Friday, October 11, 2002

The Prayers of the Poor Win Salvation for the Rich

Since the sixties, a lot of accusations have been hurled at the WW2 generation. I suspect that most were merely anti-capitalist propaganda. Tell a lie often enough and it begins to sound true. In my mind, the character -ization of the WW2 generation as materialistic is inaccurate. Or at least it is when you apply it to Catholics of that era. (Pre-conciliar American Catholicism was very insular so I can't really address the charge in terms of the larger population). The accusation certainly fails to describe the adults of my childhood. I think TV had a lot to do with the subsequent materialism of our culture, but that's just a suspicion. Anyway in the hope of making a more effective argument, I'll try to follow Caroline's advice by presenting an illustrative example:

At five, he asked his mother for a penny to buy a balloon. Embarrassed by her poverty in front of the neighbors, she gave him the money he would not otherwise have received. He had not expected her generosity and, in sudden realization of his faux pas, he didn't spend it. Later in the day, he returned the money to private. By the time he was eleven, he was frequently the only income producer for a family of five. Times were hard, work was scarce and the signs read "No Irish need apply". He graduated from high school when times were again tough and work was again scarce. He applied to the fire department and civil service. He worked odd jobs and, since the city colleges were free, he got a degree in one of the safe professions: accounting. Though he served honorably in WW2, he later lied to his children claiming that he had never seen action. Even second hand, the travesty of war was not meant for children.

After the war, he obtained a promising job with a good firm. He married and raised a family. With the birth of his first son, he moved out of the Bronx to the suburbs of Westchester County. In the early years, he often worked late and his job frequently took him away on business trips. His wife took care of the home. Over time, the couple came to own a nice house and nice things and they were respectful of their possessions. Their home was a place of beautiful welcoming where they frequently entertained business associates and clients They belonged to a country club. In those days, it was a social necessity for a business man who was obliged to entertain clients and associates. (So was a good game of golf.) They could have lived differently, If they had, however, the man would not have been eligible for the promotions that permitted him to meet his financial obligations. The husband enjoyed the pleasure of occasionally gifting his wife with a small extravagance. She enjoyed his delight and appreciated his gifts. When their children were grown, they became frequent travelers. It seems that the one gift that all their children could agree upon was the value of an exotic vacation spent in Portugal, Rome, or the Caribbean.

Both of these Catholics were members of the Rosary Society. The man was active in the Holy Name Society. Each night, the family would gather around their parent's bed, and pray the rosary on their knees. Masses were never missed or even rushed. Days of abstinence were always observed as were the seasons of sacrifice and the various vigils. Both adults served as Eucharistic Ministers until issues were raised about the legitimacy of the practice. Both then resigned. They continue to attend daily mass and observe a weekly fastday.

She raised their children, made their 'dress' clothes and did all of the minor repairs and odd jobs around the home, For the first year or two in their new home, she cooked meals on an antiquated coal-burning stove. No one in the family ever missed mealtimes and, even with a gaggle of children in the house, family life was always calm, orderly and companionable. The family prospered but... there was always one more mouth to feed or one more emergency obligation to meet.

The children all attended parochial school and the father, without financial assistance, put all of his children through college. At that time, college for daughters was still considered a luxury. Most women who attended college did so hoping to graduate with an MRS. Still, at his wife's insistence, the daughters all received the same educational opportunities as their brothers. The parents never took a separate vacation and most family vacations were spent in this country's various state parks.

Both adults attended to their own parents needs and there was harmony between the generations. The older generation, when made incompetent by age, lived with the couple's family. They were catered to and 'nursed' by the entire family. Truthfully most of the burden fell on the wife. The woman had a sense about her that recognized the nearness of death, so each of these old folks met death surrounded by their own sons and daughters.

In addition to their own brood, there were frequently two or three 'temporary' siblings residing in the home for long stretches of time. The various 'temps' visited through a parish sistering arrangement while their own mothers did a six- or eight- week stint in the out-of-state Lenox facility for drug rehabilitation. There was no financial remuneration for their visits and the children were always treated as family. These were children of the inner-city and a temporary stay in the suburbs seemed more of a vacation than a fostering, especially since contact with relatives was encouraged.

Both adults were active in the Church. The woman taught ccd classes. She initiated and ran programs for the elderly. When her own children were all of school age, she returned to school for a bachelor's degree in Religion. The family contributed generously to the Church and to a wide range of charities. When the famines in Africa made the headlines, the children celebrated Christmas by giving up their celebration and gifts in favor of an equivalent contribution to the Hunger Fund. This type of 'social awareness' was commonplace in the home.

