Of Many Things

America’s marketing department likes to remind people that at the time of my appointment, I was the youngest editor in chief in the magazine’s history. It’s not, however, as impressive as it sounds. For one thing, the Catholic priesthood is one of the few places where 40 is actually considered young. My nieces and nephews, for example, a couple of whom have just started college, probably think that I’m more than a little out of touch. They listen respectfully but with healthy skepticism whenever I talk about my own university years. I don’t blame them.

In my middle age, I find it increasingly difficult to say anything of significance to someone under the age of 30 that doesn’t sound patronizing to my own ear the very moment it passes my lips. I have a different though related feeling whenever I’m called upon to counsel someone who is much older than I and yet, strangely enough, calls me father. Yes, it’s obviously all relative; that’s clear from a look around America’s editorial office. We recently had a summer intern who was born while I was a senior in college; on the other hand, our assistant editor Frank Turnbull, S.J., started working at America when I was 12.

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Just last week, meanwhile, I had lunch in the Bronx with a man who was serving as an associate editor here on the day I was born: Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., America’s 10th editor in chief and the president emeritus of Fordham University. Father O’Hare was the previous “youngest editor in chief,” a fact of which he reminded me very soon after my appointment.

“How’s things at our favorite magazine?” Joe asked when he greeted me. I told him things were great and asked how he was getting on. “Better than an Irishman deserves,” he said, a classic O’Hare witticism, delivered with a wry smile and impeccable timing. We talked for a while about the magazine, politics and the latest Jesuit news. An hour in conversation with Joe is always an hour well spent.

After lunch, I headed down Fordham Road and boarded a train to Grand Central Terminal. (Not to be too pedantic, but while Grand Central is often called a station, it’s actually a terminal because the rail line terminates there.)

If you’ve ever made this trip from north of the city down to Grand Central, as millions do every year, then you know what a delight it is to emerge from the dank and dusty rail platform into the magnificent, even breathtaking main concourse. Students of philosophy will liken this transition to the ascent from Plato’s cave, the journey from a dark world of shadow and distortion to the world of light and truth.

The main concourse of Grand Central Terminal—with its bronze and stone carvings and ornamental inscriptions, all spanned by a ceiling that is 125 feet high—seizes travelers and lifts them up, directing their gaze to something larger, as if to say: “You have arrived in a great city populated by a noble people. Welcome.”

Yet Grand Central Terminal is both triumphant and aspirational, a masterpiece of public architecture from a time when our civic culture was neither overly cynical nor overly romantic but simply hopeful. Grand Central is from a time when we believed that we could always be better than what we are rather than already the very best there is. It was a time when we knew enough about our past to cherish it and to allow it to shape our future.

As we head to the polls again this November, we’d do well to remember that young and old alike have something to offer; that if we are to know where to go, then we must remember where we came from, that while the United States is neither the last nor the best hope for humankind, it is a very bright light in a very dark world whose ideals are ever ancient and ever new.

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John Fitzgerald
3 years ago
The following is intended to be constructive criticism. I read America for both information and meaningful challenge. I can't see any point to this piece. If you are going to invest your time in writing something, and I in reading it, then I am asking you for more. We really need more from America and the SJ.
Mike Evans
3 years ago
How about some High Speed Rail? Or even basic maintenance to make the dark and dank more welcoming?
Monica Doyle
2 years 11 months ago
Who was it that said something like 'Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God'? Teilhard de Chardin? Reading this 'Of Many Things' brought a smile to my face.
Bruce Snowden
3 years ago
John - You say, "I read AMERICA for both information and meaningful challenge." Why then your "constructive criticism" of Fr. Malone's exciting trek down memory lane in "Of Many Things" piece? I found it both informational and imaginatively challenging, appreciative of the way things were, expressed especially in the soaring architectural grandeur of Grand Central Station which still is, hopefully ever to be one of the Wonders of New York. The place lifts you up if you let it, satisfying to heart and mind, much like I find Fr. Malone's contributions - informational, challenging, uplifting, yes, soaring, at times even revealing a type of poetic frolic of the highest order
John Fitzgerald
3 years ago
I get that kind of thing in Parade Magazine. :-)
Karen Costura
3 years ago
I agree with John on this one--and I'm not trying to be mean, I swear. I didn't see the point of this article. Tell me why I should waste my time on those under 30. It seemed he was going there, but then started talking about a train station and it didn't really click (and yes, I understood the attempted metaphors and the like). Anyway, I'm sure the gentleman is a lovely writer, but this did nothing for me--and I was a professional journalist for many years.
Paul Leddy
3 years ago
I get homesick for NYC sometimes. NYC and upstate New York seem to me to be all on a grand scale. On a high school trip to Paris, my daughter called (4 a.m. for me) to tell me how beautiful a city it is. I cherish the memory of that phone call because I knew then she was no cynical teenager - she was my daughter! I was so proud. On her first trip to NYC with me, while checking out NYU for grad school, she couldn't help but keep looking-up. How you've described Grand Central is how it impressed her. I very much wanted her to go to NYU, because I wanted her to know NYC like I did - a bit like how you've written here. Alas, she decided on San Diego. ...My siblings and I were all baptized at St. Augustine's; and soon after parishioners of Sts. John and Paul. This could be our family motto: "It was a time when we knew enough about our past to cherish it and allow it to shape our future". Thanks for the article.
Denise Gilmore
3 years ago
The name of the column is " of Many Things" ... Thank you for a reflection on the past, present and future!
Bruce Snowden
3 years ago
John, O.K. Long live truth and beauty wherever you find it and they are easy to find because they are everywhere! The tiniest leaf, the most insignificant splash of flora no bigger that the head of a pin, growing in soil filling a crack in a walkway, over which we trample unaware of the beauty we carelessly crush, when enlarged revealing its intricacies, its glories brought to light as it were through positive thinking, opening the eyes of the soul, to its "specialness" the kind of grandeur of which AMERICA is filled! To get it seeing is not enough - one must read with one's ears to experience the uplift present in what may seem insignificant.
Carl Heltzel
3 years ago
The words above are inspirational when considered with time and thought. The highlight is the description of a country that was hopeful of being something better. The highlight is the modern day ascent from darkness to light. The highlight is the awe of a graduate student gazing to the building tops. The highlight is the recognition of the United States among the citizens of the world. Most importantly though is the sobering thought that the events of our memories are filled with events that were created by others trying to change things for the better. We are guilty of taking the good old days away from our elders, and our children taking them from us, and their children taking those good old days from them, as they lead the ancient to the new.
Catherine McKeen
3 years ago
I'm grateful for the virtual lunch with one of the best of men, Fr. Joseph O'Hare. It seemed to me the riff on Grand Central Station was, in fact, a metaphor for conversations, liturgies, homilies in which Fr. O'Hare indeed directed one's eyes to something higher and more engaging than ordinary street-level being. And then, the wit and humor that always took one by surprise. And the friendship offered to ostracized folks, like Voice of the Faithful Catholics. So, best wishes to Fr. Joe O'Hare up there in the Bronx, close to home for those who remember. And thank you, Fr. Malone, for ignoring things like boring age gaps.

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