Our “Person of the Year”: Dr. Alice von Hildebrand

Each year, Inside the Vatican selects its “Top Ten” people of the year just past… For our first “newsflash” of 2011, we offer you profiles of 10 extraordinary people whose lives are signs of God’s goodness in our fallen world

By Robert Moynihan

After some weeks of silence, many meetings in Rome and elsewhere, and a bit of a struggle with a chest cough and cold, I am beginning again to send these letters.

Please feel free to respond with comments and suggestions. I will try to respond to each letter I receive.

Support for this newsflash is also appreciated, as are subscriptions to our print publication, Inside the Vatican.

Again this year, as every year, we are pleased to publish our selections for the “Top Ten People of the Year.”

As always, the list is inadequate, since many deserving people were not chosen.

But the list serves a purpose: it presents examples to all of us of heroic action, of courageous fidelity, of sacrificial love, of zeal for justice, in short, of virtue to be imitated.

We chose two women and eight men; we could just as easily have chosen eight men and two women.

We have chosen humble missionaries who work in obscurity but who have brought the love of Christ to thousands around the world.

And we have chosen Princes of the Church, cardinals who are close advisors of the Pope, who are carrying out important tasks of great delicacy with courage and energy.

All are Christians except one: Gary Krupp. Though Jewish, Krupp, together with his wife, has become one of the greatest defenders of Pope Pius XII.


Our “Top Ten People of 2010”

1. Alice von Hildebrand — A Catholic philosopher who has defended the faith for a lifetime

2. Father Pedro Opeka — A missionary in Africa for 30 years who has saved thousands from life on garbage heaps

3. Jose Henriguez — The “spiritual guide” of the 33 miners who were buried, then saved, this year in Chile

4. Wendy Wright — An American woman who is of the leading voices in the world in defending innocent life

5. Brother Benedetto Possamato — An Italian religious who visits the world’s poorest nations and constructs clinics for those without medical care

6. Gary Krupp — A Jewish American who has emerged as the leading defender of Pope Pius XII

7. Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci — A defender of the Church’s musical tradition

8. Cardinal Velasio de Paolis — A leading canon lawyer, he is now carrying out the delicate task of renewing the Legionaries of Christ

9. Cardinal Raffaele Farina — A Salesian scholar, he has brought to conclusion the historic 3-year restoration of the Vatican Apostolic Library

10. Monsignor Brunero Gherardini — This Italian theologian is last and greatest living defender of the “Roman Tradition” in theology


#1: Alice von Hildebrand

If there is one person who has served the Church exceptionally well during the past year (and throughout her lifetime) — with grace, dignity and distinction — it is Dr. Alice von Hildebrand.

Teacher, author, internationally re­nowned speaker, there are few women in the Church quite like her. Inside the Vatican is proud to select her as our Person of the Year.

Born in Belgium in 1923 (she is now 87), Dr. von Hildebrand came to the United States 60 years ago, at the age of 27, in 1940, to escape the horrors of the Second World War. Soon after, she began attending Fordham University, studying under Dietrich von Hildebrand, one of the leading Catholic philosophers of our time (also a European refugee).

From Dietrich, Alice learned a deeper understanding of our faith, the beauty and transcendence of the liturgy, and how to stand firm for objective truth and moral values in a world rebelling against them.

After earning her degree in philosophy, Alice became Dietrich’s secretary, and, eventually, his wife, marrying him in 1959. For the next two decades, she was his closest collaborator, assisting him in every endeavor, until his passing in 1977.

A distinguished teacher herself, Alice began a career at Hunter College, of the City University of New York, in 1947. It would prove tumultuous. She inspired a number of students to become Catholic — an astonishing, not to say shocking event, given that incoming students were expected to “purge their minds of medieval fables,” as she recalls today. (When Alice began teaching, 65% of Hunter’s Catholic students lost their faith by the time they were seniors. Her presence, and methodology, challenged all that.)

