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RUSSERT (UPDATED) Jun-16-2008 (1,620 words) With photos posted June 13 and 16. xxxn

Russert remembered for his fondness for church, faithfulness

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- NBC News Washington bureau chief and "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert, who died June 13 at the age of 58, was remembered for his warm lifelong ties to the Catholic Church and his support for Catholic education as well as for his career covering politics.

Russert collapsed at work, suffering a heart attack.

An active Catholic whose promise to God to never miss Sunday Mass if his son was born healthy took him to churches around the world, Russert spoke often and fondly of his Catholic school education and of the role of the church in his life.

In an interview with Catholic News Service shortly after he took the helm of "Meet the Press" in 1991, Russert said he enjoyed the somewhat unusual position in Washington public life of being a Catholic who wore his faith proudly.

In "official Washington and television news there aren't all that many practicing Catholics," he said, and when he first came to Washington people kidded him about it. They grew to accept and respect him for it, Russert said.

Some suggest that at work you have to "forget you're Catholic or forget you're Irish," he said. But "it's impossible. It's your inner self."

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, considered Russert a friend. In an interview with WRC-TV, the local NBC affiliate, he recalled the many times he would ask Russert for assistance with one project or another -- often some kind of fundraising. The cardinal said the newsman inevitably responded, "If I can fit it in, I will do it."

"He always had time for people," said Cardinal McCarrick. "I think that was what made him a great reporter. He always had time for people."

Cardinal McCarrick said he thinks Russert valued his success in television less as a credit to himself and more for the possibilities it opened.

"It's not that he enjoyed the fame," he said. "He enjoyed the possibility of bringing the best out in people, even those he didn't agree with."

Russert referred often and fondly to the Sisters of Mercy who taught him at St. Bonaventure School in Buffalo, N.Y., and the Jesuit priests at Canisius High School in Buffalo and John Carroll University in Cleveland.

"We used to take credit for his success in journalism," said Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, media relations director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As a reporter for CNS in 1992, she interviewed Russert and described two photos that graced his office.

One showed Pope John Paul II hugging then-1-year-old Luke, the only child of the newsman and his wife, Maureen Orth, a writer for Vanity Fair magazine. The child wore a shirt reading "Totus tuus," Pope John Paul's episcopal motto, meaning "Totally Yours," referencing the pontiff's devotion to Mary.

The other showed Pope John Paul with a white NBC baseball cap Russert had given him.

He told Sister Walsh that when he died he hoped that at heaven's gate there would be "a guy with a white NBC baseball cap saying 'Let him in. Come on by!'"

CNN reporter and fellow Buffalo native Wolf Blitzer recalled Russert's excitement at the two of them being invited to meet Pope Benedict XVI in a small group at The Catholic University of America in Washington this April.

Blitzer wrote in a CNN remembrance that while he was thrilled to receive the invitation, Russert was ecstatic.

"Can you believe it, two kids from Buffalo, meeting with the pope!" he reported Russert as saying.

Russert and the Mercy nuns both told how his seventh-grade teacher, Mercy Sister Mary Lucille, "founded a school newspaper and appointed me editor and changed my life," he added. Teachers in Catholic schools "taught me to read and write, but also how to tell right from wrong."

Sister Walsh said Russert's "love for the church was deeper than people realized. And he was always there to help the church whenever possible."

Jesuit Father James Shea, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington's Georgetown section, which was the Russerts' parish, called Russert "a faithful parishioner here. He loved his faith; he loved the church and he loved the Jesuits."

The priest said he knew Russert for many years, not only from the parish but also from the Saturday evening Masses Russert frequently attended at Georgetown University Hospital, where Father Shea was chaplain for 15 years.

"He was very generous with his energy to serve the church," the priest said, noting that Russert spoke at Washington Jesuit Academy, a Jesuit-run school for middle school students and gave a presentation for an adult education program at Holy Trinity. He was also involved in Boston College's "The Church in the 21st Century" program.

He described Russert as down to earth, engaging and devoted to his family.

