ALLEGANY, N.Y. — Regis Duffy, a distinguished theologian who specialized in sacramental and liturgical theology, died on Jan. 4 at the Franciscan friary on the campus of St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. He was 71.
Father Duffy had suffered for years from acute migraine headaches and subsequently pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive and incurable disease which eventually caused his death.
He was well known in Catholic theological circles, especially among liturgical scholars, and taught for more than 15 years at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., prior to joining the faculty at the University of Notre Dame. He developed a devoted following among students in both institutions, before spending his final years as a professor at St. Bonaventure’s. He gave up teaching when his pulmonary problems became increasingly severe.
Regis Duffy was more than a theological colleague. He was my friend. We spoke on the phone almost every week following his departure from Notre Dame in 1994. Our last conversation was on Monday evening, Jan. 2. He told me then that he had been rushed to the hospital on Christmas Day unable to breathe, and that his local superiors and doctors had recommended a hospice program.
When I heard the word “hospice,” I knew that I would have to fly up as soon as possible to visit him before his condition worsened even further. When I received word on Wednesday afternoon that he had died that morning, it came as a shock, and the sense of personal loss was immediate and painfully profound.
When a friend who never knew Regis Duffy asked if I could describe him in one word, “gentle” came immediately to my lips. He was the most gentle person I have known-always charitable in speaking about others, always generous with words of encouragement, always humble and self-effacing.
Although he bore the burden of his illnesses with uncommon grace and saintly patience, never once complaining about his plight, in his healthier days he enjoyed elegant meals and fine wines, and he was himself a superb cook and a gracious host.
I believe that my most effective method of attracting him to Notre Dame in the 1980s (I was chair of the Department of Theology at the time) was arranging a meal or two at the Carriage House, the best of the area restaurants, owned and operated by a dear friend, Evelyn George
Regis and she also became good friends, and the last time I was together with him was on a trip that the three of us made to New York City not long before Evelyn herself died of cancer. Regis was by then already at St. Bonaventure’s. Needless to say, we enjoyed wonderful meals in splendid restaurants that Evelyn had personally selected.
Although Regis Duffy was also a well-published author, he wore his scholarly achievements lightly. Notre Dame’s library has at least six of his books: Real Presence (1982), A Roman Catholic Theology of Pastoral Care (1983), On Becoming a Catholic: the Challenge of Christian Initiation (1984), The Liturgy in the Catechism (1995), An American Emmaus: Faith and Sacrament in the American Culture (1995), and Made in God’s Image: the Catholic Vision of Human Dignity (1999).
These half-dozen monographs, however, do not begin to represent the complete output of his many scholarly articles and his contributions to various collections on sacramental and liturgical theology, nor do they include his elegant homilies, public lectures, and editorial work.
He was, for example, an associate editor for the one-volume HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995) and the author of its major article on the Eucharist. It is an excellent piece: clear, substantive, balanced, and pastoral in the best sense of the word.
Regis was also a devotee of the “Peanuts” comic strip. He laced many of his homilies and lectures with references to its leading characters: Charlie Brown, Lucy, Pigpen, Linus, Schroeder, and especially Snoopy.
When I informed the senior Carriage House waitress of Regis’s death, she said how much she loved and admired him, recalling him as a sweet person who was always a delight to serve. She sought him out whenever he presided and preached at campus Masses. In her mind he will always be “Father Snoopy.”
Another of Regis’s South Bend friends and I sent him a collection of “Peanuts” cartoons as a Christmas gift last month. He responded, typically, as if we had given him a million dollars.
“Good grief!” was one of Charlie Brown’s oft-repeated exclamations. Those who knew and loved Regis Duffy grieve for him now, but it is a good grief, for an extraordinarily good person.
Copyright 2006 Richard P. McBrien. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission obtained by Kenneth Himes. McBrien is the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.