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Fr. Hardon - His Impact

by Jay McNally

June 28, 1999

It only made sense that the first child of David and Jennifer Evich be named John Anthony, after the Jesuit priest, Fr. John Anthony Hardon of Detroit, who looms so large in their lives.

"Our wedding would not have happened without the spiritual direction of Fr. Hardon. It's the most interesting thing that ever happened in our lives," Evich said.

The Eviches, now living in northern Michigan's Lake Leelanau with their four children, were both born and raised Downriver and were married in their hometown by Fr. Hardon in 1992.

Like countless others, David Evich says his life was transformed after meeting Fr. Hardon, who, his admirers say, is to the art of Catholic teaching what Michael Jordan is to basketball.

Evich explained that it was in the beginning of 1991, when he was a clerk at a camera store, that a "long chain of events" began to unfold when a woman he did not know came into the store.

"She wanted to rent a video camera because she was going to take pictures of the stations of the cross. She began conversation about holiness of life and told me about these classes for Marian catechists and Ignatian catechists, and invited me to come with her."

Thus, Evich started to attend classes titled "Theology for the Laity" taught by Fr. Hardon at Domino's Farms in 1991.

"The room was just packed, week after week," Evich said. "Fr. Hardon spoke with an authority and a clarity that I had never experienced before. When he spoke about the faith it had an unmistakable ring of truth to it.

"The faith became real to me. It was no longer something that was inaccessible to me, or something shrouded in a long-ago, abstract sense. Everything changed: I looked at everything in view of eternity. The question became whether my life is pleasing to God. Before, it was whether my life was pleasing to me."

In short order, Fr. Hardon became the spiritual directors of the couple and encouraged them to marry, even though they were so poor neither owned a car.

"He gave us the courage to overcome the opposition to getting married," Evich said. "In the eyes of the world we had no business getting married, but the spiritual conditions were right. Fr. Hardon knew God had lots of money. And he was right.”

The experience of the Eviches illustrates, probably as well as any other, the dramatic – and largely untold – story of Fr. Hardon. The 85-year-old theologian and literary giant is most known for his prodigious output of 40 books, including his major opus, the 1975 Catholic Catechism: A Contemporary Catechism of the Teachings of the Catholic Church, published by Doubleday. That 623-page book is in its 26th printing by Doubleday and is still selling strongly at more than one million copies.

Fr. Hardon, theologian and author, has never lost what could be described, for lack of a better phrase, the "common touch." There are untold hundreds, perhaps even thousands, who consider him the most important person in their lives – not due to his writing, but based nearly entirely on their personal involvement with him as their confessor ands spiritual director.

"He is the holiest man I have ever met," explained Dan Burns, a Birmingham, Mich., real-estate entrepreneur who met Fr. Hardon in 1993 and has escorted him to Italy, India (three times, once for a month) and Haiti.

"I'm a big strong dude," Burns laughed. "Fr. Hardon only has one good eye and cannot lift anything over 10 pounds, so I've been his official valet, bodyguard, and food taster."

And, like everyone else who works with him, Burns says Fr. Hardon does little more than work and pray – or vice versa.

"Fr. Hardon constantly prays, even when he goes to the bathroom or is showering, and he is not only a daily communicant, but also goes to daily confession."

"He took a vow in 1937 or so never to waste time, and I've never seen him waste time. The last motion picture he saw was in 1939."

Even during layovers at airports and in trips in automobiles, "he is always reading, praying or dictating to me or an aide," Burns said. "He's usually working on his speeches and talks that he will be giving, or reading over his manuscripts.

"I say quite a few rosaries every day," Fr. Hardon explained in one of several interviews with Credo. "My favorite short prayer is the Hail Holy Queen. Another is the Anima Christi."

He acknowledged that he considers prayer his highest form of activity.

"I don't take vacations or recreation," he explained. "I pray. I mean it, I love it. I spend three hours every day in prayer, whenever possible before the Blessed Sacrament."

He said he advises those who ask how to improve their spiritual lives that "the single most important thing is to be loyal, faithful to the sacraments, especially confession. In the early Church, for the first 300 years, most Catholics heard Mass every day and went to confession at least twice a month. In other words, it's the sacraments that keep us alive as Catholics."

Sr. Jean Frances, currently of Ann Arbor, but formerly of Chicago, met Fr. Hardon in 1979, after he had founded the Institute on Religious Life, which seeks, she said, "to help sisters who are trying to follow their true charism." The institute was founded during a period when many traditional religious orders were undergoing radical transformations. Sr. Jean currently works on the editorial staff of Credo.

Sr. Jean recalls that Fr. Hardon would arrive by airplane in Chicago from New York, usually on Friday nights, then work nonstop until he left by plane the following Sunday.

"He set an atmosphere of urgency and diligence,” she said. "It was hard to keep up, but God gave us the energy and the desire because you always knew he was doing all he could for the Church and for the Lord.