Hunter was an intensely secular institution, dominated by what Pope Benedict calls “the dictatorship of relativism.” Most of her colleagues accepted every idea — provided it didn’t claim to be the truth.

But Alice was convinced the pursuit of truth is the proper aim of education and that truth is not an individual possession, while error is the sole property of the person producing it. “Truth alone unifies,” she proclaimed. “Error is the great divider.” Such statements did not win her favor with Hunter’s faculty.

Her regular line leading to tenure was canceled in 1953, because the school president, George Schuster (a Catholic himself, ironically), feared she was “spreading Catholicism,” instead of teaching philosophy. Actually, what she was doing was convincing her students of the objective nature of truth — a road that naturally led some to embrace Christ who is the truth which is a Person.

Alice never proselytized in class, never tried to unduly influence anyone: she fully respected each individual’s conscience. Her students knew that, and hundreds of them wrote letters of protest when her path toward tenure was cancelled. Schuster remained adamant.

But because of Alice’s popularity, he allowed her to continue teaching — during evening sessions, where there was no promotion, no tenure and no medical coverage. The salary was a pittance, and Schuster fully expected Alice to look for a better paying job. But she confounded him, and persevered.

After 13 difficult years, she received tenure, at last — even, then, however, she was given the lowest grade of instructorship, and the lowest salary on the scale.

But God has a way of rewarding His faithful: in the 1980s, Donna Shalala, the-then President of Hunter, decided to give an award to the teacher with the highest student evaluation. Many expected a secular “progressive” to win, but when the results were announced, it was Alice — the committed Cath­olic and defender of truth — who won, out of 850 teachers. She accepted the honor at Madison Square Garden, during graduation in 1984, and decided that was as good a time as ever to move on. After 37 years of teaching at Hunter, she retired, going out on top.

Since then, she has promoted her husband’s legacy, and written an acclaimed biography of him, The Soul of a Lion. Her efforts have been welcomed by Dietrich’s admirers, including John Paul II, who once called Dietrich “one of the great ethical thinkers,” and Pope Benedict XVI, who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote a foreword to Soul of a Lion predicting: “I am personally convinced that, when, at some time in the future, the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century is written, the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”

In offering this praise, John Paul and Benedict were echoing another pontiff, Pius XII, who famously called Dietrich “a 20th-century Doctor of the Church.”

Since most of Dietrich’s works were written in German (and therefore unknown in America), the job of translating and promoting them has been daunting, but Alice’s efforts have finally borne fruit. In 2004, her young friend John Henry Crosby founded the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project. After a special endorsement from Pope Benedict, the Project was launched. It now has a website (www.hildebrandlegacy.org), a newsletter, a team of translators and an online book service. Its existence ensures that Diet­rich’s writings will be preserved, and his message spread, for generations to come.

In 2009, the Project published the first English-language edition of The Nature of Love (Dietrich’s magnum opus): and in May, 2010, the Project hosted the largest Dietrich von Hildebrand conference ever, in Rome at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Italian scholar Rocco Buttiglione, German philosopher Robert Spaemann, American theologian Michael Novak, Professor Joseph Seifert, founder of the International Academy of Philosophy, and His Excellency, the Most Reverend John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox titular metropolitan of Pergamon, Turkey, were among those present. Each speaker addressed a different area of von Hildebrand’s thought, and applied his insights to the modern world.

The last talk given was by Alice herself. She stressed the coherence of Dietrich’s philosophy: “Whether you read Dietrich’s metaphysics or ethics, his aesthetics or politics, there is a striking consistency and underlying unity to it all — a quality rarely found in other philosophers.” Dietrich’s love for objective truth led to his conversion, and it was this theme that Alice drove home during her talk: “I have seen it again and again,” she said, “the pattern repeats itself: people discover truth, and eventually embrace Christ, who said, ‘I am the Truth’ and realize he is the Son of God, the Person we should adore… they fall to their knees and enter His Church, gratefully receiving everything She teaches.”

