Rome, Italy – Gazing on the Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, the last image many of the victims of the Circus Maximus saw before they met their deaths, my thoughts wander to another place and time.
Like so many of those who gathered here this week for the Papal Mass celebrating the life of Pope John Paul II, and so many of those who make the pilgrimage to Rome, William F. Buckley Jr. was a man who sought always to be Nearer, My God.
In his book
by that title, WFB dedicated a chapter to Lourdes, and his own pilgrimage there. Marveling at the “spiritual tonic” there, he wrote:
They are in Lourdes because of this palpability of the emanations that gave birth to the shrine. The spiritual tonic is felt. If it were otherwise, the pilgrims would diminish in number; would, by now, have disappeared, as at Delphos, which one visits as a museum, not a shrine. What it is that fetches them is I think quite simply stated, namely a reinforced conviction that the Lord God loves His creatures, healthy or infirm; that they — we — must understand the nature of love, which is salvific its powers; and that although we are free to attempt to divine God’s purpose, we will never succeed in doing so. The reason is that we cannot know (the manifest contradictions are too disturbing) what is the purpose behind particular phenomena and therefore must make do with only the grandest plan of God, which treats with eternal salvation. Our burden is to keep the faith: to do this (the grammar of ascent) requires the discipline of submission, some assurance that those who are stricken can, even so, be happy; and that the greatest tonic of all is divine love, which is nourished by human love, even as human love is nourished by divine love.
There was a similar scene in Rome this past Wednesday, as the Square was filled with pilgrims assembled to remember the life of John Paul II — his life, and his death. As the former Cardinal Ratzinger said in his sermon: “We cannot forget that last and silent testimony of love for Jesus. That eloquent scene of human suffering and faith . . . also indicated to believers and to the world the secret of every Christian life.” Pope Benedict was speaking of the final days and hours of John Paul, but this makes me think of our late WFB, sick and without his beloved Pat since April of last year.
On the day Bill Buckley died, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center rightly remembered WFB as someone who belongs on “any serious list” of the top five “most publicly consequential American Catholic[s] of the 20th century.” Let us not bury with him the idea of a publicly consequential American Catholic. Here’s a meditation for all gathered in St. Peter’s, for all attending WFB’s memorial Mass in New York on Friday, and for all those who love the Lord with all their heart and strength. We borrow again from WFB’s Nearer, My God: “We do not abandon reason, we merely recognize its limitations. We reason to the existence of God, it is revealed to us that His Son was the incarnation, and that such was His love of us that He endured a torture excruciating in pain, and unique in aspect — the God of hosts, mutilated by His own creatures, whom He dies forgiving, loving. Can we do less? Yes, we do less, but we must try to do more, until we die.”
And so he did. R.I.P. We’ll keep reading you and standing athwart history. And will try to do more, until we die.