Archimandrite Robert Taft, SJ
January 9, 1932 – November 2, 2018
Memory Eternal ~ Вічная Пам’ять
It was at a break during the intensive session of my course on pastoral rites at St. Vladimir’s Seminary that I learned of Archimandrite Robert Taft’s repose earlier that morning. Although it was common knowledge that the great scholar and teacher was near death, the news still arrived with a force borne of the recognition that an era had passed. Not a little of the reading for my different courses at St. Vladimir’s was written either by Taft or by his students, and I can say that his work was one of the major inspirations for me to study liturgy. Indeed, in some sense I stood in that classroom that day teaching the subject I was teaching because of him and his work.
I did not have the privilege of being mentored by him as one of his doctoral students; I was merely a student in his doctoral courses offered during my studies at Notre Dame in the mid to late 1980s. Even with that limited experience of his teaching, I feel a great sense of loss. I can only imagine the loss felt by those for whom he was their Doktorvater.
Of course, it is an impossible task to do justice to Fr. Taft’s life and work in a blog post of some 1000 words. Rather than pretending to completeness, I hope that my reflections will contribute in a small way to the more comprehensive tributes already published, and those still to appear. My comments here will focus on three areas: his contributions to the field of liturgiology, his impact as a teacher, and the significance of his work for Eastern Orthodox Christians.
I have heard the term “Taftian” employed more than once to describe scholarship that is rigorous, meticulous, comprehensive, even encyclopedic, and unsparing in its willingness to challenge historical and theological presuppositions based on anything other than facts. Father Taft’s scholarship is legendary for all these reasons, and continues to serve as a model for those who follow. His historical study of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as well as his studies of a mind-boggling range of topics in the history of Christian liturgy and in liturgical theology, are standard reading, and will remain so for years to come. It is not an exaggeration to view him as the successor to the founder of the field of comparative liturgy, Anton Baumstark.
In his later years, Father Taft argued strenuously for the continuing relevance of the comparative approach to the study of liturgy, and of the absolute necessity of historical research for informing the Church’s pastoral decisions about liturgical texts and practices in the present. Further, his ability to “control the literature” (to use a phrase beloved of another teacher of mine, coincidentally also a Jesuit)—especially for a scholar from the English-speaking world—stands as the benchmark for anyone who aspires to the historical study of liturgy. As anyone who has read his work can attest, Father Taft’s knowledge of the literature of the fields on which he wrote displayed a polyglot competence that is never showy, but always employed in the service of the labor of scholarship.
Such an approach surely reflects the influence of his own teachers at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, especially Father Juan Mateos, SJ, as well as his own considerable gift for languages. I want to emphasize here, however, the humility of the man in the exercise of that gift: I remember him being asked about his experience in translating the Greek witnesses to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and about the deep knowledge of the language it took to be able to arrive at the nuanced historical and theological conclusions that he did. His response, as I recall from some thirty years’ distance: “I simply do what I can with what I’ve learned.”
This humility is what made the greatest impact on me as a student. There are teachers in one’s life who serve as models for one’s own teaching: he has been such a model for me. In the classes I took, he insisted on being addressed simply as Bob. The Finnish language has an expression for a professor who lords the prestige and power of his position over his colleagues and students: such a person is not a professori, but a professuuri: the “exalted (or great) professor.” Bob Taft was not that. Although he seemed to know everything, with his students he bore his learning with a lightness and grace that encouraged, rather than intimidated. Yes, he certainly did not suffer fools gladly—either in print or in person. But at least my memory of him as a teacher is of someone who used his immense knowledge in the service of his students’ learning. He inspired his students to learn and produce their best work for him, as he himself continued to learn over the course of his career.
In my experience, he was a catholic teacher in the way he welcomed and supported the scholarship of his students, no matter their gender or the Church to which they belonged. In my conversations with him, he was both professorial (in the best sense of the term) and pastoral. His lectures were frequently peppered with memorable, often humorous, bons mots about various subjects. The oral tradition of such sayings came to be collected in a small booklet circulated among his students. I recall eliciting peals of laughter from then Bishop Kallistos Ware with one such saying I related at a doctoral seminar at Oxford in 1988.
However, it must be said that such delighted appreciation has not been the response of all Orthodox Christians to Father Taft’s work. He was a vociferous critic of the myth of the “unchanging Orthodox liturgy,” as well as of Catholic romanticizing of Eastern Christian liturgy and theology. He was a fierce critic of Eastern Orthodox actions and attitudes toward Byzantine Rite Catholics (he himself was a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) in both the past and the present. He wrote unsparingly on the need for liturgical reform in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, based on his own historical research and experience with local Orthodox churches.
Father Taft’s work remains as a challenge to us to approach our own tradition in a way freed from the blinders of ahistorical, romanticizing approaches, and to respond to the pastoral needs of the Church today in ways informed by rigorous historical and theological research.
May his memory be eternal.
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