Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Dr. William A. Marra: Traveler on a Catholic Roman Road

(Slightly Altered Name of a Eulogy in Una Voce Newsletter, Spring, 1999)

Many UVA members knew Bill personally. Many of those who did not are nevertheless aware of his work as a philosopher at Fordham University in the Augustinian-phenomenological-von Hildebrandian tradition, as one of the founders of the Roman Forum, as a broadcaster for Drama of Truth, and, of course, as an international lecturer strongly defending innumerable beleaguered Catholic causes. What I should like to do for the benefit of those few for whom he may be merely a name, and also for the sake of rendering justice to a man who cared nothing for recognition and honors, is to describe what I believe the message of his life was, and what it has taught his friends who now feel so lonely without him.

Bill Marra’s life reminds one of a journey on a Roman road. Like a traveler along an ancient republican or imperial highway, he went from his starting point to the conclusion of his earthly pilgrimage directly, single-heartedly, and with no doubt as to his destination. Anyone who listened to what he had to say and followed where he went understood that there was a journey calling to be made, that it actually did go somewhere definite, and that one could be confident that the particular route offered was secure and expeditious. He followed a Via Appia in a twisted, macabre modern landscape.

But Bill Marra’s Roman road was constructed out of Catholic rock. This meant that it was not a human one, certainly not his own. It was that of Christ and Christ alone. As all who knew him will, I am sure, attest, he had to be among the most unselfconscious and personally disinterested men. Friends will remember that he often engaged humorously in an hyperbolic boasting (he would attribute traffic jams in New York City to press leaks of his presence therein) that was funny precisely because he was in truth so genuinely humble. The successes he achieved were for Christ, not for himself. And it was to Christ that he constantly turned for maintenance.

Spared the effort of observing himself constantly, this traveler on a Catholic Roman road spent his time examining the sights along the path of his journey. Viewing things in Christ, he then saw what the self-conscious neglect: a world populated by lovers or potential lovers of God, presented with an endless variety of God-given means by which to nourish and enrich this startling romance. Because everything along the journey was precious to the greatest Lover of all, Bill believed it should be precious to him. He had to open his eyes to its particular message. This lay at the base of his phenomenology, and, again, as I am certain all can testify, this made him the easiest man to approach and to engage in discussion. One always was aware that Bill was not trying to score points in an argument, but to get at the truth. He had an amazing, unflagging enthusiasm for teaching the truth, so that it was in character that he should have died driving home from a stint of lecturing in Alabama. No matter how many lectures he gave in his incredibly busy career, he never seemed to tire of answering the same questions by a constant stream of people newly converted or newly awakened to the Faith, the intellectual life, or the urgencies of a given battle. In all the work he did for various Catholic organizations and causes, he never lost sight of the fact that the goal of the work, the point of the “cause”, was to instruct, convert, give comfort to and save individuals and promote the kingship of Christ.

This sometimes made him a bad business man. He gave away stacks of books and tapes; he would fundraise for one organization at an event sponsored by another. The organizations or events were never his main interest: they were the platforms from which he preached to individuals. His motto was a Catholic variant of “no enemies on the Right”, and he worked anywhere he saw an opportunity to teach the Faith.

The message of the Marra road was therefore anything but monotonous. Though the journey was long, the highway was open—he was always looking for new companions, always ready to encourage love, always joyous, always expecting the unexpected experience, and yet always sorrowful for those who opted for the somber anti-Catholic track to nowhere. For this tragic perception also came through travel along Bill’s pathway: an awareness, as the name of his radio and television shows underlined, that the romance of individuals and God in a world filled with aids to love was a Drama of Truth that had to be confronted moment by ever distinct unrepeatable moment in time, and that, dramatically, the kiss of Faith could be spurned. Bill’s message, while joyous, was one that warned of and lamented unrequited love.

How many souls were, are, and will be borne down that straight, unselfconscious, disinterested, loving, joyful, dramatic Catholic Roman road that Bill Marra taught us to follow? How many people’s awakening to God is owed to him? How much faith was sustained by him through his tireless trudging through this and other continents? How often have those who have despaired felt ashamed at their lack of hope and regained confidence in conversation with him? I know a few of them, myself included. But all of them? That is a secret locked in Christ. Suffice it to say that anyone reading this brief eulogy who himself has been borne down that road is not lacking for company.

Bill Marra felt a link with a more vibrant Catholic past to have been broken when his mentor, Dietrich von Hildebrand, died. All of us with Una Voce now feel that same sense of loss of moorings now, with Bill Marra’s departure. In praying for the repose of Bill’s soul, let us also pray that we can continue his arrow-like, confident, unselfconscious, and truly open-minded work. To his widow, Marie, to his family, to all his friends and admirers, let us promise that we will at least try to do so, and hope, in return, that we will one day see again a man whose personality stood out so strongly because he hid himself in Christ.

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