The first question, the final answer

The most popular column in the U.S. Catholic press got its start with little fanfare on the pages of The Catholic Post in Peoria on Oct. 31, 1971.

“Beginning this week is a new ‘Question Column’ featured on the Know Your Faith pages,” began the two sentence announcement with no headline on our front page. “Father John Dietzen will respond to questions from our readers weekly on pages eight and nine.”

The first question? “Does a Catholic who follows the old rule of Friday abstinence gain more merit than those who do not?”

Father Dietzen, then associate editor of The Catholic Post and an editorial writer who helped guide readers through the changes of the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council, cautioned against a “cash register” understanding of grace.

“Anyone who follows Jesus’ command to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him, whether by not eating meat on Friday or by other practices of self denial, ‘grows’ in friendship with God according to the love, and desire for union with Christ, that lie behind it,” he wrote.

Father Dietzen’s column finally got a name, “The Question Box,” a few months later.

And each week for the next four decades, Father Dietzen opened that mailbox — and later e-mail box — and helped thousands, then hundreds of thousands of readers grow in friendship and love for God and understanding of the Catholic Church.

It is a woeful understatement to say that we in the Diocese of Peoria and those who looked to him each week around the country will miss his warmth and wisdom. None of us know the hours he spent researching his answers, or the bravery it sometimes took to address questions that some in the church might answer differently.

But we are confident our beloved and respected friend now knows the answer to the final question for which we all hope to know the answer someday: “What will heaven be like?”

And yes, he often fielded that one, too.

“The essence of heaven is our presence with God,” Father Dietzen wrote in answering that question in the 1990s. “Is it possible, however, that God might even then reveal himself to us in ways similar to, if immeasurably beyond, the ways he reveals himself to us here on earth?”

We hope Father Dietzen’s own question has been answered, and will bring him joy and reward for eternity. — Thomas J. Dermody

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