Monday, January 19, 2009

Waiting For Camelot

Yesterday, Vice-President Elect Joseph Biden and his wife attended Sunday Mass, at the parish church once attended by the late John Kennedy when he lived there, and where he attended Mass the morning of his inauguration in 1961 as our 35th President. A friend called me on the phone and told me about it, but it was only later in the day that I read of it from the wires of the Associated Press.

Holy Trinity Parish was founded by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) since 1794, as the oldest Catholic house of worship in what is now the Nation's capital. The parish has been under their care ever since. It is located in the heart of Georgetown, just east of the University. Shortly after I came to DC in 1980, I joined Holy Trinity, and stayed there until 1987. When my marriage fell apart in 1990, I moved to Georgetown and returned to Holy Trinity, where I stayed until I left Georgetown in 1994. Two things first attracted me to the parish. One was that they had a young adults club. Where I came from, a Catholic parish would tend to forget about you, from when you left high school until you got married. The other attraction was the parish choir, where I had the privilege of learning more about Gregorian chant, and the great polyphonic motets of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. When I returned in the early 1990s, I had the privilege of being a paid sacristan for three years.

But sadly, Holy Trinity is known for other things. It is accused of being a hotbed of liturgical ballyhoo and heretical teaching. The first claim is somewhat exaggerated. If only at the 11:30 Mass, the style of worship is more formal than one might expect at many "conservative" parishes, if somewhat fast and loose with the details of rubrics. As to the other claim, the parish is noted for those on the path of Ignatian spirituality, and a tireless commitment to social justice work. These merits are somewhat overshadowed by an assortment of pseudo-intellectuals, who hide behind the Jesuit status quo, in an effort to escape the scrutiny of Church authority. The sort of shenanigans for which the parish has been famous, was the subject of a 1996 book by Jim Naughton entitled Catholics In Crisis: An American Parish Fights For Its Soul. As reported by Publishers Weekly: "Known for progressive lay leadership, Georgetown's Holy Trinity church saw a showdown when its peace-loving pastor could not reconcile several contentious factions in the parish... Beginning with one man's stand for women's ordination, conflicts soon erupted over... social justice, sex education, divorce, homosexuality and, especially, the conflict between democratic and hierarchical authority in the church."

Get enough people like that in one place long enough, and there's bound to be an inclination toward self-importance. It was people of this ilk who greeted Biden yesterday:

Biden and his wife, Jill, sat in a pew reserved for him and his family toward the back... as the Rev Larry Madden, SJ, delivered a sermon about God as a constant anchor and the promise of hope and change for those who believe... Toward the end of the 11:30 am Mass, as one of the lectors urged those in attendance to welcome new members and visitors [not exactly a regular occurrance] some in the congregation laughed and then applauded, looking toward Biden. He eventually stood and acknowledged the response that included a standing ovation.

Such an obsequious reception should surprise no one who knows Holy Trinity, a magnet for older East Coast political liberals, who cling to a vision of a church out of an Andrew Greeley novel, and whose vision of Catholicity includes a place like the "Camelot" of the Kennedy years. Their numbers may be dwindling as they grow older and contracept themselves out of existence, but they are a voice to be reckoned with along the Eastern seaboard. A couple of months ago, Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President, decided to make her foray into politics. Not content to attain public office the old fashioned way, she used her and her Uncle Teddy's influence, to persuade the Governor of New York to appoint her to provisionally fill the seat left behind by Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton.

She might just get away with it too. The mainstream press has largely gushed over the possibility, although none of them could have topped Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post:

What really draws me to the notion of Caroline as senator, though, is the modern-fairy-tale quality of it all... The sheltered girl, whisked away from a still-grieving country by a mother trying to shield her from prying eyes... In this fairy tale, Caroline is our tragic national princess... I know it's an emotional -- dare I say "girly"? -- reaction. But what a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator. (12/09/2008)

Now, I ask you, who could argue with reasoning like that? Especially after listening to this Associated Press interview. Aside from an awkward attempt to demonstrate her awareness of the hardships of life beyond Manhattan's Upper East Side, she can't stop punctuating her sentences with "you know" like someone barely out of high school. Maureen Dowd (who once referred to President Clinton's lying about sex scandals in the White House as "endearing") wrote this for The New York Times:

People complain that the 51-year-old Harvard and Columbia Law School grad and author is not a glib, professional pol who knows how to artfully market herself, and is someone who hasn’t spent her life glad-handing, backstabbing and logrolling. I say, thank God... The press whines that she doesn’t have a pat answer about why she wants the job. I’ve interviewed a score of men running for president; not one had a good answer for why he wanted it. (01/06/2009)

No, but at least they had the wherewithal to RUN for the job. That's more than you can say for someone who calls the Governor of New York and basically says she wants it handed to her on a platter, not unlike a much younger Caroline telling Mummy and Daddy, "I want a pony." Fortunately, not every liberal pundit is falling for it. Richard Bradley of Slate recalls the obvious: "Just as she's never shown any enthusiasm for public office, so Kennedy has never shown much interest in the things candidates have to do to get elected."

Someone once attributed this to a latent American wistfulness for the presence of royalty. But royalty comes with responsibility, or at least it used to. There have been distinguished families in America, associated over the years with public service -- Dulles, Lodge, Taft, and Roosevelt, to name a few. Say what you will about their stated positions or their contributions, but at least they took their place the old-fashioned way, by earning it. By all means, if Caroline wants the job, let her descend from her New York penthouse, long enough to make her case to the people of the Empire State, without Uncle Teddy making a pitch to Albany for the key to the back door.

If this administration, and the party coming into power with it, want to bore us to death about "unity," they can start by refusing to pander to the sense of classism and elitism, that is the staple of the fox-fur-wearing, apple-martini-sipping, putting-on-the-Ritz crowd that clings to their precious East Coast vantage point. That goes ditto for the ass-kissing bourgeois Catholics who congregated in Georgetown this past Sunday, to turn their backs on God to worship a mere mortal.

(THIS JUST IN 01/21/2008: It was reported that Caroline Kennedy has withdrawn her name from consideration for the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, citing "personal reasons." It took nearly two months, but somebody probably convinced her she'd look like an idiot. Sometimes an Ivy League education can really pay off.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting description on Holy Trinity.
-Tina in Ashburn