Upon retirement, the couple moved to the country and became active in service to their new community. The husband volunteered his expertise to programs like SCORE and tax counseling for seniors. He served on the township board. He volunteered his financial services to the parish and assisted in its computerization.The man also served on a variety of parish advisory boards, The woman served in St Veronica's Guild and started a parish library. She initiated and participated in various adult education projects. Several times a week, she visited the parish sick, the hospitalized and the homebound. When a parish family hit a rough spot, the man always discovered home improvement projects that required the skilled services of the temporarily dis-enfranchised. Arrangements were made and the work was honorably contracted and discharged. Both Catholics were long-time activists in the fight against abortion.

Each has their own checkbook and a reading of their check registers would sound like a rollcall of Catholic relief agencies. They have sponsored several third world children and third world seminarians. They have supported the missions. They provide financial support a the new breed of Catholic colleges. When finally they became too old to safely maintain their country home, they moved to a small house in a small city.They donated their previous home and their land to the Church. It is now a retreat center for throw-away children. Today, although they may have some difficulty walking, they still get down on their knees to pray.

You are right, these people aren't saints. They are simply a Catholic man and a Catholic woman typical of their generation. Nothing about their lives surprised their neighbors or attracted any comment. In other words, their behavior was unremarkable to others of their generations. This couple never set out to be rich. They did, however, set out to meet their obligations to their family and that included financial obligations. The fact that they were successful beyond the next generation's measurement of acceptable limits is not a discredit to them. Because they were well-to-do, their financial contributions to charity were much greater than if they had never possessed the money that they gave away. Because they were Catholic, their charity was discreet and often anonymous.

I only know the burden of responsibility for one dependent. I can not begin to fathom the weight of fourteen people dependent on my ability to provide for them spiritually, morally and financially. I am not wealthy and so...I can not tend to my parent's most basic needs in their infirmity. Instead, I must work a day-job to put food on the table and a roof over our heads. I can not take troubled children into my home and care for them as my own. There would be no one at home to mend them. In my lifetime, I will not donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to relieve the starved and suffering. There are times I have trouble paying the rent. Who do you imagine that the desperate of the world will miss more? This couple or myself?

This couple was not atypical, I have at least twenty other similar tales I could tell you. And these would be only the stories of people that I know intimately enough to know the charity that they did secretly (as the Bible recommends) Based my personal experience with people in that generation, the idea that 'the only change in lifestyle the WW2 generation ever demonstrated was the creation of the phrase “keeping up with the Jones’ appears simply erroneous. I never met anyone in that generation of Catholics for whom keeping up with the Jones was even an afterthought. I think that they were just concerned with getting by and meeting their obligations. I agree that they never experienced "a real change in lifestyle" to meet the requirements of justice, but I think that they did a better job meeting those requirements than many in subsequent generations. Could they have done more? Should they have done more? I don't know. I do know that these questions haunt them.

Living in this world requires some accommodation with the evil of a fallen world. It is only thus that one can effect change and transform the world in the image of Christ. It is not money that is the root of evil but rather the love of money. Those who have it should husband it well for the good of the world. I suspect that, as a whole, the WW2 generation of Catholics were good and faithful stewards. Not all of them and none of them perfectly. But I will reserve my condemnation until my generosity matches theirs in actual dollars, actual hours and in humility of spirit.

Without a doubt, we should be on guard against the incursion of materialism in our own lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible. We should be equally on guard against an indiscriminate accusation against others whose lives we aren't positioned to judge. Our accusations are most safely made when we stick with the old standard of "I accuse myself."

I don't substantially disagree with the idea that there can very real difficulties in reconciling the practice of Catholicism with being members of the richest segment of society. At the same time, I do agree with your earlier observation that Calvinism might do well in such an environment. Therefore I don't necessarily know that it is incompatible with Christianity per se. One of the areas I would love to explore is the relationship between Catholicism and our American version of democratic rule and capitalist enterprise. I am also interested in the relationship between Protestantism and wealth. Much as people disparage the creation of wealth, there is a whole heck of a lot to be said for a theology that created a nation where the majority of people are well-fed. I suspect that, except for capitalism, we would all be 'third world nations'. Of course, I am also of the opinion that it was the printing press that really changed the availability of wealth.

Either way, I think wealth creation is a worthwhile pursuit. It creates the possibility of charity since one can only give away what one actually possesses. I tend to think that capitalism is one of those scenarios where the virtues cut loose - one from the other - run wild and can lead to more damage than the corresponding vices. It strikes me that it would be a good thing if we could devise a way to truly and fully harness the virtue of wealth-creation in the service of Christ. I don't really know the possibilities. I do think that they are worth exploring. I also think that we must be careful that whatever we devise as a cure is not worse than the initial disease.

And Now for a bit of chauvinism

We're the men who built the railroads, we're the men who fought the wars
We're the men who manned the police force, we're the men who drove street cars
We're the men who formed your unions, we're the men who sang your songs
We're the men who filled your history and tried to right your wrongs


Whoever writ it, writ it well,
For the same is writ on the Gates of Hell:
No Irish Need Apply
-- Anonymous


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