Last night I was privileged to have been invited to the 67th annual Al Smith Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, only a few blocks away from our office. (Needless to say, at $2,500 a seat I was someone's guest!) Most people may know the dinner as the occasion for the two presidential candidates to come together and exchange lighthearted banter during election season. But the dinner is intended as a fundraiser for a variety of wonderful Catholic charities in and around the City of New York. Last night’s dinner raised over $5 million for the poor, the sick and struggling.
It was hard not to be a little dazzled by the crowd last night, which included some very well-heeled Catholics (and non-Catholics); a variety of bishops, monsignori, and priests; a smattering of the media; guests of the various charities; many politicians; and a dais that included governors, senators, CEOs, and of course President Barack Obama, Governor Mitt Romney and His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the dinner's host. And it’s not every day no one sees a four-tiered dais: “It looks like the Politburo,” said a friend as we entered the room.
You might have seen the proceedings on live television, so I won’t repeat too much of what the candidates said. Only to note that the atmosphere in the room was lighthearted and relaxed (and probably more inclined to Governor Romney’s side, at least based on the reception he got). At one point, Cardinal Dolan repeated one of my favorite lines, “Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God,” which is variously ascribed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, Léon Bloy and Karl Barth. I felt that after the most recent, and somewhat acrimonious, presidential debates, joy, humor and laughter were able to bring a wide variety of peoples, and parties, together.
Who had the best lines of the night? Well, Romney got the bigger laughs, though some critiqued him for being too pointed. The governor’s best line? His comment that he was happy to be able to relax and wear the kinds of clothes that he and his wife wore at home every night: i.e., white tie and tails and an evening gown. Obama gave as good as he got, and flashed his famous smile at the governor as he spoke. His best line? He told the audience that he was happy to be back in New York, where he spent the day on Fifth Avenue shopping in stores. Beat. Gov. Romney, he said, spent the day shopping for stores.
Frankly though, I was unprepared for how moving Cardinal Dolan’s final benediction was. The cardinal had flown in just that night from the Synod in Rome, and was due to fly to Syria as part of the papal mission of cardinals there. He joked that the Holy Father had confided in him a message for the two candidates, but he had no idea what that was, since it was in Latin.
Then, after a few pleasant jabs of the candidates (and his own weight) the cardinal reminded the crowd to remember the “uns”: the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, and her innocent, fragile unborn baby in her womb, the undocumented. “Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these “uns.”
Pray for the uns.
James Martin, SJ