It was that teaching, and his intense love for it, that underpinned Dietrich’s adult life; and it is that love that Alice continues to spread, unreservedly.

But that was not the only highlight of Alice’s 2010. In July, shortly after she returned from Rome, the Catholic News Agency published an essay people are still talking about: “Dietrich von Hildebrand, Catholic Philosopher, and Christopher West, Modern Enthusiast: Two Very Different Approaches to Love, Marriage and Sex.”

In this article, Alice contrasted the views of Christopher West — a young American Catholic who has popularized John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” — with those of her husband.

Dietrich, a careful and disciplined thinker steeped in Catholic tradition, stressed the continuity of Catholic teaching; he would not have referred to the Theology of the Body as a “revolution” (as West has done), she said. Nor would he have said (as West did on the American television show Nightline) that he saw “profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II,” in their struggles against “puritanism.” Pornography, not puritanism, is the great threat imperiling souls today, Alice wrote. Pornography is a radical poison destroying souls, puritanism less dangerous.

Since Dietrich’s book In Defense of Purity is recognized as a basis for John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and since Alice is Dietrich’s most faithful exponent, her critique of West carried weight.

But many of West’s supporters reacted defensively, arguing that, whatever problems may mar West’s teaching, he supports essential Catholic doctrines — including Humanae Vitae — and suggested Alice should have tried to speak with West privately, and studied his work, before writing her critical essay.

What many of these critics do not know is that Alice von Hildebrand did exactly that. As she recounted to Inside the Vatican, in the summer of 2009, shortly after West made his remarks about Hugh Hefner and John Paul II, Alice met with West at Trinity House in Larchmont New York, with Father Benedict Groeschel, the well-known Franciscan Friar, hosting the meeting.

During the meeting, Alice underscored the importance of pudeur — a holding back and sense of reserve — when speaking about intimate or sacred things.

Alice’s essay had a major effect. The idea that those teaching the Theology of the Body can say or write almost anything they want — no matter how questionable — as long as they support Humanae Vitae, and affirm their love for the Church, is no longer tenable, thanks largely to Alice von Hildebrand.

Much favorable reaction to Alice’s essay, from all different age groups, disproves the notion that Alice is from “another generation” and so does “not understand” that it is necessary to think and act in “modern” ways in order to reach the new generation.

Alice can only smile at such naivete. During her many years of teaching, she met students suffering from every malady of the human condition: young people who were abused, came from broken homes, were promiscuous or addicted to drugs. The perennial longing for God and His permanence remains.

Christianity is for all times, and all places: it is not “historically conditioned.”

Therefore it is not necessary for any Catholic to adapt to our pop culture, or allow the world to set the agenda.

“Be not conformed to this world,” wrote the Apostle Paul, “but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and the acceptable and the perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

The timeless nature of truth underscores Alice’s third major success of 2010: the publication of Man and Woman: A Divine Invention. For years, Alice has battled the errors of secularism, relativism, and feminism while defending the privilege of being a woman. Now she has put all her thoughts together in a single book which many consider her best.

On December 9, the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project hosted a dinner in New York. Alice, though in delicate health, rose to the podium to speak on the personal life of Dietrich, recounting his dramatic escape from Hitler’s assassins.

Those in attendance can attest to her talk’s magnificence: she spoke impeccably, with hardly a note, for an hour. Her affection for Dietrich was apparent in every word she spoke, as was her love of truth, which, she emphasized, “I learned from my husband.”

Many have learned from Alice, too. Inside the Vatican is proud to honor her as our Person of the Year.

Inside the Vatican Staff


#2. Don Pedro Opeka

Our #2 “Person of the Year” is Father Pedro Opeka, 62, who has made it possible for 20,000 people living in huts on garbage heaps in Madagascar to have clean homes, clean schools, and clean shops where they can work and earn a living. In short, Don Pedro is a man who has taken the wretched of the earth and given them a place to start from, a home.

