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Bill Buckley in his study. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Bill Buckley in his study.
Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

I married a woman far more organized than I am. Only three months into our nuptials, I’m still reeling from the reorganization my (our) residence is undergoing now that she lives here, too. It’s becoming a home rather than merely a functional storage system for books, papers, a bed, clothing, food, cigars, fishing gear, firearms, and (somewhere) a cat. Going through old documents as part of this reorganization (read: downsizing) that accompanies marriage, I came across Fr. George Rutler’s homily for William F. Buckley Jr’s funeral Mass. It’s as worthwhile a read today as it was in 2008.

Mass for the Report of the Soul of William F. Buckley Jr.Cathedral of Saint Patrick, New York City, April 4, 2008Fr. George William Rutler


In the village of Bethany was the house of Mary and her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. There Jesus wept when Lazarus died, and then he called into the tomb and Lazarus came forth alive.

Here is a paradox of holy religion: such utter domesticity is so close to the unutterable mystery of Temple. Bethany was near Jerusalem. About fifteen furlongs. Furlongs. William F. Buckley Jr. could have translated that. It is just a little more than the distance between the corner of Park and 73rd Street and this cathedral. In the life of the one we remember today, his home was never far from Jerusalem. Park Avenue and 73rd Street was near Jerusalem and so were Sharon and Camden and Stamford. The key to all that William was and did is that wherever he was and whatever he did, reading a book or writing one, opening a bottle of wine or sailing some sea, he was near Jerusalem. He left this world from his desk in the garage of the house of the one he most loved who had died less than a year before. Their Bethany was near Jerusalem.

After our friend had published a book about sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, an interviewer on television showed a certain condescension about yachting as a socially useless activity. He found tedious the long descriptions of navigation and asked the author if there is any real difference between sailing from east to west and from west to east. There came from Buckley a response as from an oracle: “Yes. They are opposite directions.” Bethany lies east of Jerusalem and to reach the holy city you must travel west. William F. Buckley Jr. has now traveled west. But he started in Bethany where our earthly home is.

He did his work using such domestic tools as words, and though some thought them only amusing and clever, those words were strong enough to help crack the walls of an evil empire. A fatal flaw in the materialist dialectic of Marxism was its underestimation of the power of evil, embracing it like a useful energy. When cynics mocked the very idea of evil, he mocked the mockers, and angered them most by their inability to stay angry in his congenial presence. It was as if an ancient voice could be heard speaking through him: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

His indignation at the wrong ways of men was not savage like that of Jonathan Swift, for it was well-tempered and confident of victory. He fit Newman’s definition of a gentleman as one who is “merciful towards the absurd.” Nearly fifty years ago he wrote, “We deem it the central revelation of Western experience that man cannot irradicably stain himself, for the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep…Even out of the depths of despair, we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope.” Once on a retreat, he led the others in praying the Stations of the Cross. The Third Station: Jesus falls a first time. The Seventh Station, Jesus falls a second time. Then with a solemn and astonished voice: the Ninth Station, Jesus falls a third time. He knelt and all of us knelt, and then he got up, and we got up with him.

When he wrote his first book about God and man at the age of twenty-five, and launched his magazine at twenty-nine, the inspiration could have seemed the naïveté of callowness, but now we know it was the courage of innocence. At long last, when he sold his boat and silenced his harpsichord, he suddenly seemed much older. It is inadequate to say that he lasted eighty-two years. It is more resonant with his sonorous life to say that he began four score and two years ago. By one of those quirks which are either inexplicable fate or explicable providence, as a young boy he passed by an airfield in Britain at the very moment the prime minister was waving a piece of paper and proclaiming peace in our time. The rest of his life testified that there can be no concord with evil, for evil always seeks to devour the good, and peace at any price is very expensive.

