Internationally esteemed anthropologist and missionary honored in memoriam
Father Louis Luzbetak, 1918-2005
Father Louis Luzbetak, 86, died of heart failure on March 22, 2005, at Divine Word Residence in Techny, Ill. Known simply as Father Louie among Divine Word Missionaries and friends, he was an internationally known scholar in the field of missiological anthropology, the study of how faith and culture relate to anthropology and can be applied to missionary work.
He was as well known among Protestant missiologists as he was among Catholic scholars in the field. Father Luzbetak’s first book, "The Church and Cultures: An Applied Anthropology for the Religious Worker," published in 1963, was widely translated and recognized as a classic handbook in mission training by Christian churches involved in missions throughout the world.
Darrell Whiteman, the evangelical Christian who contributed Father Luzbetak’s biography in William B. Eerdmans’ prestigious "Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions," wrote: "While uncompromising in matters of faith, he was opposed to all forms of manipulation or pressure in mission action, and his foremost concern was what is known today as inculturation and contextualization."
Father Luzbetak himself wrote in a 1992 article in International Bulletin of Missionary Research, "The evangelizer must deal with culture not as a heap of unrelated odds and ends but as a living organic system."
Born in Joliet, Ill., to parents who emigrated from Slovakia, Father Luzbetak attended SS. Cyril & Methodius School. He entered the Society of the Divine Word at St. Mary’s Seminary in Techny in 1932 and was ordained a priest there in 1945. Following studies in theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, he earned a doctorate in cultural anthropology from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.
From 1952 to 1956, he did anthropological fieldwork in the Wahgi Valley of the New Guinea Highlands. Throughout his years in New Guinea, Father Luzbetak actively promoted literacy among the population, devising phonemic alphabets for unwritten languages; making major contributions toward the standardization of Pidgin English; and serving on the government’s Commission on Languages.
Returning to the United States, he taught at Divine Word Seminary at Techny and lectured widely at various Christian universities and mission training centers.
In 1965, Father Luzbetak became the founding executive director at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a center for gathering statistical demographic data for the Catholic Church. CARA is located at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he served until 1973 when he became president of Divine Word College, Epworth, Iowa.
In 1979, he became editor of the journal Anthropos: International Review of Ethnology and Linguistics and acting director of the Anthropos Institut, Sankt Augustin, Germany.
From 1982 to 1987, Father Luzbetak worked on the new, post-Vatican II version of his handbook, The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology, published by Orbis Books in 1988.
Following the re-publication of his classic book, Father Luzbetak served from 1987 to 1989 as a staff member of the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican.
Among his many academic honors, fellowships and distinctions are the Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Chair of Mission and Culture, established at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, (presently held by Stephen Bevans, SVD), and the Father Louis Luzbetak, SVD, Award for Excellence in Church Research established by CARA at Georgetown University.
Father Luzbetak was a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and served as a member of research committees of various ecumenical organizations, including the National Council of Churches and various professional organizations. He also served as president of the Catholic Anthropological Association and president of the American Society of Missiology. In 1989, he began working from his office in Techny, continuing to make scholarly contributions to mission science publications until recent months.
At the news of his death, tributes poured in for Father Luzbetak. Here are some of them:
Father Aylward Shorter, a British missiologist and author of books on inculturation and Africa, wrote:
"Thanks for telling me the sad news about Father Luzbetak. Please accept my condolences and pass them on to his confreres. He was a 'father' of practical missiology and of the theology of cultures. I shall always be grateful that I was given the privilege of paying tribute to him in his presence at the 4th Luzbetak Lecture in Chicago in 2003. May God reward this good and faithful servant."
Paul Hiebert, Trinity Evangelical University School of Theology professor and much-published missionary anthropologist with an international reputation, observed:
"I always found Louis to be warm, appreciative and interested. The world never has too many. At a papal audience in 1988, Pope John Paul II received a copy of 'The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology' from its author, Father Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD. Human beings like Louie are rare."
Ken Gill, a publisher of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and associate director of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Ill., commented:
"I will miss Louis. I used his famous text, 'The Church and Cultures,' in graduate school and was elated to meet him in the late 1980s in Pittsburgh. I was attending the ASM (American Society of Missiology) conference and waiting in line for a meeting when this very nice man started a conversation with me. He was very interested in who I was and what I was doing and made sure I felt welcomed at the meeting. And then he said, ‘Oh—by the way—I am Louis Luzbetak.’ I looked forward to seeing him every year at the annual meeting. He was always humble and gracious and happy to see me."
Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Study Center in New Haven, Conn., and author of "Missions and Money," stated:
"What a wonderful spirit has departed for a better place! But he will be missed!"
Angelyn Dries, OSF, professor of theology at St. Louis University and author of "The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History," wrote:
"What a wonderful man! I am so happy I got to know him in his later years. When I finally got to the SVD archives, I stayed with the Techny community. He was so dear to me. I always made a point of speaking with him at the ASM meetings and he would get a little grin on his face when I inquired about his health. I’ll certainly remember him in prayer and with gratitude."
Bryan T. Froehle, director of the St. Catherine of Siena Center and associate professor of sociology at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., wrote:
"I first met Father Luzbetak in 1998 when I became executive director of CARA. I sought his wisdom as I took this commitment on—I was only 33 at the time—and he graciously took me under his wing, something for which I will be forever grateful. The following year CARA celebrated its 35th anniversary, and he was there. We had instituted an annual dinner each October, and it was a pleasure to host him and have him with us. I was at CARA from 1995 to 2003, roughly paralleling his length of service some 30 years previous. One of the books that I coauthored with a CARA colleague, entitled 'Global Catholicism,' published by Orbis in 2003, is dedicated to him.
"Father Louie greeted and spoke with SVDs and lay employees daily as he came and went from his office in the Province Center in Techny. He did not advertise his accomplishments. Even among SVDs, few fully understood his stature as a scholar and groundbreaking author, but everyone agreed that Father Luzbetak will be missed for his unfailing graciousness, gentle humor and genuine courtesy toward all."
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