Today 28 years ago died one of the most creative and influential theologians of the 20th Century, Hans Urs Von Balthazar. His life was a fascinating journey of ups and downs, of praise and criticism and like many great theologians he found himself experiencing periods of seeming rejection and acceptance by the Church. Born in Switzerland, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1929 at the age of 24, as the Jesuits were banned from Switzerland, so he was accepted into the Jesuits in Germany. Sadly he was to leave the Society of Jesus 21 years later after founding the Community of St John with the Siss medical doctor and mystic Adrienne Von Speyer. Because his superiors did not see running the institute as compatible with belonging to the society, von Balthasar had to choose between remaining a Jesuit and his involvement with the institute. He remained without a formal role in the Church until in 1956 he was incardinated into the Diocese of Chur as a secular priest. At his death in 1988 he was in talks about being readmitted into the Society.
During his theological studies as a scholastic he came under the influence of French Jesuits, Jean Danielou and Henri De Lubac, who were raising deep questions about the neoscholastic doctrine of grace and nature. He was particularly interested in how they were turning to the Patristic Father to reassess neoscholasticism. Thus grew an enduring love for the Church Fathers. As his reputation as a theologian grew, along with Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan, he sought to offer an intellectual, faithful response to Western modernism, which was in essence antagonistic towards Christianity. Unlike Rahner and Lonergan who offered progressive, accommodating positions on modernity, Balthasar resisted modernity, wanting Christianity to challenge modern sensibilities.
Particularly interesting in a time of a growing awareness of the importance of ecumenism his long study and conversation with the influential Reformed Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, was outstanding. He wrote the first Catholic analysis and response, his The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation (1951) remains a classic work for its sensitivity and insight; Karl Barth himself agreed with its analysis of his own theological enterprise, calling it the best book on his own theology. Not involved in the Second Vatican Council, in 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed him to the International Theological Commission and he co-founded the influential journal Communio. Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal in 1988, he died, however, in his home in Basel on 26 June 1988, two days before the consistory, At his funeral, the then Cardinal Ratzinger said the nomination was a seal of approval. “What the pope (John Paul) intended to express by this mark of distinction, and of honour, remains valid,” Ratzinger said. “No longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”