"He is a real catalyst. He would offer a few words of encouragement and people would be off on a mission,” Sr. Jean explained.

She said, at that time, in addition to overseeing the various projects of the institute, two weekends a month every school year he typically would teach a class for nuns on Saturdays and for laity on Sundays.

According to Susan Schoenstein, who works three days a week running his Detroit office, Fr: Hardon gets more than 200 letters a week. "He has several people handle a lot of his mail, but he personally handles all the confidential mail," Schoenstein said.

Schoenstein started working six years ago for Fr. Hardon – as an unpaid volunteer, as do nearly all of those associated with him.

Over time, Schoenstein and her husband agreed that helping Fr. Hardon with his projects should be "a family apostolate."

In her role as, what she calls herself, Fr. Hardon's "girl Friday," Schoenstein schedules several other part time workers for his office and coordinates his work with several publishers and organizations.

Since 1991 Fr. Hardon has worked closely with Bill Smith of Bardstown, Ky., who formed a pro-life group Eternal Life that pays no salaries, but has distributed 20,000 sets of cassettes of Fr. Hardon's classes on eight different topics.

When asked why these tapes sell so well, Smith embarked on a long explanation that echoes what so many others say of him.

"I would say, first of all Fr. Hardon is a master teacher. He is very careful in structuring his words and each talk he gives is definitely a masterpiece. He seems to have an encyclopedic mind," Smith explained. "And, probably most important is that he is truly a very, very holy priest.

"And once people hear Fr. Hardon, they get hooked. Just today a man came out to see us and wanted to see Eternal Life. He and his wife, a Ph.D., were just converted because of Fr. Hardon. He wound up buying all eight of the albums.

“And because everyone who works with us does it for free – we have never paid a dime in salaries – we can put out the product for $35 that other groups might have to sell for $60 to cover their costs.”

Given the success of the cassette tapes, Smith said, he will soon publish Fr. Hardon's Catholic Prayer Book with Meditations. It is going to be 488 pages, pocket-sized, and we will have 10,000 copies.

"I would attribute his popularity to his thorough, or even profound, understanding of all phases of theology, dogmatic, moral and mystical," Fr. James Downey, executive director of the Institute on Religious Life, explained.

"He has had an impact in all areas of the Church life, especially in catechetics and religious life. He has written catechisms that faithfully present Church teaching in the contemporary idiom. And, although he claims he didn't found our institute – he says the Vatican did it, but it was at his suggestion – it has been very important in promoting the teaching of the Church for religious life and in giving guidance and support to religious who want to live an authentic religious life."

In his books and in his lectures, Fr. Hardon often speaks of discord within Christianity and within the Catholic Church and notes that there has always been division and conflict. He has said there is a de facto schism that has occurred in the United States between elements of the Church that are loyal to Rome and those that are not.

Nevertheless, he sees a "golden century" ahead in the next millennium.

"I really believe that the Catholic Church is getting stronger than ever. We have had, in the 20th century, the . largest number of martyrs of any century in Eastern Europe and in Africa," Fr. Hardon said. "Even though the number of ex-Catholics has been increasing, I think as things are improving because people have realized that the bottom line is to accept the papacy or reject the Catholic Church. So a number are going to reject the papacy. However, I don't think it will get any worse.

Fr. Hardon has worked with several offices of the Holy See as an advisor and mediator, although he rarely discusses the various "missions" he has undertaken on behalf of the Vatican.

"Most of that work has been done quietly, not publicized. Mostly, it has been two things: Keeping the Bishops faithful to the mission of Rome and working with people who are influential in the Church from causing any more damage than they have already done," he said.

Working with the bishops is of the utmost priority today, as it has been throughout history: and was raised in poverty by his immigrant out history: "The real crises in Church history are the bishops. As long as they’re faithful it’s all right: when they become unfaithful, things break apart.

Fr. Hardon was born on June 18, 1914, and was raised in poverty by his immigrant mother, Anna. His father, Anthony, died when he was less than one year old. His parents had come to Cleveland, Ohio, from Kosice, Slovakia, north of Austria.

Mrs. Hardon, a devout Catholic and a Third Order Franciscan, cleaned office buildings and supplemented her income by renting rooms in her small house. Fr. Hardon spoke Slovakian and Russian at home.

Fr. Hardon attended the Jesuit university, John Carroll, where he was engaged to a young woman and accepted to the Ohio State University Medical School before deciding on entering the Society of Jesus.

He earned a master's degree from Loyola University in Chicago and was ordained a priest in 1947. In 1951 he earned a doctorate in theology from Gregorian University in Rome.

Fr. Hardon has often been plagued with poor health. He is blind in one eye and recently had surgery on the other. Since last fall he has lived and worked out of a home for the elderly.

Copyright © 2003 by Credo

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