And then it hits you…
Last spring, on Benedictine College’s Discovery Day, (an day when the college presents dozens of collaborative projects between faculty and students, not for a grade but for pure love of learning), a group of students asked me why they don’t get to read what they want in their courses. Holstering my initial mental reply of “Because you read garbage,” I heard them out. They had some good ideas. As a fruit of that conversation, over the summer, with the encouragement and guidance of our tireless and wise English Department Chair, a seminar was put together in which a group of students and I go through a curriculum of films and novels and ask a very important question: “What is the worldview of the person who created this?”
What we have seen thus far has shown that one’s vision of God, mankind and the world will often form the skeleton of an author or director’s message, albeit clothed in flesh and finery. And since professors and students are both frail human beings, this morning I, too, was trying to finish the reading for this week’s seminar, peering over Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop as I paced the corridor of Fink Hall between morning classes.
If you haven’t read Cather’s masterpiece, you need to. It should be standard issue (together with the first 100 pages of the unabridged version of Les Miserables) for anyone ordained a bishop. It chronicles the first bishop of New Mexico, French priest Jean Latour (a thinly veiled fiction for real life Bishop Jean-Baptise Lamy.) One of the book’s most touching features is the priestly friendship between Bishop Latour and Fr. Joseph Vaillant, his boyhood chum, seminary classmate, missionary coworker and diocesan Vicar. Two friends united in one mission: spreading the faith and saving souls.
At one point in the narrative, Bishop Latour gets a letter from the Bishop of Leavenworth, Kansas. It tells him about the many people moving to Colorado to pan for gold, the social problems created by ruckus-happy miners, and the need for a priest to minister to them. The Kansas bishop then tells Latour that Denver falls under the New Mexico diocese (which at the time also stretched west past Arizona.) Bishop Latour knows what he must do… It breaks his heart to send his best friend there, but he knows Fr. Joseph is the only missionary up to the task. (He eventually becomes the first Bishop of Denver.)
As I read this in Fink Hall, which was built in the 1870’s, I reflected on how little I knew about the amazing adventure of the spread of Catholicism in the US. These missionaries were heroes of the faith for real. But on the walls around me were pictures of the construction of Fink Hall and Benedictine College’s earliest buildings, back when the students lived right alongside the monks, and even shared a dining room (the very room in which I had just given a Latin class.)
Then it hit me… Bishop Fink… Bishop Fink! He was the Bishop of Leavenworth. It was his letter that Bishop Latour (Bishop Lamy) received. He had probably seen the first stones placed in the building I was in right then, named for him. I suddenly felt part of a great legacy, and had one of those mind-blowing moments when you feel history coursing through you. This story was my story. This mission is our mission.
As we celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the millions of souls who came before us in the Church, those who won the ultimate victory and those who — though assured of it — still await that celebration, let us, especially in this Year of Faith, never lose sight of that greatness. We have a mission to fulfill, and though we struggle, we have the same God working in us as the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.
I walked from Fink Hall to the Abbey Church for all school mass. The church was full of a new generation of Catholics, to whom we must hand over the baton that has come down to us from heroic generations gone before. Ralph Vaughan Williams’ music sounded for the opening hymn, composed while Bishop Lamy was treading pathways through Indian villages in the Southwest.
O blest communion, family divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one within Your great design.