Someone on Twitter the other night commented that New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, sitting between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, must have some kind of “magic.” After all, he managed to get the two of them to talk to and laugh with each other during the Al Smith Dinner, the annual fundraising dinner named after the first Catholic to run for president. While he later joked that he was coming down with a cold after being in the iciest spot as a bridge between Trump and Clinton, Dolan also shared that before the dinner, they had all prayed together and the candidates actually exchanged warm words, even if the roasts that night got harsh. It wasn’t, of course, magic that was in the room but, as the cardinal put it, the presence of God. And during her remarks, Secretary Clinton unintentionally hit on the typo. It’s not magic that we ought to be aiming for, but magis, “the more, the better,” as she put it.
The Latin magis is a concept that Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, presented in his Spiritual Exercises, which to this day people read for guidance on how to live the Christian life with love, with gratitude, all-in. Ignatius’s Suscipe prayer gives you a sense of where he was coming from:
Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. All that I am and all that I possess You have given me: I surrender it all to You to be disposed of according to Your will. Give me only Your love and Your grace; with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.
This kind of wealth has nothing to do with having your name on a small city of buildings facing the Hudson, or with winning the presidency, for that matter. Clinton said that she had discussed magis with her Jesuit-educated running mate, Tim Kaine and that she was taking it “to heart . . . as best as one can in the daily heat, the back-and-forth, of a presidential campaign.” Clinton also cited Pope Francis in her remarks, saying she was inspired by his “humility and heart.” As it happens, the pope talked about magis earlier this year, leading a retreat for priests for the ongoing jubilee year of mercy. He loves approaching “mercy” as a verb — “mercying” — as a dynamic, transformational way of life. He told the priests at the retreat that “to show mercy” and “to receive mercy” “spurs us to action in this world.” The mercy is magis, he said — “ever greater” — it “grows and expands, passing from good to better and from less to more.” This concept isn’t actually Tim Kaine’s or the Jesuits’. It comes from Jesus in the Gospel. As Francis put it: “The model that Jesus sets before us is that of the Father, who is ever greater — Deus semper maior — and whose infinite mercy in some sense constantly ‘grows.’ His mercy has no roof or walls, because it is born of his sovereign freedom.”
See, magis isn’t ideology. It’s not for manipulation for political campaigns. It’s a challenge for every living being.
And it requires freedom. It requires life, protected and nourished — a fundamental failure of the Clinton campaign. It requires acknowledgement of a Creator, the humility of knowing that we are created beings, and gratefulness, as Ignatius clearly expresses in his prayer.
As it happens, even though I’m often in the press section, even in non-presidential years, I sat out the Al Smith dinner this year precisely because of our need to know and recover unadulterated magis. I’m in an Ignatian-immersion program at the Cenacle of Our Lady of Divine Providence, a spiritual-direction school associated with the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Ignatius has another concept: age contra, “act against.” As he puts it: “A soul that wishes to make progress in the spiritual life must always act in a manner contrary to that of the enemy.”
The Al Smith dinner is a blessing, even when it is controversial, not because of the candidates’ roasts but because it points us to people who do the work of more, ever greater freedom and flourishing. Not the people in the room, necessarily, but the good works the pricey tickets support. It’s the mission of love that moves us to ever greater love and service. It’s not lip service but gratuitous love — self-giving, more and more — the kind that demonstrates real faith and keeps moving us forward beyond ourselves.
The Al Smith dinner is a blessing — not because of the candidates’ roasts but because it points us to the good works the pricey tickets support.
Just before the Al Smith dinner, my assignment at Clearwater involved St. Paul’s parting thoughts to the Thessalonians:
Be at peace among yourselves. . . . Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
That’s the more that we need to lift the oppression people are feeling. That’s not what we’re overwhelmed by in politics and culture today.
In a column published around the time of the dinner, Cardinal Dolan wrote:
The dignity of the human person, to be defended and promoted as a first priority, a dignity not dependent upon race, green card, stock portfolio, age, or health; the sacredness of human life, from the instant of conception to the holy moment of natural passing, to be defended vigorously rather than diluted and then discarded . . . these are essential to civilization. How grateful we are as Americans that these two principles are at the foundation of our Republic; yet how vigilant we are that they are under threat; and how committed we are as patriotic Catholic citizens to promote and defend them.
Are we grateful? Are we vigilant? There’s reason for doubt. But we can begin again where we are, moving forward to something ever greater.