Sunday, November 23, 2008
A Year of Great Loss
1963. 45 years ago. A year when the world and the Church lost two of their finest.
Within my final four years in Catholic seminary, John XXIII was elected Pope (October, 1958); Fr. John Byrne, C.PP.S. was elected our Society's Provincial (March, 1959); and John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States (November, 1960), and all three were still around, two of them at least for awhile, in 1963. Only John Byrne survived that year, until his death 31 years later.
When John XXIII was elected, as was the common perception soon after, he "threw open the windows and doors of the Church". Of the six Popes I've lived to see, John has always been my absolute favorite, John Paul I a close second, even though he survived only 33 days. John XXIII was not at all the kind of Pontiff I'd expected, nor, apparently, did most of the rest of the world. He was unconventional, to say the least. He was short and fat. He was extremely outgoing. And he was "old" (77), considering the burden of responsibility which he took on. But he communicated to the people of the world as if he were speaking personally to each one. For him there simply were no boundaries. A poem I ran across many years ago by Dominican Brother Denis Wiseman says it all for me:
There was a man
sent from God
whose name was John,
he was fat
We found that very intriguing,
not so much the being fat
but the being kind.
Pope John took a real liking to our Precious Blood Community. We were all blown away in January, 1963, when, on three hours' notice, the Vatican informed the Moderator General in Rome that the Pope would be arriving for a visit at St. Gaspar's tomb at the Church of Santa Maria in Trivio, just adjacent to the Trevi Fountain, which I had the privilege of visiting in 1998. St. Gaspar (1786-1837), a Roman diocesan priest, had founded the Society of the Precious Blood after years of opposition from Vatican officials and clergy colleagues, and even imprisonment under Napoleonic rule. After his death in December, 1837, his body was eventually interred at Santa Maria in Trivio.
When Pope John arrived at Santa Maria the morning of January 4, 1963, shortly after he had inaugurated the first session of Vatican Council II, he said to Community members and others gathered there: "This morning I arose with the thought of St. Gaspar del Bufalo on my mind...Here is a Roman who walked the ordinary paths of life, who, I might say, followed his inspirations. He had his own character, his own traits and temperament, [he was, it's generally agreed, extremely high-strung] and, perhaps, sometimes it had to be moderated and subdued. But the fact remains: he was truly an apostolic soul, a man with a big heart...And this morning, thinking of St. Gaspar, I immediately said that we are at the beginning of the Year of the Council...I was just finishing a letter to all the bishops of the world...I asked them to seek all the help they can muster, from earth and from heaven...So, the first Saint who comes to mind is St. Gaspar del Bufalo. Fine! He will be the first of all the Saints of Rome whom I intend to awaken from their tombs, so that during this year especially their intercession in heaven will be outstanding..." He went on to say that he had great affection for Gaspar "...because he was a priest of Rome and canon of St. Mark's, my parish church when I was living in Rome [1922-1925]..." To this day I wonder if we who were in the Community at that time ever realized how very special that loving gesture of Pope John's was to us.
When Fr. John Byrne was elected Provincial of the Society of the Precious Blood in 1959, the Community's seminarians, priests and brothers were ready for someone to lead us into the "new Church" which John XXIII was already busily trying to build. All the C.PP.S. seminarians, priests and brothers were energized by a leader whom one could only think of as "dashing". [An aside: "C.PP.S." is an abbreviation for the Latin name of the Community: "Congregatio Pretiossimi Sanguinis", or "Congregation of the Most Precious Blood". While the letters still remain today, a few years ago the Community renamed itself "Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood", more reflective of their work and mission. The Society, founded by St. Gaspar del Bufalo, mentioned above, is German, rural, and agricultural in its background and beginnings, having been brought to western Ohio, home at that time to many German immigrants, by Fr. Francis de Sales Brunner. Back in our seminary days, where much of the manual labor which we did was on the seminary farm, some of the local wags referred to the meaning of "C.PP.S." as "Corn, Peas, Potatoes, and Sauerkraut"!]
