On the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, Americans will be asked to cast a vote for president.
And the choices are abysmal.
For those who have been paying attention, we have witnessed an unprecedented display of deception, corruption, incompetence, ignorance, childishness, dogmatism and loutishness. While rivalries for high American office can often bring out the worst in people, this year’s contest has descended into the blackest gutter…and stayed there. Day after day, we are barraged with stories of one candidate brazenly bragging about groping unsuspecting women and insulting everyone imaginable while the other candidate conceals thousands of vulnerable (including many classified) state documents on a personal server, lies about it and simultaneously operates as Secretary of State while international entities pour money into her husband’s private foundation. Conversation after conversation reveal despair and bewilderment in otherwise conscientious and civic-minded citizens. “How did it come to this?”, they ask. “Is there a lesser of two evils?”
But as the days roll forward and the first Tuesday after the first Monday fast approaches, we see a paucity of answers and increasing signs of despondency. Few presidential signs populate yards. Debates are embarrassingly hard to watch. And the constant chatter of political analysts blend into a depressing drone that will not change the inevitable.
America is about to be led by an appalling president.
It is unbecoming that a nation once led by Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt would be reduced to governance by a Clinton or a Trump. It is inconceivable that a country which produced a Benjamin Franklin, a Susan B. Anthony and a Martin Luther King, Jr. is about to be led by a Trump or a Clinton.
So what are we to do? In a country at risk of being governed by a lout or an ideologue, how do we, as Catholics, move forward? How do we remain joyful, hopeful and faithful considering what lies ahead?
First, do not despair.
Yes, of course, bad leadership – unethical, immoral leadership – can be gravely destructive and set societies and civilizations on the wrong course. But God is still present and supreme. I am reminded of an anecdote told by the late Francis Cardinal George upon surveying the scene at St. Peter’s Basilica as Joseph Ratzinger was named Pope Benedict XVI. As the new pope stood on the loggia and blessed the hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics, Cardinal George, standing nearby, looked thoughtfully into the distance. When asked later what he was thinking in that moment, he answered,
“I was gazing over toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman Emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.'”
While for a time – and a consequential time, at that – our leadership may be base, ideological and unscrupulous, God is still here. Enduring, transcendent and faithful.
Do not despair.
Second, do not withdraw.
We are called to engage the culture, not to abandon it. We are called to be in the world, not to be of it. Believe me, I get the notion of The Benedict Option, the idea (named after St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Christian monasticism) that Christians should craft enclaves where they can more richly practice and propagate the Faith while being aloof to the greater world around them. Trust me, I am deeply drawn to the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he said,
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members…But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.”
But while Christ wants us to find new hope and sustenance within our faith community, he also calls us to evangelize. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Luke (11:33) “No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it [under a bushel basket], but on a lampstand so that those who enter might see the light.” And the last recorded encounter Christ has with the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew (28:16-20) had this to say,
“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.’”
Like the disciples, we worship, but we doubt. But God reassures us. God is all-powerful. We are called to engage, not withdraw. And we are to know that Christ is with us always and without fail.
Do not withdraw.
Finally, do not give up.
Contrary to the despair or cynicism, the hopelessness or resignation that can come out of our current presidential crisis, we are not called to a tepid, cowering survival. No. We are called to greatness. Though our culture has devolved to ever greater selfishness and decadence and our political nominees have followed suit, as Catholics, we are charged to see and realize the better way.
In the blackest of days in June, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew the Nazi fury which had just consumed the colossus of France was about to be turned on the British Island. And in spite of the overwhelming odds and hateful destruction that was shortly to come, Churchill called upon his fellow countrymen to gird their loins,
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
Six hundred and one years ago (this week!) on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt, the odds weighed heavily on English King Henry V and his battle-weary men. The French were well-trained, well-rested and well-equipped. They were cocky and determined. But before going into battle, Henry V would inspire his men. William Shakespeare characterized his words in this immortal speech,
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Now clearly, we are not finding ourselves under ruthless bombardment by Nazi bombers, nor are we marching into a slaughterhouse of hand-to-hand combat on some far-flung French field. But the call to be steadfast, tenacious and courageous in the face of a culture increasingly hostile to a Catholic worldview applies just the same. The call is acute and necessary.
Now, more than ever, we need to stand for what is right. We must speak wisely, write boldly and live nobly. There are future generations, among them our children and grandchildren, who must understand that traditions matter, that culture is indispensable, and that Truths, if they are true at all, are worth fighting for. And to stand for what Christ has modeled and taught, for what the saints have written and died for, is to stand with love and hope, with faith and charity. But it is to stand resolute. After all, if not us, then who? If not now, when?
Do not give up.
In the middle of the twentieth century, Whittaker Chambers had emerged from the dark depths of Communism and found his way to the light of faith. Enlivened by his hope in God, he still worried about the crush of a culture that denied God’s existence and leveled unrelenting attacks against the dignity of man. What could be done about this culture recklessly descending to ever deeper depths of selfishness, cynicism and nihilism? When faced with such an intractable problem, what, as I asked at the beginning of this essay, are we to do?
It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots [bundle of sticks], and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.
As we move beyond this election, regardless of its inevitably unsettling outcome, we are called to preserve Truth in our hearts, in our families, in speech and writing, and in our daily lives. And we may hope that by avoiding despair, faithfully engaging the world and not giving up, we will honorably serve our children and grandchildren by becoming “those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”
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