A Tribute to a Maestro: Fr. Robert F. Taft, S.J.

by Ines Angeli Murzaku

I was probably in the last generation of orientalists that had the opportunity to be trained at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome and taught by figures of the stature of Robert F. Taft, S.J.; Cardinal Tomas Spidlik, S.J.; John Long, S.J.; Vincenzo Poggi, S.J.; Carmelo Capizzi, S.J.; and others who by now have entered eternity. When one of your beloved professors, mentors, and friends departs, a void is left behind—an empty space—that probably will never be filled. Sharing pictures and messages with Fr. Taft’s other disciples, former students, and friends over the Internet has helped me and generated more memories and special moments. One wonders how many lives he touched and transformed.

Much has been written about Fr. Taft since his death, focusing on his life and pioneering scholarship on Byzantine liturgy and the Byzantine Church in general.

Let me look at my beloved maestro from another angle: his utmost care for the Church of the peripheries, including his gentle and gentlemanly attitude toward women and especially his women students.

When I was pursuing studies for my license (M.A.) and later for my doctorate in Ecclesiastical Oriental History, there were few women at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, otherwise known as Orientale, who were pursuing graduate degrees. In the 80s and 90s, the student body at Orientale was not as big as it is currently. Nonetheless, there were students coming from the Eastern Churches still suffering under the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, from the Churches of the Middle East—students who were bearing the wounds of persecution. Beside the Byzantine Catholics, Russian Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox, there were Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims studying at Orientale during my time there. This made for a diverse and an incredibly rich and enriching learning community, that was rarely found in other similar institutions of higher learning. The majority of the students were male, most of them religious, deacons, or on their way to ordination. A similar thing can be said for women studying at Orientale: many of them were either religious sisters or novices coming from a multitude of countries and bringing with them a tremendous richness and vitality in the Church and that special “woman’s touch” to Orientale. Fr. Taft was dedicated to the peripheries of the Church—women and women studying in pontifical universities, their place and voice, and bringing the feminine into the Church—bringing attention, to all of these through his superb historical examination of the Early and Medieval Christianity.

There were young and incredibly energetic sisters coming from India, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Russia who were bringing the peripheral Church, the challenges and the richness of the periphery to the center: Rome. But there was another periphery that Fr. Taft was passionate about: one could count with the fingers a handful of lay women who were part of Orientale. Fr. Taft knew this dynamic too well. He was in touch and in constant contact with us, lay-women-students of the Orientale, providing advice, attention, and care for the person that went beyond academics, that care and attention that only Fr. Taft could provide in his unassuming and blunt style and honesty. Buried in books in his special corner at the Orientale’s library, he will notice his students entering, checking books and studying. He will stop by, no matter what and ask how I was doing and if there was a problem which needed his further attention he would invite me to go on the back of the library – and the conversation could go on.

I took almost all courses Fr. Taft offered at Orientale during my time there. He entered the lecture hall carrying a pile of books to which he made specific references in his lectures. His brilliance and humility went hand in hand. He was an inspiration to many religious sisters who were being prepared for their missions in the East and equally inspirational to lay women who were being groomed for future academic careers.  He instructed me all the way: from choosing the topic of my license, doctoral thesis, to finding sources and resources that could facilitate my stay and pursuit of a doctorate in Rome. Well, being a lay woman and studying at a pontifical university was challenging on another level: the university system of my day was not equipped to accommodate lay students enrolled in pontifical universities in Rome with possibility for room and board. Fr. Taft knew this problem far too well and was outspoken in raising the issue and offering solutions. He was generous in giving time to us women of the Orientale. He found much joy in helping others, and this was Taft’s key to happiness.

My first book focused on the history of the Jesuits in Albania (Catholicism, Culture, Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania (1841-1946), another periphery about which Fr. Taft was passionate. His co-friars—as he called those Jesuits who have labored in Albania—had a long-standing history of mission in the country. Peripheral Albania was a bridge between East and West, Rome and Byzantium, and later Rome and the Ottoman Empire. It was a place of different religions: Christianity and Islam, including the Islamic mystical brotherhoods. Fr. Taft understood the pioneering approach to Muslim-Christian dialogue that his co-friar and martyr Fr. Giovanni Fausti, S.J. had initiated in the Albanian periphery and wanted that tradition to be revived and continued. The periphery and the peripheral were dear to Fr. Taft’s academic pursuit. Eastern Catholic Churches had been treated very poorly by the West, and he dedicated his life to rectifying this injustice. Similarly, the Italo-Greeks or the Byzantine Catholic Italo-Albanian Church of Calabria and Sicily peripheries were topics of great interest for Fr. Taft, scholarly interests he instilled on me since my days at Orientale.

“Can anything good come from Nazareth [the periphery during the time of Jesus]?’ asked Nathanael. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.” (John 1:46). Well, Fr. Taft went, saw, touched, studied and penetrated in the world of the peripherals. He became one of them from Baghdad to becoming a Greek Catholic.

As many readers know, Fr. Taft sent his special Christmas and Easter messages to family, friends, his disciples, and people who followed him. The most recent messages I exchanged with the maestro were all written in caps. His eyesight was failing him, but he kept on: “I AM IN THE THROES OF EYE SURGERY BUT OTHERWISE DOING PRETTY WELL.”

I am sure you are doing pretty well, beloved Fr. Taft. How could you not be? You have left us gifts that we will treasure for a very long time.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Founding Chair of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.