My religious, not spiritual, brother Joe

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“I’m spiritual, not religious.”

It’s a bromide of our age, sometimes an expression of a real hunger for God, other times a way of placing the speaker above the perceived muck generated by religious institutions.

Whenever he heard that line, my brother Joe was quick to respond, “I’m religious, not spiritual.”

It was typical Joe, a cogent witty remark that, in retrospect, had much to say about the guy who uttered it. He never talked about any cosmic spiritual search for meaning. Yet he was religiously observant — in other words, he went to Mass — and found solace in that weekly ritual, as well as the human dimensions of church life that took place the rest of the week.

Joe Feuerherd, the publisher of the National Catholic Reporter who died last month at the age of 48, I knew as my kid brother. He was always Joe, the informal moniker, our late mother being the only one I knew who occasionally invoked the formal Joseph, and only then as a sign he was in trouble.

There was the family vision of Joe: the kid who ruled the neighborhood park; who in his early teens developed horseplaying skills, coming home with the occasional killing from a trifecta at Belmont; who took the family car for a night spin to the beach, without bothering with the legal requirement that he be old enough to drive and arousing the suspicion of a gun-toting neighbor when Joe quietly sneaked into a bathroom window upon his return; who got married at age 19 while still a college student to fellow camp-counselor Becky, in violation of the caveats that consign such unions of the lovestruck young to the eventual marital dustbin.

But in that Joe hit the jackpot, with a wife there till the end, and three young adult children, Zach, Bridget, and Ben, with him till he breathed his last after a year and a half of an encounter with cancer. I use encounter here deliberately, instead of the cliché that he “battled” cancer. With Joe it was often a mix: he would joke that he wasn’t reluctant to “play the cancer card” when he wanted something and that sometimes, especially as he neared the end, he would credit his energetic phone conversations to the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, sparking his energy in spurts that would dissipate rapidly into exhaustion.

While being the second youngest of the six of us, Joe was clearly the wisest. In a family crisis — and with six of us, plus children and spouses, we’re either in the middle of one or surely another is lurking around the corner — Joe would take the concerned role, getting together via the phone and lobbying for a particular course of action, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, yet always with warmth, understanding and wit. I admit to sometimes losing track of all these crises; by contrast, Joe always made time to express concern and offer a helping hand.

That was the family Joe, the one I knew. But it took his death to get me to appreciate the public persona that Joe had become.

His wake and funeral attracted those he befriended, often those in the Washington world (he left the family home on Long Island to go to Catholic University and never left the Beltway scene, working in Congress and on various editorial ventures before landing as NCR publisher).

While Joe was publisher of what is widely known as the organ of, for want of a better term, a liberal Catholic vision, he made friends across the political spectrum. The wake included peace and environmental activists. Tributes flowed from National Review Online and other organs of the right, some writers expressing how Joe would invite them into conferences and discussions sponsored by the newspaper. He could disagree without being disagreeable. He saw potential friends, not hardened enemies.

Joe was bright and engaged, incredibly well-read. But his writings flowed easily, never self-consciously showing off his knowledge. He’d hear a story about a low-level person, a staffer at a church or government agency unjustly fired, or a victim of outright abuse, and his columns would sizzle with outrage over an infraction of human dignity.

We’d talk about once a week, sometimes family stuff but, since we shared similar job interests, often on internal church matters. Some bishop would be fighting with another, either overtly or covertly, and Joe had a strong grasp of the human and political dynamics involved. But the ecclesial theological issues — say about whether a politician should be refused Communion — Joe had little interest in. He was concerned with the here and the now, how a particular action would play out, not on the theories that often shrouded other agendas.

Joe’s spirituality was open to the task of righting injustice, whether through the agencies he worked for that supported housing for the poor and minorities in suburban Maryland, where he lived, or his regular calling the church to account for the horror of sex abuse. In his writing, he minced no words, and sometimes sounded harsh, which belied the easygoing guy the family all loved and relied upon.

There are varied Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel reads like a newspaper account, with the action cascading towards Calvary in a whirlwind of miracles and confrontations with authorities. John’s Gospel, by contrast, is a theological exposition for the action of Jesus’ life, filled with poetic imagery about the cosmic Christ, a more spiritualized account, written much later than its counterparts.

Joe was definitely a Mark Gospel kind of guy. His spirituality was nurtured by lived experience. His faith was rooted in marriage, children, friends, his championing of human dignity wherever he saw it breached, all wrapped up in a package of wit and charm that made him a noteworthy publisher/writer and a fantastic kid brother.

Joe, you got it wrong. The Joe I knew was both religious and spiritual. I count myself among those who were better for it. He is already missed.

Peter Feuerherd is director of Communications for the Diocese of Camden.