A Short Biography

S. Joel Garver


He was said, by Henri de Lubac, to be "perhaps the most cultured man of our time." Karl Rahner described his achievements as "really breathtaking." His works include over a thousand books and articles. At one point he was able to give away his stereo and records since, he said, he had all the works of Mozart memorized anyway. And it is my guess that history may well find him to be one of the most important theologians of the 20th century

Hans Urs von Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland on 12 August 1905. He grew up in the faith, with a pious mother who, he writes, "day by day went to Mass down the steep path from our house." He fondly remembered "quiet, deeply moving early Masses on my own in the choir of the Franciscan church in Lucerne"

Balthasar was educated in Benedictine and Jesuit secondary schools and went on to study in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich. On 27 October 1928 he underwent his doctoral examination at the (Liberal Protestant) University of Zurich having completed a dissertation on the History of the Eschatological Problem in Modern German Literature—and, of course, he passed summa cum laude

While completing his dissertation, in the summer of 1927, Balthasar attended a 30-day retreat near Basel about which he writes:

Even now, thirty years later, I could still go to that remote path in the Black Forest…and find again the tree beneath which I was struck as by lightning…And yet it was neither theology nor the priesthood which then came into my mind in a flash. It was simply this: you have nothing to choose, you have been called…All I needed to do was to stand there and wait and see what I would be needed for.

And so, on 18 November 1928 he entered the Jesuit novitiate for two years—-after which he spent two years studying Scholastic philosophy with a Jesuit faculty near Munich, followed by four years of theology—again in the scholastic vein—near Lyon. Thus he was a licentiate in both philosophy and theology, though his doctorate remained only in literature.

While the influence of Scholasticism upon his work is clear, it is far from determinative—he makes reference to "languishing in the desert of neo-scholasticism." Nevertheless Balthasar’s thought may be placed within a broadly Thomistic tradition

He was also drawn to other students who were similarly dissatisfied with the scholastic hegemony—budding scholars such as Jean Danielou and Henri Bouillard. It was at this time that Balthasar met the philosopher-theologian Erich Przywara who knew scholasticism but also interacted with Hegel, Scheler, and Heidegger. He also met Henri de Lubac, nine years his senior, who "showed us the way beyond the scholastic stuff to the Fathers of the Church…"

On 26 July 1936 Balthasar was ordained to the priesthood and at his first Mass he preached sermon on the text "Benedixit, fregit, deditque [He blessed it, broke it, and gave it]"—bringing out the theme "Because he blessed, he broke, and because he broke you, he could give you."

In 1937 he declined an offer to be a professor at the Gregorian in Rome to establish a institute for ecumenical theology, instead returning to Basel as a student chaplain. At this time it was still constitutionally prohibited in Switzerland for Jesuits to establish houses, schools, churches or any other institutional presence, so Balthasar could not work "officially" as Jesuit chaplain. Nor was there much official oversight by the Society of Jesus due to the war. In fact the Swiss Jesuits were considered part of the south German province of the Society. In addition to his pastoral duties Balthasar worked mostly as an editor and translator, lecturing, and the establishment of a Studentische Schulungsgemeinschaft to conduct courses and conferences (with the likes of K. Rahner, de Lubac, Martin Buber, and Yves Congar)

At this time Balthasar also encountered an eminent member of Basel’s theological faculty—the Reformed Protestant neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth—and found that they shared a common passion in Mozart and with whom he soon became friends. About the same time Balthasar first met a local physician, Adrienne von Speyr, who after the death of her first husband became estranged from God, but eventually came to join the Catholic Church under the care of Balthasar who became her confessor, spiritual director, and associate. With her Balthasar expanded his foundation for lay people to serve in the Church—the Johannes Gemeinschaft or Community of St. John. But between this foundation, von Speyr’s miracles and visions, and other problems, difficult times were in store.

While the war was coming to and end, troubles were only beginning for Balthasar. His father, who had been quite ill for some time, died in June 1946. His godmother, with whom he was very much the closest among family members, suffered a stroke and was left paralyzed. Earlier in May Balthasar’s close friend and student at Basel, Robert Rast, died of a lung disease. At this time Balthasar’s mentor Przywara was also quite ill and Balthasar was attempting to gain him an entrance visa into Switzerland

In the midst of all these difficulties it came time for the yearly renewal of Jesuit vows. However, prior to this Balthasar was informed by Society of Jesus that the order was unwilling to take responsibility for either the Community, its publishing house, or the reports of von Speyr’s visions. Balthasar decided at this time to postpone his vows until Adrienne’s experiences could be examined by the Church—but had little success in this endeavor.

If these burdens were not already enough Balthasar and the nouvelle theologie as a whole were coming under fire, first in the August issue of the Revue Thomiste by the Dominican Labourdette and then, with far less restraint, in the December issue of the Angelicum by another Dominican, Garrigou-Lagrange. While Balthasar himself was never a direct target, his friends and like-minded associates, de Lubac and Boulliard, soon came under investigation by the Vatican (the irony, of course, being that these theologians are now considered the "conservatives").

The next two years, 1947 and 48, again saw the refusal of the Church to recognize von Speyr’s experiences as genuine or the willingness of the Society to endorse the Johannes Gemeinschaft, the Father General directed Balthasar to make a retreat to think through what direction he should take. By the end of his retreat he had reached the decision to leave the Jesuit order if it were not willing to test what he saw as his mission. And so Balthasar left the Jesuits on 11 February 1950. He writes:

I took this step, for both sides a very grave one, after a long testing of the certainty I had reached through prayer that I was being called by God to certain definite tasks in the Church…So, for me, the step taken means an application of Christian obedience to God, who at any time has the right to call a man not only out of his physical home…but also from his chosen spiritual home in a religious order, so that he can use him for purposes within the Church.

Leaving the Society, of course, meant that Balthasar was left without a position, a pastorate, a place to live, or an income. He eventually found an ecclesiastical home in the diocese of Chur under its sympathetic bishop and was able to maintain an income by a grueling schedule of lecture tours. Though he was offered various teaching chairs he did not accept any of them and, besides, would not have been able to since the Catholic Congregation for Seminaries and University had imposed a teaching ban upon him since he had left a religious order.

Von Speyr’s health was on the decline in the early 1950’s due to heart trouble, with various compounding problems, bringing her close to death several times. Balthasar’s own health was deteriorating during his busy lecturing, eventually leaving him nearly homebound for six months in 1957. The next year saw a bought of phlebitis, serious illness bringing him near death, and a paralysis later diagnosed as a symptom of leukemia.

Nevertheless, during this period and into the early 1960’s his theological output grew and drew much attention in Europe, and, even though he had not been invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council, he later received a number of honorary doctorates in theology and the Golden Cross of Mount Athos. During this period he was placing the finishing touches on his theological Aesthetics, working next door to Adrienne von Speyr who was nearly bedridden—she had gone blind and in 1967 she developed cancer of the bowel which slowly drained away her life in painful agony until she died 17 September 1967. After her death Balthasar began to publish her works, revealing an Adrienne of which not even her closest friends had been aware.

In the 1970’s and 80’s Balthasar gained ever greater stature on the theological scene, not only through his writings, but also through the publishing house of the Johannes Gemeinschaft and the international Catholic journal Communio, eventually receiving from the Vatican the Paul VI Prize in theology. In 1988 von Balthasar was appointed by John Paul II to become a cardinal, an honor he had before refused. This time he accepted out of obedience to the Pope and out of his friendship with him

However, on 26 June 1988, two days before his elevation as a cardinal, while he was preparing to celebrate morning Mass, Hans Urs von Balthasar died.