Fr. Byrne was extremely articulate and was clearly a mover and shaker. He looked as though he could have walked directly onto a Hollywood set: tall, trim, handsome graying hair, an engaging (Irish) smile, an eye just slightly off center, with a definite CEO aura about him. We found him extremely approachable, open to ideas, and encouraging. He ended up serving as Provincial for two terms over 11 years at probably the most tumultuous time in the Church's and Community's history since the Reformation. Under his leadership a tremendous amount was accomplished. As seminarians we saw a new multiplex go up on the seminary grounds: infirmary/retirement center; cafeteria; and Sisters' residence. Expansion took place in many of our parishes throughout the country, as well as in our missions in Chile and, after 1962, in Peru. During this time our seminary, St. Charles, celebrated its centennial. And in 1965, Fr. Byrne spearheaded the move which developed into the division of the Community in the U.S. into three separate Provinces. Unfortunately, the number of priests and brothers has dwindled so sharply that the California Province chose to dissolve a few years ago, sending their members to either the Kansas City Province or the Cincinnati Province.
In November, 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated and succeeded the then Vice-President of the U.S., Richard M. Nixon. The nation rejoiced and the era his administration ushered in was then often referred to as "Camelot". Who could forget his stirring inaugural speech? And his poignant address to the people of Berlin? The many heart-warming photos of Carolyn on her pony, and of she and John-John rushing to their Dad upon his return from trips? The elegance, graciousness and poise of Jackie Kennedy? I remember thinking what a curious coincidence it was that we now had three men named "John" -- all of them standing as icons of hope, vision, a new beginning. Life was, indeed, good...for awhile.
I was on a seven-day retreat before being ordained a subdeacon when we received the news of the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963. In his last hours, as he gave all who were near him his blessing, Pope John said: "Io soffro dolore, ma con amore...": "I suffer pain, but I do so with love." For all of us, especially in the Community, it was like losing a best friend. The Church lost a key leader and spiritual model. And it is tragic to see so many of the positive advances Pope John accomplished through Vatican II being systematically retracted today.
On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, only six months before I was ordained a priest, I was sitting at my desk studying when an announcement came over the PA system that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, TX. With liberal dispensation from the usual schedule because of this history-making event, we spent most of the next four days glued to the TV in the Rec Room, soaking up the outpouring of national grief. There were so many emotional moments on the TV screen which drove home the universal loss felt all around the world, not least the now immortalized image of little John-John giving a final salute to his father. The most moving moment of Kennedy's funeral for me was during the procession, as soldiers led the riderless horse with shiny black boots turned backwards in the stirrups. I doubt that I'll every forget the sound and cadence of the drums in the background as that scene played out before us. It moved me to write a poem which I later sent to Jacqueline Kennedy, entitled November 25, 1963 (for Jackie):
The sun is low'ring at Arlington;
Last light-poured rays
Reach finger-like through tall trees,
Placing tender hands
In condescending love
On ashen, bowed heads
Up on the knoll,
Where night already stands sentry,
The little grave-flame
(All too dim aside his light)
Gives flickering salute.
The dirging's done,
And drums no longer roll...
Today we buried John.
"Camelot", if it ever really existed, was gone forever. A look back at what has transpired over these past 45 years, for all the truly positive and wonderful things about which the nation has cause to rejoice, is still not very comforting. In my humble opinion, the past eight years, especially, of a corrupt, inept and the worst administration in history has left us with a shredded Constitution, unimaginable high-level lawlessness, mean-spirited party animosity (on both sides), with all its ripple effects among the populace, a pattern of malaise and fear among our people, and an economic situation which could lead us into another Depression. Not to mention immense global human suffering and death, and the deaths and maiming, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, of well over 20,000 brave young men and women in uniform. Yet, there are small hints everywhere that the good and true American spirit somehow survives, if often hidden and outshouted. Dare we hope that with the incoming administration we might recapture some of the humanity, decency, "the being kind" that many of us were feeling in 1963?