Don Pedro was almost not born. His father, a Slovenian, was almost shot a few years before Don Pedro’s birth in 1948. Communists partisans were executing Slovenians and burying them in a mass grave in 1945 at Teharje, Slovenia, when Don Pedro’s father seemingly miraculously escaped and then survived countless dangers before reaching refugee camps in Italy, then starting a new life in Argentina. There he married, and Don Pedro was born in Argentina, in San Martin, a suburb of Buenos Aires, the capital.

As a teenager, Pedro learned bricklaying from his father. This was providential: he would one day teach this skill to the poor of Madagascar.

Cardinal Franc Rode of the Ro­man Curia — who is also from Slovenia — has praised the work of Don Pedro highly. But what, precisely, has Don Pedro done?

Opeka grew up in the streets of Buenos Aires. At 15, he decided to become a priest and enter the seminary of the Lazarists. At 20, he went back to Ljubljana in Slovenia to further his training. Two years later, he went to Madagascar where he worked as a bricklayer in the parishes of the Lazarists.

He then returned to Europe to finish his studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris. He became acquainted with the ecumenical Taizé Community in eastern France, and traveled widely in Europe.

On September 28, 1975, Opeka was ordained a priest in Buenos Aires and given of a rural mission parish in the southeast of Madagascar, a large island off the coast of east Africa and one of the poorest nations in the world, in the town of Vangaindrano. He stayed there for 14 years.

In 1989, his superiors made him director of a seminary in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. But when he saw the enormous city dump from the hills of the city, and hundreds of boys rummaging in the garbage to find something to eat and sleeping in huts made of hemp propped between mountains of waste, Opeka went out to see what the situation was.

He began talking to the poor in their huts, and decided to try to help them leave that misery. This is how Akamasoa (“good friends” in the local language) started.

Opeka created a local non-governmental organization called Akamasoa to work with the poor. He gathered a staff to help him manage the daily activities and provide continuous support to poor people.

Today Akamasoa sustains nearly 20,000 people, 9,000 children, of whom 7,000 go to school — 4,000 families in all. Houses have been constructed, as well as schools, clinics, and centers for training and production. Jobs have been created in the stone and gravel quarries, in craft and embroidery workshops, in a compost center next to the rubbish dump to divide and sort the garbage, and in agriculture and construction (bricklayers, carpenters, cabinet makers and street pavers). Akamasoa lies about 12 km from the center of Antananarivo, on the road in the direction of Tamatave.

On October 12, 2007, Opeka received the highest award of the Freanch government: Knight of the Legion of Honor, recognizing his 20 years of serving the poor in Antananarivo. The award recognized Opeka, but also his 412 co-workers: physicians, midwives, teachers, engineers, technicians and social workers, all from Madagascar.

He received Slovenia’s highest public honor in 2008.

Being a white man was the first obstacle he faced when he began his work. Padre Pedro found a way to gain the trust of the young people: playing football, one of his passions.

One of his first projects was a hospital, which he built in collaboration with the foundation “France Libertés” (a French charitable group directed by Danielle Mitterrand, former first lady of France.

Opeka himself once fell ill and nearly died due to the lack of good medical care in Madagascar. “I fell ill, so ill that I almost died,” he recalled. “The hospital of the city is completely without any equipment and not very clean. I would have died if my order had not repatriated me to France.”

Padre Pedro lived, and because he lived, thousands benefited. Like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he has lived and worked with the poorest of the poor, bringing new hope and new life to those who had been negelected and forgotten. For this reason we are pleased to name Don Pedro one of our “Top Ten” people of 2010.

—Inside the Vatican Staff


#10. Monsignor Brunero Gherardini

Our final “Top Ten” person of 2010 is perhaps the least known, but most theolically important: Msgr. Brunero Gherardini, 85, a Canon of St. Peter’s Basilica and a renowned Thomist who has been called the last living theologian of the pre-Conciliar “Roman School,” made famous by Cardinal Pietro Palazzini and Monsignor Antonio Piolanti.