"He was a wonderful Catholic and a great representative of the faith," said Father Shea.

In an interview on NBC's "Today" show June 16, Luke Russert said he and his mother were being bolstered in their grief by their faith and by the huge outpouring of public support they'd received.

A memorial candelight vigil June 15 at Tim Russert Park in his hometown of Buffalo drew an estimated 1,000 people.

John Carr, executive director of the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, told CNS that he was struck by how much the "fundamentals" of faith and work drove Russert.

"He really thought politics was a good thing and it showed," Carr said. "He wanted politics to be better."

"The bishops wrote a statement that said to take our faiths into every part of our lives," Carr said. "In his own modest way, that is what I thought Tim Russert did. He wasn't skinny, he wasn't pretty, but he excelled in a medium that often favors style over substance."

Carr said Russert's touch will especially be missed in coverage of the 2008 election. "At a time of spin, spin, spin, he tried to go with facts, facts, facts."

Russert told church workers attending the 2005 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering that, "if there's an issue that Democrats, Republicans, conservatives and liberals can agree on, it's our kids." With "15 million kids largely living off the streets" and 12 youths shot dead daily in the United States, addressing the issue is imperative, Russert said.

In dealing with his own son, Russert said that he told him, "You are always, always loved, but you are never entitled."

Hours before his death Russert had returned from a family trip to Italy to celebrate Luke's graduation from Boston College. His wife and son had stayed behind to continue traveling.

Archbishop George H. Niederauer of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops' communications committee, told CNS that Russert was valued by Americans for "his tremendous command of the political and electoral process and his commitment to discovering each aspect of the story that contributed to people having a better awareness of the issues of public life and candidates for political office."

"But those of us who shared his Catholic faith and his deep love for it appreciated his sharing of the story of his own faith and his loyalty to the life of the Catholic Church in this country and the many charities to which he contributed his time and talent," the archbishop told CNS while he was at the U.S. bishops' spring meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Russert had been scheduled to give the Catholic Common Ground Initiative's Philip J. Murnion Lecture June 27 at Catholic University.

Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, former communications secretary for the USCCB, described Russert as a formidable journalist but also "just a very good man" and "very much a down-to-earth Catholic."

"He took his religious faith seriously," said Msgr. Maniscalco, who is currently the Respect Life director and public policy adviser for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.

The priest said Russert was a "serious Catholic" as shown in his book, "Big Russ & Me." He also recalled how Russert helped the bishops' communications department put together a group of Washington-based journalists at the time of the clergy sex abuse crisis to discuss media coverage of the issue.

He fondly remembered how Russert was "always double-checking to see if he could get an interview with Pope John Paul," and periodically reminding Msgr. Maniscalco the interview had been loosely promised by the Vatican.

"Big Russ & Me" and a subsequent book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers," were both New York Times best-sellers. His fond memoir about his father enjoyed a resurgence of popularity at word of Russert's death, two days before Father's Day.

Buffalo Bishop Edward U. Kmiec, who was at the bishops' meeting in Orlando, called Russert "a very great man in every sense of the word. I always respected him professionally and he was also a very fine human person and a good Catholic."

Jesuit Father James P. Higgins, president of Canisius High School, said: "Tim embodied the qualities of the son, brother, husband, father and uncle that made him the extraordinary human being and Catholic that he was. A faithful, loyal, committed and generous man, Mr. Russert was unquestionably our most accomplished and conspicuous alumnus in 138 years."

Among Russert's many honorary degrees and awards were an Emmy for his coverage of former President Ronald Reagan's funeral and the 2005 Gabriel Awards' Personal Achievement Award from the Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals.

Russert's June 18 funeral was to be private, with a public wake scheduled in Washington June 17.

- - -

Contributing to this story were Chaz Muth, Carol Zimmermann, Mark Pattison, Regina Linskey, Geoffrey A. Brooke Jr., Brandy Wilson, Katherine Nuss, Jim Lackey, Nancy Hartnagel and Patricia Zapor in Washington and Nancy Frazier O'Brien in Orlando.


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