His first and formative academy was his father’s dinner table where he was taught that the most important things in life are God, truth, and beauty. This reverses the classical order of beauty, truth, and goodness, because in Athens the philosophers searched the heavens for a beauty that would explain truth and reveal what is good, while in Sharon the Buckleys believed that the eternal logic of the heavens had come to earth, and by showing goodness in the radiance of his Holy Face, Christ touched us with the truth, and those who were touched became beautiful. Since William Buckley’s death, many people have told how he brought them to belief in God, and there are those who became priests because of him. His wide circle of friends encompassed those of different beliefs, but its width was the measure of his own unfailing confidence in the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church. Faithfulness and patience as husband and father, and goodness to others, were joyful because of this. With the Psalmist (Psalm 45:1) his tongue was the pen of a ready writer, and while some write well but do not speak well, or speak well and do not write well, he did both, in a consistent crusade against reducing any human enterprise to a merely human calculus; for then the right to life itself would be at best constitutional but not sacred. Secular humanism is vestigial humanism, charity without a cross, and because it will never lead man up the ladder to heaven, it builds little hells for man on earth. Politics is a bore if it is only politics, and so with any art or science that sees only itself. Our friend knew that Communism was worse than a social tyranny because it was a theological heresy. His categories were not right and left but right and wrong. What graces he had to change a century came by his belief in Christ who has changed all centuries.

At more than a month’s remove from his death, a homily yields to that kind of eulogy which he would call precisely a panegyric. The Greeks like Lysias or Isocrates developed this form of speech for Olympiads and other public sporting occasions to see how far an orator could go in praising the dead without actually lying. This does not suit here today for two reasons. Our friend, skier and sailor, was not drawn to public sports arenas. When a friend invited him to a Yankee game, he declined, saying that he had already seen one. More importantly, in the record of his life is little tension between praise and honesty to tease the art of lauding him. By a moral adaptation of a law of optics, he loomed larger the closer you examined him. From his own side of the lens, he saw not according to worldly size or influence. He could write at length on immanentizing the eschaton and also pray the rosary for a schoolboy who was having difficulties with his homework.

One night, he announced it was time for his confession, and we stumbled around the church looking for the light switch. Then he said, “No problem. I can get around this church in the dark.” He would have disdained turning that into a cheap metaphor, but he did walk his way through the dark by remarkable paths. Many times the college boy in him still sang “We are poor little lambs/ Who have lost our way…We are little black sheep/Who have gone astray.” He may have sung that with perfect insincerity, for he never lost the way, and while he has passed he is not forgotten with the rest. We commend him to his Lord who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. May he now be numbered among the elect, and in this heavenly election he will not demand a recount.

The Lord raised Lazarus from the dead in Bethany and Bethany is not far from Jerusalem. William, who frequently had the last word, wrote this:

“Granted, that to look up at the stars comes close to compelling disbelief – how can such a chance arrangement be other than an elaboration – near infinite – of natural impulses? Yet, on the other hand, who is to say that the arrangement of the stars is more easily traceable to nature, than to nature’s molder? What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?”

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5 replies to this post
  1. Very nice indeed, and it somewhat tempers my mounting dislike of Buckley.

    I wonder why Christ wept at the death of Lazarus. My most devout Western Christian and Afghan Muslim friends rarely weep for the dead, grateful for the gift of live however brief, and who have faith in being reunited with loved ones.

  2. Thank you John for posting this beautiful and insightful homily. When I started reading the reference to the Lazarus story I remembered an old English sermon on the shortest sentence in the Bible "Jesus Wept" when Lazarus rose from the dead. Jesus' reaction was in contrast to the joy felt by Lazarus' sisters. Jesus the English priest said wept because he knew he had taken Lazarus from a better place and brought him back to earth. I feel that Mr. Buckley who gave so much to us and his Church would feel the same way if he returned to our confused and troubled world.

  3. Inspiring words, well-crafted thoughts worthy of honoring a great soul. I miss Bill Buckley's wisdom and wit, especially in this desolate landscape of so many shrill half-educated commentators. His focus on the erudite and eschatological, rather than the sound-bite, lifted the level of public discourse on conservative ideas to a civilized plane worthy of The Permanent Things.

  4. Brad, an early example of contrarianism as self-promotion on the Right, perchance. It abounds now. Unfairly perhaps, I contrast him with Dr. Kirk's intellect and Olympian restraint or Joe Sobran's bravery (both men pushed aside by Buckley).

    As Hugh Hefner's empire contracted 30 years ago, Buckley wrote with irony how tragic it was that he did not stake his claim where others could not so easily surpass him – by showing more skin or introducing slightly more deviant practices – and how tame it made his magazine look, then twenty-five years since its inception. Although I should maybe be more grateful to Buckley-as-populariser, I wonder if he was not part of the same phenomenon.

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