MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY IN THE 21ST CENTURY: REMEMBERING PRESIDENT LINCOLN ON THE BICENTENNIAL OF HIS BIRTH 1
A Pastoral Letter to the People of the Diocese of Wilmington by Bishop W. Francis Malooly
Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago today. Lincoln was not a Catholic. Nor was he a member of any organized denomination and his religious views are in many ways obscure. Some aspects of his legacy are still controversial almost 150 years after his death. Yet, by any measure Abraham Lincoln was one of America’s greatest statesmen and his speeches and writings contain some of the most profound thinking relating to religion that have been produced in this nation. Moreover, in his life we can see many of the classic Christian virtues; virtues that are as relevant today as they ever were in the past; virtues that help explain why Lincoln’s legacy is so large.
Before turning to Lincoln, himself, though, it is useful to first consider another statesman whose life reflects those virtues. In 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Saint Thomas More to be the patron of statesmen and politicians: “There are many reasons for proclaiming Thomas More Patron of statesmen and people in public life. Among these is the need felt by the world of politics and public administration for credible role models able to indicate the path of truth at a time in history when difficult challenges and crucial responsibilities are increasing His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue.”2
My predecessor, Bishop Michael Saltarelli, inspired by Pope John Paul II’s proclamation, issued in September 2004 his Litany of Saint Thomas More, Martyr and Patron of Statesmen, Politicians and Lawyers which concludes with the prayer: “Intercede for our Statesmen, Politicians, Judges and Lawyers, that they may be courageous and effective in their defense and promotion of the sanctity of human life – the foundation of all other human rights.”3
With this Litany, Bishop Saltarelli emphasized that it is important for each of us to remember politicians and public servants daily in our prayers. He also placed the Diocese of Wilmington at the forefront of efforts to foster and promote devotion to Saint Thomas More. As G.K. Chesterton so prophetically stated in 1929 “Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time.”4
I followed Bishop Saltarelli’s lead this fall when I reissued the Litany and asked every parish to pray it at the end of every Mass in the Diocese the weekend of October 25-26, 2008.5
Saint Thomas More and Abraham Lincoln were two very different men, living in different countries and separated by centuries. Nevertheless, they shared the view that public service required them to pursue the public good rather than their own personal ends, even to the point that they put their lives at risk-and ultimately died-in that pursuit. Indeed, Lincoln and St. Thomas shared many virtues-virtues that are key to effective public service. In Lincoln’s life, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can see so many dimensions of the beatitudes, the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity) and the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) lived vibrantly.
We can see through the lens of Abraham Lincoln so many of the lessons that were taught in the life of Saint Thomas More – that virtue in the life of the politician extends to both their public and their private lives, that magnanimity and charity lead to solid decisions in moments of crisis and confusion, and that governance is above all, an exercise in virtue.
LINCOLN AND THE BEATITUDES
In his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI describes the power of the Beatitudes: “The Beatitudes are the transposition of Cross and Resurrection into discipleship. But they apply to the disciple because they were first . . . lived by Christ himself Anyone who reads Matthew’s text (Mt. 5:3-12) attentively will realize that the Beatitudes present a veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure They are directions for discipleship, directions that concern every individual, even though – according to the variety of callings — they do so differently for each person.”6 The Beatitudes also give us a window on Lincoln because they were expressed in so many ways in his life.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”
When asked by his campaign biographer in the 1860 election to describe his early life, Lincoln replied that it could be found in a single sentence from Thomas Gray’s poetry: “The short and simple annals of the poor ”7 Lincoln’s experience of poverty as well as the loss of his mother and sister while he was young forged wellsprings of strength and compassion that would be vital to his presidency. His simplicity, generous intentions and focus on the common good often helped him to discern effectively what was needed in a given crisis or historical crossroads.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
In addition to the loss of his mother and sister, President Lincoln and his wife mourned together the death of their spirited young son Willie who died while Lincoln was President. The huge burden of conducting the Civil War while mourning the loss of a son must have been overwhelming. Both he and his wife found solace in the midst of their grief by visiting wounded soldiers and comforting the families of soldiers who had died. Using President Lincoln’s example, I would like to reach out to every mother or father who has lost a son or daughter tragically, whether recently or many years ago. I would also like to reach out to parents who have lost sons or daughters in military service. You are in my prayers. Somehow the memory of President Lincoln’s countenance showing us both his goodness, his strength and his sadness moves us, strengthens us and inspires us right in the midst of our ongoing grief to serve those around us beset by similar tragedies.
