Like so many of you, the name Chuck Colson came to my consciousness in association with those troubled days of Watergate. I think we don’t need to apologize for associating that period, Watergate, with Chuck Colson any more than we apologize for associating the road to Damascus with St. Paul.
As it turns out, as I began to hear about Chuck Colson in my own life, not knowing him personally back then, a conversion began to take place in my life that resulted in my returning to the faith that I had abandoned and eventually led to my going to seminary and becoming a priest.
I knew the name Chuck Colson even before I began the Acton Institute, which Providence would appoint would be established in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For our event the first year, we had Bill Buckley. The second year I said, I really would like to try to get Chuck Colson. I don’t know if that will be possible because we want people to understand that even though the Acton Institute is founded by a Catholic priest, it’s not a Catholic organization. That’s a hard myth to crack.
I wrote to Chuck, and when he came that night to a filled ballroom at the Amway Grand Hotel, the first thing he said to the gathered faithful was, “When I received this letter from a Roman Catholic priest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had to come personally to see if this was real, and who was this priest who had the audacity to begin an organization in a homeland of the Dutch Vatican.”
I told Chuck that night that I was still looking for the Sistine Chapel but had not yet found it in Grand Rapids….and that began a wonderful and enduring friendship from that moment to the end.
I was instrumental in having Chuck invited to speak at the Vatican, and this was a very unusual experience for a lot of these cardinals. As we were sitting planning the event (it happened to be on the family), and one of the cardinals, who is since deceased, said to me, “So Father, who do you think should be at this? In addition to these names that we have, who do you think should be here?”
I said, “Well, you know, Your Eminence, I think we need to have one of the great leaders and defenders of the family in the United States, and he is an evangelical Protestant. Do you think we could invite him?”
He said, “An evangelical Protestant?” And I said, “Yes. But he’s a great defender of the family.” He said, “Well, if you say so.”
So Chuck came and gave, of course, a spellbinding speech. I don’t remember if he quoted Abraham Kuyper in the halls of the Vatican, but I do remember that Chuck had an audience … with John Paul II — John Paul the Great, as Chuck would call him — when John Paul was much older and much more enfeebled. In fact, the Pope couldn’t stand.
And Chuck and Patty came up to meet the Pope, and in order to speak to the Pope, Chuck had to kneel down in front and was directing his comments to the Pope’s ear. There was a photograph taken of that.
I remember later that day, I had picked up a copy of the actual photo and I showed it to Chuck, and he turned as white as a ghost. I said, “What’s the matter, Chuck? I thought you’d want to make use of this photo, that you had met the Pope.” He said, “But I am kneeling in this photo.”
So any of you who have seen that photo, you have seen the cropped version of that photo. I will make available the full version for a substantial donation to the Colson Center.
Here is what I wanted to say in conclusion, and that is that Chuck Colson was no fake ecumenist. Chuck Colson was not interested in the form of ecumenism, where people would politely talk with one another so as to negotiate away the truths of the faith so that we can talk about how we liked one another so much.
Chuck was a man of real faith, a real conviction and a real honesty. He was also a man who is captivated by Jesus Christ, and it is that that drew he and I together, along with people like Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus, of happy memory. That was his ecumenism. His idea of ecumenism was that as we move closer to Jesus Christ, we look around and find that we have also moved closer to each other.
A lot of the disagreement still exists, but our common bond in Jesus Christ enables us to confront a world that is in need of the Gospel, perhaps now more than it has ever been before.
I am proud tonight to say that I am a Catholic evangelical in the same sense that Chuck Colson was an evangelical Catholic. God bless you.
• Rev. Robert A. Sirico is a Roman Catholic priest and co-founder and president of Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is a frequent lecturer and commentator on economics, civil rights and issues of religious concern. This excerpt is from his April 9, 2016 remarks at the Wilberforce Weekend in Arlington, Virginia.