I live and work with a lot of talented persons. The University of Louvain is one of the oldest and most renowned universities in the world. It has a unique international dimension and attracts talented persons from many parts of the world. You can easily lose perspective here. As soon as you stop being careful, scholarship quickly becomes a god, a false idol, invested with an undue significance which gives students and faculty alike the false notion that little else is important. By most standards, too, it is good scholarship, solid, largely immune from fads, and important in its own right. It is easy to get the feeling that you are close to what is important: Many of the professors are known worldwide, most have published many books, and conversations around classrooms, the library, and the faculty circles run the range from which publishing house you will send your next book to, to what transpired in your last conversation with Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Kung, or Boismard. Getting caught up in a false importance is an occupational hazard here.
Fortunately, the place is not without its humanity and its sanctity as well. Some do keep perspective. One who was exceptional in this regard was Karel Blockx, a man little known beyond the boundaries of Louvain. He taught church history and was a man so gentle that the hard-sounding consonants in the sound of his name belied the gentleness of the man who bore it. A brilliant doctor with the simplicity of a child, he loved his students with a warmth too seldom found in professional circles. All of us looked forward to his little tours around campus and the library. From desk to desk, office to office, he would make his visits, stopping to ask you about your work, asking if he could be of help, or just giving you a friendly pat on the shoulder and a word of encouragement. He moved slow, his health was bad. But his touch, gesture, and sound were always sincere. You knew he meant it. When he touched you, you were touched. He was not as famous as most of the others. Unlike them, he did not write a lot of books, nor give a lot of talks internationally. Even his area of specialty, church history, had a certain unglamor about it. So we were all happy for him when, several months ago, he entered the library very excited. In his hands was a manuscript, about to be published. He showed it with pride, excited as a child.
No matter that it would not be a bestseller! No matter that it would never make him as famous as his better-known colleagues! No matter that it had a title as abstract and unglamorous as “A Bibliographical Introduction to Church History.’ It was his, the product of years of hard and honest work, and it was a solid, if unexciting, book. It would make a contribution, however humble, and it was going to be published! Not long afterwards, he got up one morning, said his prayers as always, put on his teaching clothes, carefully packed his notes in his briefcase, and set out for class. He never made it. A massive heart attack felled him just as he got to the door of his classroom. Hi died with his boots on. Appropriately enough it was a Friday. Like his master who also died young, he left us at high noon on a Friday. His gentleness and warmth had already been a legend during his life. Now, as its reality slipped from us, it grew into a myth and we began to recognize and appreciate it, that which we had formerly so taken-for-granted, for the rare gift and the greatness which it was.We all got on chartered buses and descended on a sleepy Belgian village for his funeral. There was no irony in the location. The village was as warm and humble as the son it had produced.
People of all kinds, students and professors, farmers and housewives, university presidents and janitors, packed a little church. We came from all over: Belgium, Germany, Holland, England, Ireland, United States, Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Hong Kong, and other countries; an incredible assortment of persons, brought together, filled with a common emotion, intensely bonded for this once by one common fact: We all loved Karel. We said goodbye to a man and had a rare experience of church. We celebrated Christ’s word and his Eucharist in a simple manner. The simplicity was appropriate, considering the man we were burying. he homily, delivered by one of his colleagues, concluded with a quote from a homily which Karel had given to a group of sisters for whom he had celebrated the Eucharist daily. On this day we understood its meaning more clearly: “Some people are old or weak or in bad health; but it is quite possible that just these people mean much more in the great reality of life and in God’s eyes than do the so-called hardworkers.” The hardworkers got back on our chartered buses, in a hurry as always, to get back to our important work which, not inexplicably, did not seem so important anymore.