During my three years of special Biblical study in Rome after two wonderful years of parish ministry at St. Mary in Elm Grove, I had the opportunity to experience the ruins of ancient Roman antiquity as well as those left over from the fascist Mussolini years prior to and during World War II.
In terms of ancient Rome, there remained the spectacular Coliseum where early Christians were allegedly put to death for their faith, as well as the neighboring Forum dotted with the ruins of the magnificent public buildings which once witnessed the greatest political power in the world.
Seeing those marble remnants, one couldn’t help but be drawn into a serious study of their history. The ancient Romans had slowly slid from government as a republic into a dictatorship, which kept them happily fed with bread and busy with circuses. A few extraordinarily wealthy families gradually controlled everything. Those ruins of history still retain their power to teach.
Fast forward some 2,000 years to find those same people once again lulled into another dictatorship, this one by Benito Mussolini who promised renewed national greatness amid the desperate poverty of the Depression during the 1930s and blustered about unnamed enemies. Their borders were strengthened and the unwanted were persecuted.
Up north in Germany during the same years, Adolph Hitler promised fresh power and prosperity to a nation enduring the grinding poverty ruthlessly imposed by the victors of the First World War amid that same period of worldwide economic Depression.
Secret activities against undesirables were hidden from public knowledge; social scapegoats were targeted with violence; concentration camps were quietly built for the purposes of Jewish extermination. In retrospect, the images of huge crowds of people, pastors and bishops sadly included, giving enthusiastic Zig Heil salutes to Hitler’s madness remain chilling.
I recently read Lynne Olson’s, “Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-41.” While Britain was subjected to devastating nightly Nazi bombings and truly tottered on the edge of total collapse, Churchill begged for American help. The great aviator hero Charles Lindbergh argued vigorously for isolationism and President Roosevelt sought ways to galvanize a nation into action, albeit at the terrible cost of another war.
Even after several months since reading Olson’s meticulous chronicle, I still remain haunted by the specter of what-might-have-been had the United States remained tightly closed to the rest of the world’s desperate needs … and how responding magnanimously (at least on most fronts) during that war and even in rebuilding vanquished enemies afterward propelled our nation into world leadership.
It seems to me that terrible things can happen, indeed with disastrous consequences, anytime a nation for whatever reason prefers to completely ignore desperate human need … and listens to the demagogues who would cater to closed-minded selfishness. They are the real enemies.
National greatness does not come from mere material prosperity, but from retaining the genius of the American ideal, which has readily welcomed the talents and gifts of others, the desperately poor included, ideally without religious tests … and generously opened our hearts to the dreams of people beyond our borders.
Parishes who resist newcomers of different ethnic origins are dying communities, no matter what the bank balances may indicate. Nations in similar situations face the same inevitable destiny and decay.
In every age, God works through the forces of human history, repeatedly offering partnership to human beings in the re-creation of a better world.
The Scriptures remind us of God’s special care for the poor and needy, and these days Pope Francis personally embodies that value in a powerfully unique fashion.
Our country is on the edge of yet another major political election. In particular, the Gospel of Luke (which we will hear throughout this year and which was written for the wealthy of that age) once again warns us against using material greatness and prosperity for merely selfish purposes.
Once again, my deepest thanks to so many thoughtful folks who sent Christmas greetings, lovely cards and good wishes for the New Year.