ course, I was discussing truth. I gave my students the classical argument against subjectivism and relativism, namely, that whenever one tries to deny objective truth one must simultaneously claim that one’s own statement is itself true, really and objectively.
Suddenly, a male student raised his hand, rose (a most unusual occurrence), and said in a strong, clear voice: ‘I object, Professor, to your spreading Roman Catholicism in this classroom.’ There followed a moment of great tension and my thoughts rushed to God for help. Then I said quietly: ‘I’m afraid that you are guilty of an anachronism.’ Since the student in question did not know what it meant, I explained:
‘The argument I have been using is taken from Plato who lived some four centuries before the birth of Christ. He can hardly be called a Roman Catholic. This should answer your objection.’ I then proceeded with my teaching. Some 16 months later I received a phone call just as I was about to leave for the university, where I was scheduled to proctor exams for the evening.
The person who was calling, a former student, said she urgently wanted to see me. I told her that this was not possible since I was to be on duty the whole evening and, furthermore, it was my last day at the university until the fall term. She started to cry over the phone and insisted that she had to see me immediately. Surmising that her problem was truly serious, I contacted a friend of mine who agreed to proctor in my stead.
I then rushed to the university. I hardly had time to take off my coat when the girl who had phoned me came in. I immediately recognized her even though she had never spoken to me personally when she was my student. She had a fine, sensitive face and I had been impressed by her attentiveness and eagerness to listen.
To my utter amazement, she told me abruptly that she wanted to become a Roman Catholic. I was so surprised that I was speechless, but I then decided to test her. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Your courses convinced me.’ ‘But,’ I responded, ‘I didn’t say a word about religion in my classes; my topic is philosophy.’
‘l know,’ she answered, ‘but do you recall an incident about 16 months ago when a student got up and objected to your refutation of subjectivism and relativism on the ground that you were spreading Roman Catholicism in the classroom? I had been brought up with strong anti-Catholic prejudices. But just when the student spoke out, the grace of God struck me. I suddenly understood that the Roman Catholic Church does stand for the objectivity of truth and that I had been blinded by prejudices.
‘Your course helped me very much and I decided to take another one with you,’ she continued. ‘I heard through another student that you were the wife of a famous Roman Catholic writer, Dietrich von Hildebrand. I rushed to the library and read a couple of his works. Now I am convinced. Please, help me to find a good priest so that I can take instructions in the faith.’
This is how L.C. found her way into the Church. I learned a great lesson through her experience: God is so powerful, so great, that He can use anything for the good.” (“Classroom Conversion,” National Catholic Register, March 20, 1983.)
We give thanks to God for the life of our dear departed friend Lily von Hildebrand. We owe her many debts of gratitude for all that she did for us and for countless others who learned, and will continue to learn, from her example, her writings and her public speeches and media appearances, especially on EWTN. She taught us how to live, and how to die. May she rest in God’s peace, knowing the One who made her, redeemed her, and has now called her to Himself.
(SOURCE: CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY)