Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Beyond Seeing Red or Feeling Blue

Beginning at breakfast the day after the U.S. election, the question of the day was, “So, Margaret, are you happy with your president?” They knew I had voted, but most didn’t my choices. In the weeks leading up to the first Tuesday in November, I had largely avoided stating my personal preferences and stuck to explaining the issues as I saw them. I was not about to change my modus operandi. So beginning at breakfast, my response throughout the day was, “I wouldn’t have been happy with either one.”

"Official" photo of the Charism Course group
That often put a cork in further conversation. But the Italians and Latinos I live and study with made no secret of their choice: Barack Obama. To those for whom socialized health care is a way of life, he’s a champion of the poor. Others, drawing on their recent embarrassing experience with a millionaire in their own government, harbor a deep distrust of “The Mormon.” (A couple of older sisters actually wondered aloud how many wives he has stashed away.) In any case, if you’ll allow me to generalize, they probably reflect, to some extent, the overall demographic of the U.S. voter. It was interesting and sometimes very entertaining to witness their passionate involvement. As one sister explained, “What affects the United States affects us all.”

A few days later, I was chatting with Sr. Germana, one of the Americans living and working here at the generalate. Not surprisingly, our conversation turned to our sisters’ lively interest in U.S. politics, which by the way, made for great TV here, too. I think it gave people a brief reprieve from the Roman circus of local politics. Several sisters from other countries were returning after a month-long course, and together with the Italians, they had expressed to us their admiration for the way Americans transfer power from one administration to another without bloodshed; for the gracious spirit in which candidates congratulate each other after a hard fight; and for the way almost all of us, the electorate, get on with our lives after either celebrating our victory or licking our wounds. Even after listening to harrowing stories from places like Pakistan or Indonesia, I can’t really imagine what it must be like to struggle for basic justice, much less proclaim the Gospel freely. Some of the issues that fire up our campaigns just don’t factor into theirs.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has often said in his blog that a growing number of voices in the U.S. are rising in protest over perceived “persecution” of the Catholic Church at home. Yet the real persecution, he writes, takes place in Pakistan, Nigeria, parts of India, and other countries at a rate of almost 100,000 deaths a year and the obliteration of Christian cultures thousands of years old, such as in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, it would be too facile, he says, to attribute that to Muslim or Hindu hostility.

Sr. Germana and I thought about this as we talked. Our founding fathers and mothers did something new in world history. It succeeds because, despite our differences, we’ve been willing to work through them. Checks and balances keep us accountable to each other, if not completely honest. Most people, citizens and others, are basically decent human beings who want the same things for themselves and their families. Those who have a long way to go on the road to decency get lots of “help” along the way.

It seemed to us that we know we’ve got a good thing in this “experiment in democracy,” and we don’t want to lose it, or get to the point of murder and mayhem. When we see ourselves selling out to the spirit of the age, or when some among us cry, “Persecution!” they’re not equating what has been called “America’s last acceptable prejudice”—U.S. anti-Catholicism—with the intolerance in other populations. Our standard for excellence in governing has never been how we measure up against the norm in other countries. With greater or lesser success, they work with their own cultural dynamics. We set our standard over 200 years ago, and that’s what we compare ourselves with. The Deist principles on which we were established as a nation makes me slow to call our roots Christian, but our founders did give us ground in which Christianity could survive and even flourish.

Without idealizing it, that ground held a greater respect for objective truth and goodness than we often find in social discourse now. About two weeks before the election, I noticed that one of my blog articles had moved near the top of the popularity list. In March I had written about the way 55-year-old Sr. Annette Margaret Boccabello prepared for her death and I had made a case against the doctor-prescribed referendum that would appear on the Massachusetts ballot. So, opportunist that I am, seeing the interest in the story before the election, I directed my Facebook friends to it, plus to two others on the same topic.

Then I decided to walk into the lion’s den. I posted the article on the Facebook page of Death With Dignity, the proponents of the referendum. The response I received was a marvelous example in civility, even though the position was predictably contrary to what I represented. What bothered me most was this: “Death is an intensely personal experience, and what worked well for Sr. Annette, doesn’t necessarily work for other people dying of terminal illnesses. You’re certainly entitled to your own opinion….” In other words, what decides right or wrong is majority rule, even though I’m kindly allowed my opinion—as long as I don’t “impose it” on others. So tomorrow, when the vote moves beyond suicide to euthanasia, who gets to decide the morality? Is legality the only common denominator among us? “Euthanasia is, in fact, not allowed under these laws, and injections are *never* involved”—yet.

“Death with dignity” was defeated at the polls, but proponents are already revving up for its return. We have our work cut out for us, beginning with prayer.

Pauline Family at Mass of Bl. Timothy Giaccardo, SSP
 Those of us who are taking the charism course here in Rome are sometimes amused by the heated dialectics among our congregations over apostolic priorities or points in Pauline history. These people are really invested in this! Yet the bonds of affection are stronger than the disagreements. I know from experience that when one of our congregations suffers, everyone feels it and rushes to the aid of the other, especially in prayer.

In post-election America, my hope is that each of us can find it within ourselves to do the same. Regardless of how a neighbor, co-worker, or relative voted, can we switch from seeing red or feeling blue to honoring them, first by praying for those we have disagreed with and asking them to pray for us, even about something totally unrelated? Prayer takes us beyond labeling others or demonizing them, to recognizing them as images of God and, yes, “fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:19). We can work on the rest afterwards.

Sr. Jerome helps Sr. Margaret Kerry in Sandy relief.
That kind of prayer united us with you in these past two weeks. Those of you who live in the Caribbean, New Jersey, New York, and especially in Staten Island, need to know that you are being prayed for by some extraordinarily holy women, as you rebuild after Sandy. (The last time I checked, God still understood Italian.) I kept them updated during the storm(s), and at Evening Prayer in particular, they enveloped you in love and grace.

On your side of the Pond, Sr. Margaret Kerry, a Staten Island Daughter of St. Paul, has spearheaded a relief project for Staten Islanders, consisting of essentials for both body and soul, including food, blankets, and inspirational reading. If you would like to contribute to that, you can contact her at, or at 718-447-5071.
Photo credits: Daniela Son Heesoon, FSP, Society of St. Paul--Rome, Margaret Kerry, FSP