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.
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.