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James Martin, S.J.October 19, 2012

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


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Rick Fueyo
11 years 1 month ago
So glad you were able to go.  A great tradition.  May it continue for many years
Michael Barberi
11 years 1 month ago
I particularly liked Cardinal Dolan's remark that each party claims to have a "big tent" with many groups within the tent who fundamentally disagree with each other. I liked his "if you think that is a problem, I have both Ryan and Biden in my tent". 

There will always be an argument over how much is enough and whether programs and initiatives are being designed, funded, implemented and managed effectively to resolve the underlying problems of the "un's".  

Mesages from the pope and the good efforts of the Al Smith Dinner, are important and should never be minimized. However, works well performed can be much more effective. For example, a highly publicized and well organized collective ecumenical effort between the leaders of Christian Churches (e.g., the pope, the A/B of Canterbury, etc) would be more effective than each Church's individual effort in solving the pressing problems of the un's in the world. Such an effort would be an example of good works that would reinforce the messages about the love of God and neighbor. More of that type of effort between Churches can be a catalyst for more generosity and cooperation from individuals, groups and nations to solve the un-problem.

11 years 1 month ago
I do believe in good humor, the ability to laugh and to be laughed at, not maliciously of course, and the ability to tell or listen to jokes. What kind of jokes? Only the kinds appropriate in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary!  Good humor must radiate in sincerity and truth, an almost impossible prerequisite for politicians who find sustenance in lies, half- truths  and  character assassinations. Politic is a legitimate form of human expression, but can be so rotten it’s sickening! I'm really turned off by the whole process.

That’s why, despite the more or less religious setting I found the humor by the Presidential contenders at the Al Smith Dinner shallow. The Dinner is a money raising event remembering Al Smith, the first Catholic to seek the presidency and is helpful to the charitable outreach of our Catholic Church. Because “Charity covers a multitude of sins” the affair becomes a little more palatable and I can hold my nose and watch. Also, Cardinal Dolan   presiding, gave the gathering some redeeming grace. But I thought to myself  he must be saying, “What am I doing here?” Pray? Of course!
David Smith
11 years 1 month ago
Thanks, JRC (#7). I almost wish I hadn't watched the first act of that spectacle - the descendant of the great man blowing off in what's apparently an annual act. No doubt, as Bruce (#8) suggests, many of those, um, distinguished celebrants were wondering why they had to be there at all. An event that's clearly not the prettiest face of American Catholicism.
Leo Zanchettin
11 years 1 month ago
I saw the videos this morning. Romney was, as you said, more pointed than Obama. He also seems to have a better sense of coming timing. And yes, Cardinal Dolan's comments were very good. I especially liked his invoking of Mother Teresa's "five-fingered gospel." 

I did have one concern about the "uns." While he painted a very moving picture, the last thing I would want would be for this term to become common parlance. It sounds too much like the phrase "illegals" to refer to immigrants-an objectifying, negativizing term that only highlights these people's undesirable otherness.

But apart from that, I thought the evening demonstrated why each of these three men has so many admirers. Glad you could be there! 
Tim O'Leary
11 years 1 month ago
Excellent Event. Noble cause. With good humor and civility from all three main speakers. It is good to see that despite the rancor of a highly competitive campaign and strong philosophical differences, they can still see beyond the politics to the humanity of the other.

I agree with Fr. Martin that Cardinal Dolan's comments were excellent, further underlining the strength of his spirituality and intellect.
David Smith
11 years 1 month ago
Does anyone have a URL for a recording of the entire event? I've not come across one.

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