After completing his postdoctoral studies in Oriental languages at the University of Louvain, Fr. Robert F. Taft, SJ, wondered if he might be somewhat delayed in starting his life’s work.
"By then it was 1973, and I was over forty years old and feeling distinctly like a late vocation to this liturgy business," Taft told those gathered at the 1985 meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy, at which he received the Berakah award for distinguished contribution to liturgy.
Perhaps Taft was not so much delayed in beginning his work as a liturgical historian as prepared for it. In the preceding decades, he had earned his doctorate in Oriental liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, a master’s degree in Russian from Fordham University, and had studied philosophy and theology at Weston College.
Taft, who died on November 2 in Campion Center, Weston, Massachusetts, was known for his expertise as a liturgical historian and for his ecumenical work. "He was one of the greatest liturgical scholars who ever lived," said Fr. John Baldovin, SJ, professor of liturgy at Boston College.
This ministry served his students, liturgical scholars, those seeking understanding of the East and its liturgy, and liturgical ministers. "I write on liturgy so that people might be able to understand it better and celebrate it better," he said during an interview with the National Catholic Reporter (published December 15, 2011).
Taft’s former students, colleagues, and friends remember him as a supportive teacher, a loyal friend, a prayerful man, and a scholar that few may equal.
Paul Bradshaw, emeritus professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, said, "With the death of Robert Taft, the Christian world has lost one of its greatest ever liturgical scholars. He was known internationally for his immense erudition in the complex history of Eastern rites, and it is unlikely that we shall see his equal again. We shall not only miss his scholarship but the warmth of a true Christian and friend."
For many summers, Taft was a visiting professor of liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, and for about forty years he taught at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, where he also served as the vice rector. His scholarship will live on not only in his students and their work but also in the generations who will study his writings. The more than eight hundred titles in his body of work include articles in scholarly journals and books he has authored, coauthored, and edited. The final volume of his five-volume history of the Byzantine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, on the anaphora, is being prepared for publication.
His work has made a difference in the reception of the sacraments today. As consultor to the Vatican Congregation for the Oriental Churches, he assisted the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in recognizing the validity of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Assyrian Church of the East. The 2001 agreement between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East provides for pastoral needs. With the agreement, members of these churches receive the Eucharist during the liturgy at the other church if their minister is unavailable.
Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Notre Dame Maxwell Johnson was both a student of Taft’s at Notre Dame and his colleague there. "He breathed an ecumenical spirit beyond East and West, recognizing that ecumenism was both a new way of being a Christian and a scholar," Johnson said. "He was permeated with the liturgy and its spirit in the very depths of his being."
Taft’s students knew that they studied with the best in the field. No matter the amount of red ink that appeared on a paper returned from Taft, the direction provided was appreciated, noted Very Rev. Mark Morozowich. "I considered it a badge of accomplishment to learn from the foremost Byzantine liturgical scholar in the world," he said. Morozowich, the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, noted that Taft’s work will be the "benchmark from which people will measure their work for years."
Morozowich, who studied with Taft at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, called his professor and dissertation director "magnificent." "He was very demanding, but he really taught me the art of writing, a way of thinking logically when presenting Church history, and of being impartial when you find issues that are a bit uncomfortable in that history. In short, allowing the source to speak for itself."
At Notre Dame, Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, took every class that Taft offered. Hughes, the author of Saying Amen and other books, recalled the professor’s practical advice to write daily to develop the skill. "He urged us to just get going, and if we couldn’t get a first sentence, to write the second, though he also acknowledged that there would be the rare day when it would be good to take a day off! He said he never closed up shop without outlining where his argument was going and how he intended to begin when next he took up his work."
Though not a student of Taft’s, Nicholas Denysenko found that many paths led to the scholar. "As a student of liturgy and then a scholar, I have found that one name dominates my footnotes and bibliographies more than any other: Fr. Robert Taft, SJ," said Denysenko, the Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana. "I did not have the privilege of learning at Taft's feet, though studying liturgy from two of his disciples, Paul Meyendorff and Mark Morozowich, was akin to an initiation into the global family of scholars, with Taft as the patriarch."
Upon meeting Taft, Denysenko found the scholar welcoming and complimentary. "Taft knew that he was the patriarch of the most important tree of Eastern liturgical studies. But he did not extol his own success—he pushed those of us who learned from him to succeed, no matter how we encountered him in this life. His is a legacy worth cherishing and continuing."
One after another, Taft’s friends portrayed him as a man with a gruff exterior with a compassionate heart. Baldovin, who taught with Taft in Rome, said, "He was a very loyal friend, extremely supportive. He had a great sense of humor," adding that "he was extremely supportive of his students." Those students reciprocated the concern, contacting Baldovin to inquire about Taft while he was in declining health.
Knowing the Jesuit also meant being with a man whose life focused on prayer. Daniel Galadza, Taft’s assistant for a couple of years in Rome and periodically at Weston, described the scholar as attentive to his prayer life. Galadza, lecturer at the Sheptytsky Institute, University of Toronto, recounted that Taft "was the first in the chapel in the morning for the liturgy in the Byzantine Rite every single day." He added, "Despite his intense research and teaching, he always made time for prayer. And his work was always at the service of God and the Church."