“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy…Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.”
The power of Lincoln’s gentleness, kindness and innate understanding of people brought out the best in those around him. Just by his presence and his understanding of personalities, he could heal hurt feelings and resolve conflicts with his empathy and good will. His refined sense of mercy resulted in the pardon of many Union soldiers who would have had to face a firing squad if not for his seeking in the facts of each case a point that could result in a reprieve. Although Lincoln presided over a bloody civil war, he insisted at its conclusion that the next step was reconciliation and not punishment or triumphalism. One of his well-known gestures of reconciliation and mercy which signaled what would have been his approach to Reconstruction was his instruction, upon hearing the news of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Court House, that the Union Band play “Dixie.”8 We, like Lincoln, are called to be instruments of the mercy of Christ’s heart and in moments of conflict in our lives to inspire people to follow paths of forgiveness and peace.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, we also celebrate the historical legacy of one of the greatest American citizens from the Diocese of Wilmington, Frederick Douglass who was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland9 (close to the foundress of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, who was born on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, south of Madison in the Parsons Creek district of Dorchester County, Maryland10 ) and lived on the Eastern Shore in the early part of his life. We celebrate the friendship between Lincoln and Douglass and their ongoing conversation that led ultimately to the Emancipation Proclamation. I cannot help but think of the story of the White House reception the night after Lincoln’s celebrated Second Inaugural Address.11 Frederick Douglass arrives and is barred by Union Soldiers from entering the reception. He is certain that the President wants him to enter and eventually he is ushered in through the crowd. Lincoln sees him and moves toward him beaming with affection and respect, eager to discuss Douglass’ evaluation of his Second Inaugural Address. Imagine Abraham Lincoln’s gaze on Frederick Douglass who against a long-standing tradition was allowed to enter the White House that night. Imagine Lincoln’s gaze from his Memorial on the Rev. Martin Luther King in 1963 as he delivered his immortal “I have a dream” speech. And now imagine Lincoln’s gaze on our first African American President who not only can enter the White House in 2009 but live in and govern from it.
America has not completed its journey of providing justice to African Americans, but it was Abraham Lincoln who ensured that the journey would at least begin.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kind of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Lincoln was pilloried from thousands of vantage points during his presidency. He was ridiculed and caricatured in the press of his day in so ruthless a manner that it shocks even modern Americans. Yet Lincoln resisted the temptation to respond in kind. He knew the practical wisdom of returning good for evil. Nowhere was his generosity of spirit more in evidence than in the way he treated his adversaries. It was Lincoln who, when accused of not being aggressive enough in the destruction of his enemies, said sagely, “Am I not destroying my enemy when I make him my friend?” Lincoln’s eloquence in both the written and spoken word, his moral force, political courage and direct action were critical to the dismantling of the institution of slavery. And he paid the price. This was the leader who, in the eyes of his contemporaries died as a martyr for the nation.
LINCOLN AND THE THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES OF FAITH, HOPE AND CHARITY
Lincoln’s writing and addresses show that he had an innate and subtle theological sense that deepened and become more profound as he led the nation through the Civil War. In Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural Address, delivered the month before his assassination in 1865, he reflects on God’s will and the mystery of Divine justice and mercy. In language that resonates with Catholic teaching, Lincoln also spoke of a just God, of a “God who planted the seed of liberty in us.”12 Lincoln read the Bible intensely when he was young, and his extraordinary speeches echo the content and cadences of scripture. The resulting prophetic voice, which is so innately a product of Judeo-Christian culture, still moves us, and will move generations yet to come.
