Sally Quinn: A tribute too far? – UPDATE

Of all the tribute written by journalists about their friend, Tim Russert, a few have been standouts; Jon Meacham’s piece in Newsweek was onesuch.

In her column, “On Faith” Sally Quinn writes another excellent, heartfelt tribute about the fullness of the man, Tim Russert, and how his faith, joyfully confessed throughout his being, completed that fullness. Russert was, by all accounts, a man who was not defined by his faith; rather he – by the way he lived his life – helped define the faith to others.

That is a peculiar and, I think, rare grace; too many of us Catholics – myself included – manage to identify as passionately Catholic (as in, “she’s a Catholic, and she’s alright when she’s not being a pain in the ass about it”) while rather too few of us can inspire folks to say, as Russert apparently did, “he was a Catholic, and what I saw in him made me more appreciative of Catholicsm.”

Writes Quinn:

…I’ve been trying to analyze it and what I think is this: Tim was a truly good person. He was authentic. He was kind and generous and thoughtful and caring. He was optimistic and funny. He was deeply religious. He was the most enthusiastic person I have ever known.

The word “enthusiastic” comes from the Greek words “en theos”, meaning “in God.”
Tim talked bout Kennedy’s inauguration speech….what struck Tim was when Kennedy said: “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” It “was so consistent with what I had been taught: that there is a higher meaning, a deeper purpose to life than just getting a job and making money; that there is something much more to our core as a person and a son or daughter of God.”

All of Russert’s colleagues have mentioned his faith, and how it touched them, how quick he was to offer prayers (and to mean it) how comforted even the atheists felt when he said he was praying for them. Some have criticized the media for seeming – in their grief – to confer sainthood upon Russert. I am thinking that for the folks in his industry, who don’t know many believers and whose coverage of church and preacher scandals and scams has made them cynical about faith, Russert was, in fact, the closest thing they have ever come to meeting and knowing a “real” saint, for he was certainly a “saint” in the biblical sense (we’ll have to wait on the canonical.)

As Mother Angelica liked to say, before she lost her power of speech, “you might be the only Christ your neighbor ever sees.” I think Tim Russert had become for Quinn, and for many of his colleagues, the very face of Christ – the only Christ they had ever seen. And now all they knew of Christ has been taken from them.

As we know from scripture, losing access to Christ is no small thing.

I suspect that it was Quinn’s missing both Russert and his means of displaying Christ to her that inspired her – a non-Catholic – to partake of Holy Communion at his funeral.

Which, strictly speaking, no, she ought not to have done.

She mentions it only in passing in her column:

…at Tim’s funeral mass…communion was offered. I had only taken communion once in my life, at an evangelical church. It was soon after I had started “On Faith” and I wanted to see what it was like. Oddly I had a slightly nauseated sensation after I took it, knowing that in some way it represented the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Last Wednesday I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I’m so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him. And it was worth it just to imagine how he would have loved it.

Hoo, boy. For someone who got so much of it right earlier in her column, she got an awful lot wrong in that paragraph, and Bill Donoghue of the Catholic League was quick to let her know it:

Just reading what Sally Quinn said is enough to give any Christian, especially Catholics, more than a ‘slightly nauseating sensation.’ In her privileged world, life is all about experiences and feelings. Moreover, Quinn’s statement not only reeks of narcissism, it shows a profound disrespect for Catholics and the beliefs they hold dear. If she really wanted to get close to Tim Russert, she should have found a way to do so without trampling on Catholic sensibilities.

Well…but perhaps there might have been a better way to teach her how to do that.

The New Republic called Quinn to get her reaction to Donoghue, and hers was not a conciliatory response:

“I’m baffled by the reaction, and completely blindsided,” Quinn said. “I’m very pluralistic about religion, and I feel that everyone should respect everyone else’s.” […]

I was really close to [Russert], and I was grieving. And I thought me taking the Eucharist would be a thing that he would really enjoy. And all these things are what religion should be about. … There’s no sign out there that says you’re not allowed to take Communion. [The Catholic Church is] like, “Everyone is welcome. This is God’s house.” God doesn’t turn people away, supposedly.

I think it’s really an important issue. The Pope doesn’t want people who are pro-choice to take it. John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd, even the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, and others were not allowed. … Frankly, none of that was going through my mind. I was feeling absolutely destroyed. It felt right to do it as a tribute to him. I wasn’t thinking politically at all.

I’ve become a champion of pluralism and a spirit of inclusiveness. Any religious people who purport to be Christians, or whatever faith you might be, would do everything they could to welcome others–in the case of Catholics, to welcome others the way Christ would welcome others. This is a perfect example of WWJD. Would Jesus have said, “No you don’t, Sally Quinn. You’re not going to get away with this one!”

