The German theologian, Karl Rahner, has been called “The Father of Roman Catholic Theology of the 20th Century.” Although he never wrote an autobiography, he was interviewed on German television in 1984 shortly before he died at age 80. I just finished reading the transcript of that interview in the slender book entitled I Remember.
Rahner was born in Frieburg, Germany on March 5, 1904, the middle of seven children. His father Karl was a college professor, his mother Luise (Trescher) a devout woman he once called “courageous.” At age 18 he entered the Jesuits, following in the footsteps of his older brother Hugo. After ordination and many years of study, Rahner taught theology in Innsbruck, Munich, and Munster. Over the years he also wrote prolifically (he has an estimated 4,000 published works) and lectured all over the world. In 1962 his creative and non-traditional approach to theology got him into trouble with the Vatican who informed him he could no longer write or lecture without their prior permission. But this censorship was short-lived, for a few months later Pope John XXIII (who was canonized this past Sunday) appointed Rahner a peritus (expert advisor) to the Second Vatican Council.
Many say that Rahner was one of the key figures at the Council. When told this, Rahner said humbly, “I think that’s an exaggeration…there were a lot of cooks at the Council.” He once referred to himself as someone who was “not particularly industrious,” who “went to bed early,” and was a “poor sinner.” Besides his humility, what else impresses me about this great theologian? First, he related theology to the joys and challenges of contemporary living. In doing so he was living St. Ignatius’ counsel to “find God in all things. ” Rahner wrote, “All life is a subject of theological reflection.” (Anecdote: Rahner loved ice-cream—most especially Italian gelato. This indulgence raised a few eyebrows. Rahner, quoting an anonymous Jesuit, said: “The good things in life are not only for the rascals!”)
Central to Rahner’s theology is the belief that at the core of every person’s deepest experience is God, “whose mystery, light, and love have embraced the total person.” He believed this experience of God forms the “undertow of daily life” even when we are not aware of it. Interestingly, Rahner did not like to use the word “God.” He preferred “Absolute Mystery.” He also said that God’s self-revelation to humanity does not resolve the Mystery of who God is; it only increases our recognition of God’s incomprehensibility.
Rahner placed a great emphasis on personal prayer. His first published article was entitled “Why We Need to Pray.” Another book on prayer, Encounters with Silence, was my favorite book as a novice, and it continues to be a favorite of mine. Rahner was also keenly sensitive to people around him. Throughout his life he unobtrusively raised money for individuals in need. At his 80th birthday celebration, for example, he appealed to his guests for donations to buy a motorcycle for a priest in Africa.
In this interview for German TV, Rahner spoke about growing old and dying. He talked about his diminishing energy: “If I realize that I can no longer climb 15,000-foot mountains, then I’ll simply stay at the base. If I can no longer really do productive intellectual work six hours a day, then I’ll simply work only two or three hours and be satisfied with that.” His interviewer asked, what if you are not able to work at all? Rahner recalled the example of St. Albert the Great who, despite his volumes of theological writings, at the end of his life, could only pray the Hail Mary. As you get close to death, said Rahner, “you find yourself all the more in the hands of God, and no longer in your own. And you are better protected and more secure in God’s hands than where you think you must be in control at all costs.”
On March 30, 1984, a few weeks after celebrating his 80th birthday, Karl Rahner died, surrendering himself into the arms of “the absolute, everlasting, holy, eternally good God.”
Is there anything in this reflection that moved you or resonated with you?