Pope Benedict XVI has focused on the virtue of hope. In 2007, he wrote an encyclical on hope entitled Spe Salvi. The theme of his April 2008 visit to the United States was “Christ Our Hope.” In his April 17, 2008 homily at Washington Nationals Stadium, the Pope said: “Dear friends, my visit to the United States is meant to be a witness to ‘Christ our Hope.’ Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations. To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves. Yet hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character. And the Christian virtue of hope – the hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan – that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.”
At the end of Lincoln’s 1865 Second Inaugural Address he states: “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” In the darkest days of the Civil War, and throughout all of the conflict and crises this Nation has faced since-war, threats of war, the recent terrorist attacks on American targets here and abroad and the current economic collapse-Americans, often inspired by the example of President Lincoln, have kept their hope alive and vibrant.
In that same Second Inaugural Address is one of American history’s most inspirational expressions of Christian charity: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” These words are even more powerful because they were underscored by Lincoln’s own personal empathy and compassion. His words at this key historical moment matched his daily practice of charity. This transparent virtue enshrined in his words pointed the nation to the path of reconciliation.
What made Lincoln’s charity so effective was his humility. In his 2005 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict’s description of the relationship between charity and humility could describe Lincoln: “My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift. This proper way of serving others also leads to humility. The one who does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be. Christ took the lowest place in the world – the Cross – and by his radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid.”13 As Christians, we are called to live Christ’s charity and humility.
LINCOLN AND THE 21ST CENTURY AMERICAN
President Lincoln was known for his magnanimity – that dimension of the moral virtue of fortitude that courageously embraces the challenges of pursuing the common good. He was also magnanimous in repeatedly extending forgiveness to colleagues, rivals and antagonists. He had fortitude to stay the course and temperance to stay balanced. He acted justly. Congressman Francis Kellog of Michigan said that President Lincoln “is the great man of the century. There is none like him in the world. He sees more widely and more clearly than anybody.”14
Abraham Lincoln did not start out seeking to eliminate slavery. His view changed over time as he continued to reflect on how it could be abolished. He slowly grew into the stand he ultimately took in his Emancipation Proclamation, in which he freed those slaves in the Confederacy who were then under Union control.
In our own day we too need statesmen who see widely and clearly. Although the needs of our nation are many, more than anything else we need statesmen who recognize and respect all human beings without exception. I will pray that our new Administration in Washington, all members of Congress (in a special way those who represent us from the State of Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland), the Justices of the Supreme Court and all citizens in this Diocese and beyond, have the breadth of vision to come to see that all human beings from conception until natural death are precious in the eyes of God and deserve the protection of our laws. I will pray that we all act “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
Most Rev. W. Francis Malooly, D.D.
Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington
February 12, 2009
1 The phrase “mystic chords of memory” comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, where he discussed the forces that bind a nation together.
2 Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter issued Motu Proprio proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, October 31, 2000.
3 Bishop Michael Saltarelli’s Litany of St. Thomas More, Martyr and Patron Saint of Statesmen, Politicians and Lawyers with Statement, September 30, 2004.
4 As quoted in Gerard B. Wegemer’s Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 2007), 227.
5 Bishop W. Francis Malooly’s Reissuance of the Litany of St. Thomas More, Martyr and Patron Saint of Statesmen, Politicians and Lawyers with Statement, September 25, 2008. See also Bishop Malooly’s September 8, 2008 Installation Homily published in Origins (Catholic News Service) on September 18, 2008.
6 Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 74.
7 Cf. Kearns Goodwin, 47. Lincoln was quoting Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”
8 Cf. Kearns Goodwin, 725-727.
9 Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in Slave Narratives (New York: Literary Classics of America, 2000), 281
10 Kate Clifford Larson Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), xvi.
11 Cf. Kearns Goodwin, 700.
12 Abraham Lincoln, Speech, Edwardsville, Illinois, September 11, 1864
13 Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, December 25, 2005, 34-35.
14 As quoted in Kearns Goodwin, 589.