In Gherardini, then, as in a precious time capsule, we have the mind, the culture and the theological views of the “old school” which was once dominant inRome and acted as a reservoir of experience and good judgement at the side of the Bishop of Rome.

Though he is 85 and nearing the end of his long theological career, Gherardini is still publishing quite actively. It is almost as if he is finishing his life with a flurry of books, as if he wishes to make statements now, before he passes away, about the religious and doctrinal controversies of our time.

Last year he published The Second Vatican Council: A Needed Discussion (“Il Concilio Ecumenico Vaticano II: Un discorso da fare”), praised as one of the most important books of recent years attempting to study Vatican II in the light of Catholic tradition. He then published What Accord Between Christ and the Devil (“Quale accordo tra Cristo e Beliar?”) on the “problems, misunderstandings and compromises” in interreligious dialogue. Then, in September of 2009, he published Ecumene tradita, a critique of modern ecumenism’s “misunderstandings and false steps.”

At the center of all of these writings is the correct interpretation of the Second Vatican Council — something Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly said is of profound importance for the Church’s present and future.

Strangely, relatively little has been written about Gherardini’s work in the English-speaking world.

Several weeks ago, I called Gherardini and asked if I could visit with him in his residence next to St. Peter’s Basilica. He agreed readily, and I spent an hour with him.

He is a warm, accessible, friendly man of immense personal dignity. I felt as if I were speaking with a person who, in a profound and attractive way, incarnates an entire Catholic clerical culture of education and formation — the culture of those priests who lived and studied in Rome in the first half of the 20th century, that is, in Rome before the Council. In Gherardini, we have a living link to our past.

Yves Chiron, the editor of Aletheia, a French publication on religious matters, in his Aletheia n° 153 of March 20, 2010, has a long interview with Gheradini. I think there is no better way to get to know the man and his mind than to listen to his words.

“My books are a simple attempt to create an answer and an objective content to the ‘her­meneutics of continuity’ which – as everybody knows – has been the hope of the Holy Father,” Gherardini said. “I do not know how far I may be considered as an epigone of the glorious Roman School. After the Second Vatican Council, the voice of this school, increasingly weak, could still be heard through two Roman academies (the Pontifical Academy of Theology and the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas), the reviews Divinitas and Doctor Communis, and the Thomistic Congresses.

“Today, it is just an isolated voice, admired by some, but more often despised and scorned.

“This is how I perceive the situation. However, listened to or not, it still resounds, and if you recognize the timbre of the Roman school in my voice, I am pleased. Unfortunately, this glorious school today is deprived of university or episcopal chairs.”

Asked whether he thought there is a possibility that there will be a doctrinal agreement between the Holy See and the Society of St. Pius X, Gherardini replied:

“Undoubtedly, and I wish it — and also the Church wishes it — for the good of the souls there will soon be an agreement. The Pope has already done a lot in order to find a solution, this we must understand.

“In my opinion, there is only one argument to discuss, and John Paul II suggested it when, during the famous excommunication in 1988, he reproached the Socieyu of St. Pius X for having ‘an incomplete and contradictory view of the Tradition.’

“Personally, I am of a quite different view, but it is just for this reason that I see in Tradition the only subject to be discussed in depth. If one would succeed in clarifying the concept of Tradition, without taking refuge in the subterfuge of the living Tradition, but also without closing one’s eyes to the internal movement of the apostolic-ecclesial tradition, the problem would cease to exist.

“Objectively, the Society of St. Pius X ought not to cease to exist. It could become – in the firmament of the Church – a ‘society of priestly life,’ a family of ‘oblates’ or just a ‘Prelatura nullius,’ as it already has a number of bishops.”

—Robert Moynihan

Facebook Comments