There are many, many inaccuracies (and yes, a lot of “I’s” and “me’s”) in that quote – none of the public and political Catholics she mentioned were denied communion, even at the recent papal masses (a fact that troubles many Catholics) – and it must be said that Quinn preens a bit too pink as owning the virtues of “inclusiveness,” “pluralism” “tolerance,” “welcome” etc, while managing to display how empty those words can be when they’re not backed up by respect, understanding and yes, “tolerance,” a word I have grown to loathe.

“Tolerance,” must be a two-way street or it is nothing.

Quinn would likely never think to walk into a mosque with high heels and an uncovered head, or go into those parts of a Hindu temple reserved only for the devout, but she sees no problem with availing herself of the Holy Eucharist in a Catholic Church without considering that, for Catholics receiving the Eucharist is a sacrament, just like Baptism.

Non-Catholics are very welcome to attend Mass, and they are even welcome to participate in the Communion Rite, up to a point, and it is a well-defined and simple point that even the “idiot George Bush” manages to comprehend, as we’ve noted here.

We Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and as such it is to be received reverently and faithfully, by Catholics and those Orthodox Christians who are in communion with Rome, and not out of curiosity or as part of a spiritual “field trip”. One must – at the very least – believe that Christ is there, Present in the Eucharist.

Tim Russert was a devout Catholic
; it is up for debate whether he would have, as Quinn seems to think, “loved” her taking Communion. He might have. Or he might have shrugged and thought, “well, let Jesus sort that out, since he’s there, now, inside her,” or he may have wished that she had not done so.

But, it’s a curious thing. See what Quinn has written here:

…I was determined to take it for Tim, transubstantiation notwithstanding. I’m so glad I did. It made me feel closer to him.

Sally Quinn was attempting to commune with Tim Russert – a man who, while on Earth, may have been to her “the only Christ” she had ever seen.

Her instinct, then, could be construed as “seeking Christ the only way she has known him, through the sacrament of Communion.”

She shouldn’t have done it. It would be lovely if non-Catholics would take the time, as President and Mrs. Bush did, to learn what we believe and to respect our ways as they might respect a million other multi-culti rituals. But on the other hand, Quinn may have brought a real innocence to her act, as well as some vincible ignorance. Christ is bigger than any slight that can be made against him, and the Holy Spirit has a way of using the most surprising people or circumstances for designs we cannot understand.

I like what Fr. James Martin writes here:

Ms. Quinn is quite correct in asking, “What would Jesus do?” It is an important question for all churches to ask themselves.

On the other hand […] …[Quinn’s] words “transubstantiation notwithstanding” are difficult to hear. If one knows enough about Catholicism to mention “transubstantiation” then one should also know that the word “notwithstanding” makes little sense in that context.

At the same time, the Catholic League need not attack Ms. Quinn ad hominem. Ms. Quinn, whatever her personal beliefs, seems to have approached the altar rail out of love for her Catholic friend, not hatred for the Catholic church. …

In short, may I offer some friendly advice to both parties?

To Ms. Quinn: Giving tribute to a friend may also mean respecting his religious traditions.

To the Catholic League: Giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good way to show respect, too.

Fr. Martin’s whole piece is worth reading, and I hope you will. And I hope Mr. Donoghue will consider that Ms. Quinn has had an encounter with Christ, fully Present, and that while neither her head nor her heart seemed to have been appropriately engaged to recognize him in that form, Christ may wish to work that encounter.

We Catholics certainly have a responsibility to Christ to insure that his Eucharistic Presence is correctly understood and reverenced, but when someone – Catholic or non-Catholic – gets it wrong, we have another responsibility: to correct the error in a way that is both firm but loving, so as not to get in the way of Christ and whatever he might have begun within that person.

Ms. Quinn might have looked back on her mistaken reception of the Eucharist and recalled the sense of peace she found there, and it might have spurred her on, perhaps, to look more deeply at what the Eucharist is. It might have brought future, more devout, encounters. Now, her memory of that moment will always be overshadowed by the finger-wagging, name-calling scolding she’s received.

At what point, in protecting and shielding Christ from insult, do we actually get in his way, and prevent him from doing what he wants? We can know the rules and rubrics back and forth, but we cannot know the mind of God, and sometimes we perhaps need to, in all humility, remember Mother Angelica’s words about being “the only Christ your neighbor ever sees” and simply pray “thy will be done.”

A lively discussion is going on about this over at Inside Catholic.

UPDATED: More bloggers writing on “Quinn-gate” over the weekend – see links below. Also either I am a very bad writer, or some folks are making a willful mental leap, for fun, and deciding that I have written here that Tim Russert is Jesus, which is not what I said. I said that for SOME of his colleagues, he is the only Jesus they’ve ever seen, as per Mother Angelica’s teaser. Really, I think it explains itself.

Rod Dreher
Get religion
Evan Sayet
Mark Shea on closed communion

Deacon Greg: When Jesus met Sally

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Luke Russert, A Father’s Best Legacy

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