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J.D. Long GarcíaJuly 09, 2024
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on health care in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley, File)Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on health care in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Matt Kelley, File)

My wife and I were giving our kids their baths as the world was turned on its head.

I couldn’t watch perhaps the most consequential presidential debate of my lifetime. At least I couldn’t watch it live. It started at 6 p.m. where I live, right in the middle of what we usually call the bedtime cycle. It’s sacred in our home: Dinner, bath, pajamas, bedtime story and cuddles, and then (finally) sleep.

Throughout the bedtime cycle that night, I was receiving text messages with short remarks and proclamations like: “Are you watching this?” “Painful.” “They will replace Biden at the convention.” When I finally watched the debate later, I understood.

I will not speculate here whether President Biden simply had a “bad night” or whether his performance indicates cognitive decline. While some believe the 81-year-old can no longer defeat former President Donald Trump, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week suggests that most Democrats still want Mr. Biden in the race. The path forward remains unclear.

In the meantime, Catholics can draw practical lessons from Mr. Biden’s performance. I can think of at least three.

Experience is an asset, but it isn’t everything. Last year, in discussing Mr. Biden’s age, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that his “experience is an advantage to us, and not to be described as a disadvantage.” While this comment itself may not have aged well, it does point to a piece of wisdom often overlooked.

If your parish is anything like mine, it has volunteers who have been leading ministries for years, if not decades. Many parishes also bring back retired priests, and their experience serves their communities well. Older priests and volunteers not only bring joy to their work but can also offer wisdom to new recruits. Seasoned extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, for example, can prepare new ones. Lectors who have experienced the liturgical cycle a few times can certainly help others pronounce those tricky, ancient names. And don’t get me started on church decorations—I have no idea how they hang the banners so high.

At the same time, parish life would get stale if the leaders were always the same. Younger catechists often are the ones that find fresh ways to share church teachings. A fresh set of eyes can help revise the parish bulletin and fine-tune the Sunday song sheet. And relying too much on retired church leaders is not sustainable. We need to give responsibility to a new generation.

Looks can be deceiving, but so is denial. Does Mr. Biden’s debate performance indicate a swift or certain cognitive decline, or are some Democrats acting on a prior belief that another candidate (like Vice President Kamala Harris) has a better chance against Mr. Trump?

It is hard to know because a lack of transparency is all too common in politics. But shouldn’t we know more about our public servants?

In the church, we know where a lack of transparency can lead. The truth eventually comes out. And no one is happy to discover that they have been deceived.

In poker, bluffs are a critical part of the game, and bravado is also a part of sports. But when it comes to serving others—in the church or in politics—servants should be open about the hand they’ve been dealt. Many of us have known pastors who, by all outward appearances, were happy, joyful priests. But in some cases, their parish families learned of unacceptable behavior, ranging from stealing funds to sexual abuse. Too often in the church we have looked the other way, especially in cases where clerics were good at raising money.

Such deceptions and denials do not serve the common good. When polarization is added to the mix, things only get worse. We defend “our side” or “our team” for the sake of greater goals. Bad news and criticism are too readily dismissed as we circle the wagons.

The destructive nature of polarization may be part of our two-party system. But the ends do not justify the means, and lies never serve a greater purpose. A representative democracy, like our church, cannot function without a devotion to the truth.

You are unrepeatable, but not irreplaceable. We are each created in the image and likeness of God, and yet we are all created unique. In the recent Vatican document “Dignitas Infinita,” we read:

Every human person possesses an infinite dignity, inalienably grounded in his or her very being, which prevails in and beyond every circumstance, state, or situation the person may ever encounter. This principle, which is fully recognizable even by reason alone, underlies the primacy of the human person and the protection of human rights.

While we possess this inherent dignity, we nevertheless can and must be replaced in the roles we play. Our nation may endure after we die; the church certainly will. As a parent, I think about this a lot.

While I am not convinced that we need strict age limits (bishops turn in their resignations at age 75, but it is up to the pope to accept them, and some can ably serve past that point), term limits for Congress have always made sense to me. After all, we have them for presidents and governors; why not for senators and representatives? Some dioceses have a policy of moving pastors from parishes at regular intervals. As much as I dislike seeing a beloved pastor go, I know it is good for our community to welcome new leadership. It is also good to share talented priests with fellow Catholics in other parts of town.

Something similar can be said of parish ministries. If you have been working in confirmation for a decade, for example, maybe it is time to switch it up a little and join your local Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Or if you have been a hospitality minister for years, maybe give the choir a try? (If you sing like me, maybe not.)

Whether or not Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden are capable of serving another four years, it is fair to ask: Has either one helped to train a successor, or to train the next generation of leaders? At this juncture, it doesn’t seem like it.

There’s a lot at stake in our country, and I would argue that in the church, there’s even more. Planting seeds and tilling the soil for those who are to come is not optional. We must learn from the previous generation and prepare the next to take our place. And, yes, sometimes that does mean getting out of their way.

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